"This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind." Sir Laurence Olivier's voice-over prelude to his 1948 Hamlet is his avowed take on a 1910 essay about the prince and his mixed-up motives by Freud's disciple and populariser, Ernest Jones. The film is by turns disturbing and the very definition of literal-mindedness about Freud (Hamlet in soliloquy, shadowed by a throbbing brain). But its opening might be fit comment on the Oedipal dialogue between the "father" of psychoanalysis and his unruly acolyte. As Brenda Maddox's biography proves, the irresolution was on Freud's side. It seems he could never make up his mind about his most prominent intellectual progeny and Anglophone promoter.
Jones, on Maddox's evidence, was a monster of self-assurance, and a mystery to others. As Jung put it, "is there more in him than meets the eye, or nothing at all?" The hyperactive young Welsh physician must have appeared too good a champion to be true, his zeal at odds with Viennese hauteur. But it was Jones's erotic life that was most worrying. Maddox maps the chaos carefully: a succession of lovers, and eventually a stable marriage to his collaborator, Katharine Jokl. Along the way, Jones contrived a passion for 18-year-old Anna Freud; her father swiftly deflected the advance. Maddox sedulously records the three scandals that attended Jones's professional life, all involving female patients (in two cases, children) who alleged sexual misconduct.
Jones's achievements are obvious, if no less subject to apparent subterfuge. He manoeuvred himself into a position of trust and influence, becoming, by dint of prodigious work and some scurrility, the leading populariser of psychoanalytic ideas. In 1938, he ensured Freud's safety in London, and later that of numerous Jewish colleagues.
His reputation has suffered since his death in 1958. The tentative character of his early essays, and a self-serving tone to his own autobiography and three-volume life of Freud, have left him rather less fashionable than some of those he outflanked half a century ago.
Maddox tells Jones's story fluently, though without much commitment to exploring his actual ideas. The impression is that she doesn't much care for her subject's insights: a shame in a biography somewhat thin on intellectual context. The bare facts of Jones's life are fascinating, but Maddox seems rather shy, like many before, of making her mind up about him.