Felixstowe Book Festival: Esther and Annie Freud on how their famous family has influenced their writing
PUBLISHED: 20:20 27 June 2019
Being a member of the Freud family comes with a lot of baggage and a certain amount of expectation. How hard is it then to be yourself? Rachel Sloane talks to Esther and Annie Freud before their appearance this weekend's Felixstowe Book Festival
One of the highlights of this year's Felixstowe Book Festival will be Esther Freud, the writer and festival patron, in conversation with her half-sister, Annie Freud, the poet. Their shared parent is Lucien Freud, the artist, and their grandfather was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.
Esther first met Annie when she was 13 and Annie was already married with a child,
"My life was so changeable I don't think I'd given any thought to the siblings I didn't know, of which there turned out to be quite a few!" laughed Esther.
The Freuds are a large and famous family, so were there huge family parties on special occasions?
(Much laughter from Esther and Annie)
"Our family really wasn't like most families and I can say that with some authority!" explained Esther. "Our father was a very, very, unusual person and didn't go in for traditional life, so our lives were very alternative. I certainly lived in the world of my mother."
"Although my mother and father separated when I was about three, I led, from early childhood, a double life in a very intense way that was both fantastic and absolutely dire" added Annie. "If I was with my father, which was very often, I had the feeling I was living a life in utter contradiction to my normal-ish middle class family life with my mother and stepfather. When I was with my father, I felt the same but backwards towards them."
So, with a famous artist as father, was there pressure to become artists when they were younger?
"Yes, there was except that was natural for me, so that I didn't experience it as pressure," exclaimed Annie. "As a really small child I was always painting, and I used to paint with my father and in imitation of him from the age of six…"
"Gosh, that is so interesting…" responded Esther.
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Annie, before becoming a celebrated poet, was previously a tapestry and embroidery artist, while Esther was previously an actor. How surprised are they that they've both ended up as writers?
"Sort of yes and no," answered Annie. "I always wrote and painted and made different sorts of work of art. I also had a very literary upbringing. My mother was very well read, and her life was in books, and I wrote stories and poems too."
"My parents were so absorbed in their own lives that there wasn't time for any thought about what we were up to. It was benign neglect", said Esther thoughtfully. "Parents now are much more focussed on their children in a way that there just wasn't time or space for then. The world of adults seemed very precarious to me and I wanted something to hold on to, so I always had a plan. When I was 12, I went to the theatre and I thought, yes, I could be with those people. I really didn't want to go to university, and I thought that as soon as I was 16, I could go and be in plays, which I did."
"I always loved reading and at drama school I started to write poems songs and snatches of things and enjoying it more that acting. When I realised writing wasn't sitting alone in a room, but was about weaving a story and inhabiting your life with characters, and bringing things to life, it wasn't so very different from being an actress, but better in every way as you are in control of it and can work whenever you wanted."
Did having the surname Freud come with any pressure?
"Of course, it did," agreed Annie. "At one point I even changed my name briefly, until my mother put her foot down and I was stopped."
Esther laughed. "That makes it sound as though you were a child, but it was when you were an adult. I remember that!"
"I also remember when I about five, at school, and we had to stand up and say our names," continued Annie. "I absolutely refused to tell the teacher what my name was, to the extent that they got very angry. I really, really, did not want in public, to have this bizarre reaction to my name."
"That's interesting, as I never remember anyone ever reacting to my name in my entire childhood. And I didn't understand the connotations of it - it was never discussed or mentioned," said Esther. "I grew up in quite an isolated community in a Steiner school in the country and no-one ever mentioned it. I had no idea who Sigmund Freud was. Then as an actress your name meant nothing, unless it is Olivier or Redgrave, and as a writer, I think really that, as long as your work is good, people really don't care what you are called."
The Freud family are well-known for their love of Walberswick, the coastal village in Suffolk.
"I used to go there for long holidays. I was extremely close to our paternal grandmother and was partly brought up by her. Every single physical detail of the house, the food the things we talked about, the walks we went on, the river, the ferry and everything is so deeply imprinted on me and is part of my life," said Annie, emotionally.
"I have completely the opposite experience, as I only met our paternal grandmother when she was old and not quite herself, replied Esther. "I rented a place there when I was in my early thirties and have had a house in Walberswick ever since. I remember I had a wonderful experience when a postman knocked on the door to hand me a letter, looked at me with a real intense moment of recognition and said, 'Oh yeah' when he saw my name. He'd obviously known my grandmother and other members of the family. For someone like me, who'd had such an itinerant life, it was the first real feeling I had of belonging anywhere and it meant so much to me."
Esther and Annie Freud will continue their conversation about their unusual family, and their work as a writer and poet, at the Felixstowe Book Festival on Saturday June 29.