Book review: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes

It is a curious thing when an illustrious offspring of someone so famous would remain eclipsed in the shadows of their parents. Perhaps this is warranted and justified in a meritocratic society we all aspire to where, with the exception of political dynasties and monarchies, famous parents do not always produce equally famous children. Begotten DNA is no promise for fame but maybe some fortune.

Eleanor Marx. Source: Wikipedia

Such is the case for the extraordinary life of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and perhaps the most illustrious of the Marx children considering the breadth of her political and literary contributions. Eleanor, or Tussy (which rhymes with ‘pussy’), would be remembered as her father’s first biographer who fought hard to protect his intellectual legacy in late nineteenth century Britain and across the channel. And yet, many know and will continue to know so little of her.

In ‘Eleanor Marx’ (2014, Bloomsbury), biographer Rachel Holmes has brought to life a woman who lived a full and exemplary public life. However, as Holmes notes, much is to be desired in Eleanor’s private life that led to her tragic demise. There are many telling scenes in this book that reveal plenty of the contrast between the gendered ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ of socialism as imagined by Eleanor and Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator and patron.

First, there is the impoverished bourgeois-bohemian existence of the Marx family (consisting of paterfamilias Marx, Jenny Marx née von Westphalen, Helen Demuth the housekeeper, the three Marx daughters, plenty of pets and Engels). Poverty led them to live a peripatetic life across London punctuated by many trips to spa towns and the seaside for the very Victorian phenomenon of touristic convalescing.

Second, there is the Marx family arrangement that spoke volumes about the realities of the sexual division of labour within a radical family:

For every hundred meals they cooked, Marx and Engels expressed an idea; for every basket of petticoats, bibs and curtains they sewed together, Marx and Engels wrote an article. For every pregnancy, childbirth and labour-intensive period of raising an infant, Marx and Engels wrote a book.

Recognising the limitations of women within her own household and yonder in the mills, Eleanor decided to rebel and lived like a woman so unlike others of her time; unwed and childfree yet living as a ‘wife’ with her ‘husband’, the repellant Edward Aveling, whose parasitic nature is reminded with every mention of his name.

For whatever the inconsistencies within their radicalism, Marx wrote ‘the theory’, Eleanor was ‘the practice’ personified. Eleanor’s childhood and adulthood would be intricately linked with Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. The birth pangs of writing and publishing the 3-volume work took a toll on the Marx’s family finances and livelihood. Still unfinished after Marx’s death, Eleanor and Engels took charge of writing and editing the rest.

And third, although she lived unlike an archetypical Victorian woman, Eleanor was gifted with a morality and unconditional love that were comparable to melodramatic heroines of lesser fiction. Her discovery of her father’s secret love child with their housekeeper may have toppled him from his place on the pedestal, but her deep friendship with her half-brother late in her life would prove to be a source of strength during the darkest hours of her union with Edward.

The reader seethes at the things she sees but Eleanor chooses not to see: Edward’s frittering of their shared earnings and his ultimate betrayal of marrying in secret a young actress that rapidly led to Eleanor’s downfall – an alleged suicide by prussic acid poisoning. An inquest to establish if she had killed herself or murdered followed suit. She was, in the rather unflattering words of her ‘husband’ Edward, “as healthy as a horse” before her untimely death at age 43.

But Eleanor’s life story is no simple melodrama. A tireless agitator for the eight-hour work day, education for the disenfranchised working-class, and the ‘woman question’ in the capitalist mode of production, Eleanor would be at every major trade union conference, speaking to an admiring and inspired crowd. She remained influential as a friend, political collaborator, and later as a mentor to younger generations of working class unionists less privileged than herself, a daughter of Marx who grew up with little formal education but was exposed to a world of art, literature and culture from a young age. The rate of her industry was prodigious: she would go on to write in multiple languages for international presses and produce the first translation of Madame Bovary into English, among many other things.

Eleanor’s fiery spirit and voice emit from the page through correspondences to her sister, revealing a woman driven by an unshakeable belief in economic justice but also doubt as her feminine person is sometimes dismissed within the socialist fold. I am often left unsettled by Holmes’s portrayal of the destructive relationship between Eleanor and Edward Aveling. For all her projections of contemporary feeling onto Eleanor as a feminist, she appears unwilling to suggest that Eleanor was perhaps emotionally abused by Edward. The pattern of abuse is there yet feebly ameliorated by Eleanor’s declaration of love and forgiveness for his moral weakness.

After her death in March 1898, followed by Edward’s a mere four months later, Eleanor’s afterlife is a dramatic coda. Cremated and placed in an urn, her remains were placed in a glass cabinet of the British Communist Party’s office for many years until a police raid signalled a more traditional interment with her family in Highgate cemetery in 1956.

For whatever remains of her extant work, her co-authored essay ‘The Woman Question’ (1886) continues to appear in socialist-feminist reading lists. Capital and the safeguarding of his correspondences are as much Eleanor’s legacy to readers today as her father’s. Eleanor is a woman of our political times – a woman who lives passionately and breathes her politics. And yet, her life is also a feminist puzzle; how to square a life of radical theory and practice with the life-destroying facets of sexism and misogyny within radical theory and practice?

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