Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes - review by Rosemary Ashton

Rosemary Ashton

Her Father’s Daughter

Eleanor Marx: A Life


Bloomsbury 508pp £25

When Karl Marx’s youngest daughter died on 31 March 1898 at the age of 43, she had accomplished and suffered enough in her relatively short life to fill several volumes. Rachel Holmes’s new life is a substantial one, written with brio and an appropriate sense of the public and private drama that accompanied Eleanor almost daily. It begins with her birth in Soho to parents who were extraordinary in many ways, including their hand-to-mouth existence despite middle-class origins, and ends with her miserable death in a small house in Jews Walk, Sydenham, near the re-erected Crystal Palace, as the unhappy partner of the fraudster Edward Aveling.

The ‘global citizen’, as her father laughingly – and presciently – called Eleanor in a letter announcing her birth in January 1855, was the Marxes’ sixth child and the youngest to survive. The cramped rooms in Dean Street were home to two older daughters, Jenny (named after her mother) and Laura, aged 11 and 10, and 7-year-old Edgar, who died of tuberculosis soon after Eleanor’s birth. Another son had died of meningitis in 1850, just before his first birthday. Eleanor and her older sisters grew up in a household that was always in debt, with Karl sometimes unable to buy food or necessary medicines, but in which there was the stimulus of multilingual conversation and visits from political exiles who had, like Karl and Jenny Marx, pitched up in relatively liberal Britain after the failed revolutions across Europe in 1848 drove them from Paris, Brussels and other European cities. The Marx family spoke in French (Jenny and Laura having been born in Paris and Brussels), German and English. Marx and his friend and correspondent Friedrich Engels – for many years domiciled in Manchester, from where he sent regular financial handouts to save his friend’s family from starvation – wrote their wonderfully expressive letters in a polyglot mix, the base language being German, with phrases in French and quotations from Shakespeare adorning almost every page. When Eleanor, in her speeches and writings as an adult, talked of ‘we English’, she did so from the highly unusual perspective of a child of immigrants who became intimately involved in British political life.

All three daughters were striking and independent-minded. Their parents combined a sort of anti-Mrs Grundy Bohemianism with a sense that daughters being brought up in England ought to observe some of the conventions of the host society. Dances were put on for the older girls when they reached their later teens (by which time the Marxes were living in larger accommodation in north London) and when Laura was to marry Paul Lafargue, a French doctor and socialist, her father rather amusingly asked Engels to find out from a trusted English colleague, the radical lawyer Ernest Jones, how he and his wife should explain to their neighbours that the marriage would not take place in a church. Jones suggested that they describe the register office as a necessary compromise because Laura was Protestant and Paul Catholic. Less amusingly, Karl wrote to Lafargue expressing remorse and resentment that he had ‘sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle’. He did not regret it, but he was nonetheless opposed to the marriage, wishing to ‘save my daughter from the reefs upon which her mother’s life has been wrecked’.

As it happened, among the many people the great political thinker attracted to his home, it was three French radicals – all naturally impecunious and reckless – with whom the Marx daughters fell in love. Laura married Lafargue despite parental unhappiness, Jenny did likewise with Charles Longuet, and Eleanor fell for a much older activist called Hippolyte-Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. The two older girls followed in their mother’s footsteps, being ‘clever, capable, and talented women enchanted by charming, likeable Bluebeards who lassoed their desires with babies, domestic drudgery and censorious in-laws’, as Holmes pithily puts it. Both were unhappy. When Eleanor finally decided that she had no future with Lissagaray, she fared even worse, falling into the arms of Aveling, an English socialist and all-round bad egg. Henry Hyndman, their colleague in English socialist circles, marvelled at Aveling’s attraction for women: ‘Ugly and repulsive to some extent, as he looked, he needed but half an hour’s start of the handsomest man in London.’ Other sorrowful friends included George Bernard Shaw, from whom Aveling borrowed money he had no intention of paying back (as he did from all Eleanor’s friends). And that’s not to mention stealing from her, fraudulently ensuring that he would benefit from her will after she discovered he had recently married an actress using a pseudonym and stooping to blackmail over a troubling Marx family secret.

Eleanor refused to listen to friends who warned her against Aveling. None could persuade her: not the writer Olive Schreiner, William Morris’s daughter May, Hyndman’s wife – good confidantes who compensated somewhat for the death of her mother in 1881, the removal of her sisters to France and, in the case of young Jenny, premature death at the age of 38 – and not dear old Engels, who now lived in London and acted as a second father to Eleanor after the death of her own in March 1883.

The grieving young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with Aveling worked furiously, translating Madame Bovary, acting in readings of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, reciting Browning’s ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ at Browning Society meetings, joining the New Shakspere Society of the philologist Frederick Furnivall, helping Engels to arrange and edit her father’s manuscripts, writing and translating socialist and feminist essays, co-founding (as the only woman) the Social Democratic Federation led by Ernest Belfort Bax, Morris and Aveling – ‘three more unpractical men for a political organisation’, said Engels, ‘are not to be found in all England’ – and in due course leading a number of trade unions, which she represented on platforms up and down Britain and in America. A regular in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum, like her father before her, she was approached by other readers, including Shaw and Beatrice Potter (later Webb). The latter described Eleanor in her diary in 1883 as ‘comely, dressed in a slovenly picturesque way with curly black hair flying about in all directions’ and ‘fine eyes full of life and sympathy’.

As a political essayist and public speaker she was sharp, eloquent and knowledgeable – her father’s daughter. She had something of his astute sense of the ironies involved in progress, as well as his ability to employ metaphor as a shock technique. In an article in Justice in 1897 she wrote of ‘the great mass of workers in the north’ unintentionally ‘devouring their children’ by protesting against a proposal to put an end to child labour. On the question of female equality she went further than her father, though she used Marxist terms to stress the importance of socialist feminism as opposed to the middle-class movement that campaigned for female property rights.

She was a remarkable woman from a remarkable family, and her life story contains more love, humour, fun, pathos, disappointment, achievement and final tragedy than most. Rachel Holmes’s ambitious, wide-ranging, scrupulously researched, lively and sympathetic biography does her full justice.

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