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Mon Jan 15 07:42:19 MST 2001
The Independent, 12 January 2001
Bohemian tragedy of a true daughter of Marx
Eleanor Marx, 1855-1898: life, work, contacts
edited by John Stokes (Ashgate, £45)
By Sheila Rowbotham
Eleanor Marx was her father Karl's favourite daughter. When he died, it was
Eleanor who translated his work and took up his causes and feuds. But her
personal life was tragic. She embarked boldly on a free union with the
socialist Edward Aveling, was betrayed by him and took her own life.
Eleanor personified the intensity and turmoil of the late 19th century,
when new forms of production and labour organisation, dreams of sexual
emancipation and radical art converged. She presents an ideal focus for the
scrutiny of the complex relationship between politics and personal life
that this collection undertakes.
Several essays examine friendships with women who shared her radicalism.
Particularly close was Olive Schreiner, a South African novelist involved
in socialism, women's emancipation and sex psychology. Sally Ledger quotes
Schreiner enthusing about Ibsen's Nora in a letter to Eleanor from 1884.
"It shows some sides of a woman's nature that are not often spoken of, and
that some people do not believe exist but they do."
This sense of being on the edge of the unknown permeated the thinking of
the radical women in Eleanor's circle. The hope of utopian transformation
in the relationships between men and women was part of a set of advanced
views. Carolyn Steedman evokes a heterodox London of bedsitter bohemians
around Bloomsbury, while Simon Avery pieces together the life of Mathilde
Blind, a writer from a revolutionary German family. She and Eleanor shared
a love of Shelley's poetry. Avery describes Blind moving in an artistic and
anarchist milieu where exiles from the Paris Commune of 1871 mingled with
Morris, Swinburne and James Thomson, the author of the remarkable poem "The
City of Dreadful Night". True to the Romantics, Blind identified with
outcasts, prostitutes and street children.
This volume also illuminates Eleanor's own literary interests. Ledger shows
her advocacy of Ibsen, Gail Marshall describes the Marx family watching
Henry Irving's Hamlet, and John Stokes reveals that Eleanor recited Robert
Browning's "Count Gismond" to an audience of literary and other "swells" at
University College, London.
The collection also rediscovers the work of socialist and feminist
novelists who wrote about being "new women". Steedman mentions Isabella
Ford's aptly named On the Threshold (1895), about two young women from the
North discovering life and themselves in London. Lynne Hapgood looks at the
work of Margaret Harkness, who was active in the dock strike of 1889 with
Eleanor. Engels enthused about her novel The City Girl, but Harkness became
disillusioned by the infighting among socialists, and she and Eleanor
drifted apart. Hapgood shows how Harkness's novel George Eastmont, Wanderer
(1905), explored the gap between the socialists' project of external change
and the less lofty reality of their politics.
Socialist women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were particularly
aware of this divide between egalitarian aims and personal behaviour. But
they were not alone. An intense debate existed within the movement around
the process of political organisation. Such debates, and dilemmas about how
to combine pragmatic strategies with revolutionary aims, dogged Eleanor's
life. This collection only hints at these, and readers who want to know
more should turn to the weighty biographies by Yvonne Kapp and Chushichi
Tsuzuki and the brilliant essay by EP Thompson.
None the less, this book complements earlier work. It suggests some
beckoning routes through late 19th-century culture that arise out of
21st-century concerns. Faith Evans's remark about Eleanor's translation of
Flaubert can also be applied to the shifting terrain of historical enquiry;
"The skill is... to seek in the new language a rhythm and tone." This
collection translates Eleanor's life into just such a "new language" of
intimate relations and cultural nuance.
The reviewer's memoir, 'Promise of a Dream', is published by Allen Lane
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