[Marxism] ‘Eleanor Marx: A Life’, by Rachel Holmes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 12 08:21:40 MDT 2014

Financial Times, May 9, 2014 7:00 pm
‘Eleanor Marx: A Life’, by Rachel Holmes

Review by Lisa Jardine

Eleanor Marx: A Life, by Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 528 pages

Eleanor Marx joked that she had inherited her father’s nose but not his 
genius and, if she anticipated that it was her fate to be overshadowed 
by the author of Das Kapital, then she could only be proved correct. Yet 
contemporaries who knew her work as an activist, writer and translator 
would have protested nonetheless at the injustice. Now, in Rachel 
Holmes’ fine biography, we have all the evidence we need to revise this 
modest self-assessment.

Eleanor was born on January 16 1855 in a two-room garret in Dean Street, 
London, the sixth child of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen. Only two 
of her siblings survived into adulthood – her sisters Jenny and Laura, 
11 and 10 years older than her, respectively. The eldest son, Edgar, 
died of tuberculosis 12 weeks after Eleanor’s birth and from that point 
her father seems to have invested all his hopes and affection in the 
family’s most recent arrival. He and Eleanor would be soulmates until 
his death in 1883.

One consequence for Eleanor, known throughout her life as “Tussy”, was 
that her education was almost entirely conducted at her father’s knee. 
She barely attended formal school – in part because the family was 
always so short of money, surviving for periods on money raised by 
pawning linen and jewellery, or on generous handouts from Karl’s 
collaborator Friedrich Engels. Instead, she learnt French and German 
from her French-speaking older sisters and German-speaking mother, while 
her father encouraged his own love of “book-worming” in her from as soon 
as she could read.

Karl introduced her to Shakespeare, to the English, French and American 
novel, to Scott, Balzac and Fielding. He encouraged her writing and love 
of the theatre. Years later Eleanor recalled: “He would, all unconscious 
though she was of it, show his little girl where to look for all that 
was finest and best in the works, teach her – though she never thought 
she was being taught, to that she would have objected – to try and 
think, to try and understand for herself.”

And while Karl laboured on Das Kapital he found time to include Eleanor, 
extracting “examples and narratives that could be turned into enjoyable 
stories and useful instruction for his little girl”. As Holmes puts it: 
“To say that Eleanor Marx grew up living and breathing historical 
materialism and socialism is therefore a literal description and not a 

Holmes, a cultural historian known for her biographies of Victorian 
subjects, here builds a vivid picture not just of Eleanor Marx but also 
of Karl Marx, Engels (who acted as a second father to Tussy) and the 
diverse circle of radicals and political refugees who thronged the round 
reading room at the British Museum in the second half of the 19th 
century. Domestic and personal lives merge with the ferment of the age.

In her teens Eleanor became her father’s amanuensis, transcribing his 
notoriously illegible handwriting and generally organising his 
paperwork. Small wonder that she emerged into adulthood with all her 
father’s intellectual resources, and with an understanding of economic 
history and theory few could match. She was, to all intents and 
purposes, Marx’s creation. As Eleanor wrote, “I remember his once saying 
a thing that at the time I did not understand and that even sounded 
rather paradoxical. But I now know what he meant ... My father was 
talking of my eldest sister and of me and said: ‘Jenny is most like me. 
But Tussy is me.’ ”

Eleanor was a more agitprop version of the bookish Karl. She led 
striking dock workers and gas workers, organising their emerging unions’ 
activities and joining their demonstrations. She ghosted any number of 
articles and manifestos for male union leaders and political activists. 
She addressed a crowd of 250,000 at the first May Day rally in London 
and toured the US, speaking out against the conditions of manual labourers.

Intellectually, what she brought of her own to the political arena was a 
vision that incorporated the rights of women. As she wrote in 1886 in 
The Woman Question, “For women, as for the labouring classes, no 
solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is 
really possible in the present condition of society.”

But Eleanor’s life, as Holmes shows, was tragically flawed around “the 
woman question”. At the moment she grasped and publicly articulated the 
connection between socialism and feminism, she became personally 
involved with a man who would fatally undermine her. Fellow socialist 
and playwright Edward Aveling was – in Eleanor’s friend George Bernard 
Shaw’s words – an “agreeable scoundrel ... quite a pleasant fellow who 
would have gone to the stake for Socialism or Atheism, but with 
absolutely no conscience in his private life. He seduced every woman he 
met, and borrowed from every man.”

He and Eleanor were collaborators in their work for socialism, even for 
feminism. But beyond the endless workers’ rallies and union meetings, 
their relationship was disastrous from the start. Aveling brought 
Eleanor down in a way no policeman at a rally or debating adversary on a 
public stage could ever have done.

Thanks to Holmes’ fresh and vital style – not to mention her endearing 
partisanship – Eleanor Marx: A Life reads less like a biography than a 
19th-century novel. Its close might indeed be modelled on Flaubert’s 
Madame Bovary, translated into English for the first time by Eleanor 
Marx in 1886.

Somewhere between March 27 and 31 1898, Eleanor learnt that the 
feckless, philandering Aveling had secretly married one of his actress 
amours. For 14 years Eleanor had accepted her own unconventional – and, 
to many, scandalous – cohabitation with Aveling as necessary, believing 
him to be already married. In fact, she discovered, his wife had died 
some years earlier. Eleanor had turned a blind eye to his affairs, his 
reckless spending, his many loans from her friends never repaid, his 
long absences and neglect. But this final betrayal was too much.

On March 31, she and Edward argued violently and he left her home in 
Sydenham, southeast London. Eleanor sent her maid Gerty to the 
pharmacist with a prescription for chloroform and prussic acid. Sent out 
on a further errand, Gerty returned to find the 43-year-old Eleanor 
motionless in bed. “Her long, dark hair was loose, her eyes fixed open,” 
writes Holmes. “Her face and body had changed colour, to a lurid mottled 
indigo. Gerty saw that Eleanor was wearing her favourite white muslin 
summer dress. It was unseasonal. She had washed, ironed and starched it 
herself, then laid it away in lavender and tissue paper for the winter.”

Thus the life of one of Britain’s most celebrated intellectuals and 
activists of the late 19th century came abruptly to an end, to be all 
but forgotten. Thankfully, however, Holmes has given back to us an 
unforgettable Eleanor Marx.

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance Studies and director of the 
Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects at University 
College London

More information about the Marxism mailing list