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Who was Eleanor Marx?

Eleanor Marx is one of the most tragically overlooked radical figures in history. Sally Alexander explores her outstanding contribution to radical history.

Sally Alexander22 November 2018

Who was Eleanor Marx?

Usually overshadowed by her father, Eleanor Marx led an extraordinary life as a labour organiser, trade unionist, translator, actor, writer and feminist. First published at the height of feminist organising in the 1970s, Yvonne Kapp's foundational biography was the first to explore her outstanding contribution to radical history. Newly republished, this single-volume edition of Kapp’s foundational biography includes an introduction by Sally Alexander – excerpted below.

Eleanor Marx, third living daughter of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen, was ‘‘dramatic to the depths of her being’’, wilful and unusually brilliant. She yearned for love and freedom and wanted to be an actress, but instead devoted herself to another sort of vagabondage – political agitation. An excellent linguist, she earned her living as a translator, lecturer and writer, and worked tirelessly for ‘‘the cause’’ of socialism among the late nineteenth century new lifers, anarchists, radicals and feminists of London’s socialist sects and the Second International.

Little was known of Eleanor Marx’s life until the 1970s, when this book was first published, as two volumes. Yvonne Kapp, a writer and a communist, had twenty years earlier been translating the Frederick Engels/Laura and Paul Lafargue correspondence in which Eleanor kept appearing; the seeds of the biography lay in ‘‘curiosity, aroused by tantalising glimpses of Eleanor as she flitted in and out of other people’s letters’’. Kapp was sixty-three before space, time and a small legacy from her mother afforded the opportunity of completing the work. Hailed on publication as a masterpiece of political biography, Kapp’s description, in volume one, of the Marx household adrift in London among exiles in the 1850s, the sympathetic portrait of Marx as a father and Eleanor’s childhood, cast unexpected light on the domestic life of a philosopher. Eleanor’s work among the unemployed, unskilled and Jews of London’s East End, described in the second volume, along with her experiments in living and translations of her father’s work, introduced a vibrant new voice and character to the moral theatre of international socialism and the British labour movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Eleanor’s life, in Kapp’s account, is as much about the history of socialism in the second half of the nineteenth century as it is about the life of its heroine – as Kapp herself put it, the movement kept ‘‘breaking in’’.

Eleanor’s life was much more than a heroic exemplar of socialist struggle and marxist principles, however. She was a woman of her time. Raised to be a ‘‘lady’’ she earned her living as a ‘‘literary hack’’. Wanting to be an actress she succumbed to filial duty and financial need. ‘‘Devilling’’ for others in the reading room of the British Library, teaching Shakespeare and literature – to private pupils, schools and classes in adult education – and translating only just held at bay the spectre of ‘‘governessing’’, that low-paid, servile employment which her older sister Jenny was forced to do for three miserable years and which haunted impoverished independent women throughout the nineteenth century. Eleanor was always working – ‘‘Indeed, I really work from about 9 in the morning till late at night and often till early into the next day’’, she wrote to her sister Laura in 1884. Always short of money (‘‘I am very poor’’), she longed for children, the artistic life and love. ‘‘O how my whole nature craves for love’’, she wrote to Olive Schreiner, the South African novelist and close friend.

From 1884 until her death fourteen years later Eleanor lived in a ‘‘free union’’ with Edward Aveling, freethinker, socialist, minor play- wright and scoundrel. Aveling, according to Bernard Shaw, ‘‘would have gone to the stake for Socialism or atheism, but (had) absolutely no conscience in his private life. He seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man.’’ His infidelities, financial scandals and betrayals drove Eleanor, at the age of forty-three, to suicide. His final betrayal was astonishing. Ten months earlier he had married an actress twenty years his junior. This love affair and death are the stuff of melodrama, Kapp observes, and does her best to subject its events – and Eleanor’s own nature – to reason. But melodrama shadowed women’s sexual lives and loves throughout the nineteenth century.

Aveling’s betrayal alone might not have precipitated Eleanor’s death. In the last months of her life, Eleanor was also faced with Engels’ deathbed revelation that Freddy Demuth, the illegitimate son of Helen Demuth (the Marx family’s servant and friend), was in fact not Engels’ child, as everyone had supposed, but Marx’s. Freddy, Eleanor’s close friend, was Eleanor’s half brother. Eleanor revered her father. Family guilt and disillusion compounded her despair. In Eleanor the tensions between the wish for the artistic life and poverty, between the craving for love and the cruelty of betrayal, caused her severe mental pain which the political promise of a new world and the revision of all human relations in the future could not assuage. Ardent, clever and ultimately tragic, Kapp’s biography dramatises the life of a late Victorian new woman.

Eleanor was born in January 1855 in Westminster. The household – parents, three small children (four including Eleanor) and Helen Demuth – lived in two small rooms in Dean Street, Soho, nearly opposite the Royalty Theatre. The baby’s arrival did not augur well.

Two children, a son and a daughter, had died before Eleanor’s birth, and the beloved Mouche, eight years old, died a few months afterward. Anticipated as a ‘‘catastrophe’’ by her father, Marx pronounced Eleanor’s birth a disappointment to his friend Frederick Engels, because of her sex. A sickly infant, she was sent to a wet-nurse because she screamed and her mother could not feed her. Yet, by nine months, according to her nine-year-old sister, Eleanor was jumping and crawling, captivating her family, in spite of the delicate health which pursued her throughout her life. The first years of exile in London for the Marx household were years of ‘‘horrible poverty, of bitter suffering’’. With her mother ill and her father writing volume one of Capital – that ‘‘accursed book’’ as Engels called it – Eleanor became Helen Demuth’s child. Helen, nicknamed Lenchen or Nim, a ‘‘feudal gift’’ from Jenny’s mother to her daughter shortly after her marriage, was the ‘‘soul’’ of the household, Eleanor wrote after Helen Demuth’s death, and a life-long friend. Because her own child, born in 1851, had been fostered, Demuth’s ‘‘sturdy peasant soul’’ was freely given to the youngest child.

Several fortuitous legacies from German relatives enabled the household, with the addition of a second maid, to move into the first of several houses in Kentish Town. Kentish Town was, in the 1850s, a new suburb of London, ‘‘a barbarous region’’ carved out of clay mud and woodland, without pavements or lighting (one of the delights of this book is the descriptions of London). Eleanor followed her sisters, Jenny and Laura, to South Hampstead School, where they learned the piano, drawing, French and callisthenics, but received no preparation for an independent life, no training for a profession – the reader sniffs Kapp’s disapproval. Indeed Marx was mortified at the suggestion. Keeping up appearances mattered at least as much to him as to his wife (whom Kapp likens to Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice). The Marxes hid their poverty from neighbours, doctors (the family were constantly ill with everything from carbuncles to smallpox), future sons-in-law, even their own daughters. ‘‘It would be all the same to me if I went to the knackers’ yard’’, Marx wrote gloomily to Engels (whose unbroken generosity largely kept the family afloat) in 1866, as long as there was some money for the family.

Marx himself, or his ‘‘towering genius’’, threatens – as it did in real life – to take centre-stage in Eleanor’s biography. Marx, or Mohr, as he was known to the children, and his work, dominated the household. But he was an adoring, loving and playful father. Coaxed out of his study, he made up stories – he spun one unending tale of Hans Rockle, a magician who kept a toyshop but was never able to meet his obligations, until against his will, he was forced to sell his toys – and read aloud to the children the whole of Homer, and Shakespeare, ‘‘who was the bible in our house’’, as well as Grimm’s fairy tales. He carried them on his back around the garden, led them on picnics to Greenwich and Hampstead Heath. Irascible, quarrelsome and rude to friends and fellow revolutionaries who crossed him, the company of children, Wilhelm Liebknecht observed, was a ‘‘social necessity’’. Children teach their parents, Marx believed. When he told Eleanor the story of the Passion – as a story of ‘‘the carpenter whom the rich men killed’’ – he added that Christianity could be forgiven much because it taught adoration of the child. In his sixties, ill and indifferent to how he might be ‘‘launched into eternity’’, he wrote to his daughter Jenny that he wanted ‘‘absolute peace and quiet’’, by which he meant, he explained, family life and ‘‘the microscopic world of children’s noises’’. This is Marx at his most endearing. He could also be a tyrant.

Eleanor’s voice – ‘‘eager, warm, alive, and ... true as a bell’’ – takes the lead in the book from the age of nine. Her childhood letters evinced a lordly confidence in herself and her capacities: ‘‘I am getting on very well with my chess’’, she wrote to a great uncle in Holland, ‘‘I nearly always win and when I do Papa is so cross’’. She was ‘‘some- thing of a romp, and what was called a tomboy’’, Kapp tells us, fearless in her play with the ‘‘bigger, wild urchins’’. At one point she wanted to run away to sea, to join a man of war, which won her father’s admiration for the intelligent ‘‘little fellow’’. And like so many spirited daughters she sought her father’s attention: her letters to him list her achievements, especially her reading (Fennimore Cooper, Captain Marryat as well as Shakespeare and the brothers Grimm), stamp collecting, and the progress of the nursery of dolls, and she signed herself your ‘‘UNdutiful daughter’’.

Aged seventeen, Eleanor took her first step towards independence, when in defiance of her father she became secretly engaged to Hyp- polite-Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, an exiled communard sixteen years her senior. She fled to Brighton to earn her living, and completely broke down. Mohr’s disapproval of and political antipathy towards her chosen lover did not extend to his history of the Paris Commune, which Eleanor translated ten years later, and which he, Marx, super- vised with meticulous care through the press. Eleanor, in fragile emotional health because of the conflict between love and duty, needed Lissagaray’s tender concern. ‘‘I want to know dear Mohr, when I may see L. again’’, she wrote pleadingly, ‘‘It is so very hard never to see him’’. Kapp admires Eleanor’s ‘‘spirit so touching in its candour and affectionate obedience’’. That spirit of obedience, devotion even, was exacted from his daughter by an overbearing love which was not removed by death; his will governed her thoughts and actions all through her life. Jenny was his favourite, Eleanor recalled after Marx’s death, but, he had once remarked, ‘‘Tussy [Eleanor’s family nick-name] is me’’.

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Eleanor Marx
Eleanor Marx is one of the most tragically overlooked feminist intellectuals in history, usually overshadowed by her father, Karl Marx. But not only did she edit, translate, transcribe and collabor...