Eleanor Marx, aged about 16, in 1871
Eleanor Marx: A Life By Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury, Rs 699
In her engaging biography of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Rachel Holmes records a moment in history that, in its personal and political dimensions, seems to encapsulate the life and defining characteristics of Eleanor Marx. The year is 1896. The occasion is a reception held by the Independent Labour Party in honour of the Marxes’ old family friend and political ally, the revolutionary socialist, Wilhelm Liebknecht (more famously, the father of Karl Liebknecht, who, along with Rosa Luxemburg, would found the Communist Party of Germany, and eventually be murdered for the ‘cause’). The vote of thanks is being given by the social reformer, Dr Richard Pankhurst, husband of Emmeline Pankhurst, whose name is synonymous with the women’s suffrage movement. Two other eminent participants in the event are Eleanor Marx and her live-in-partner — whom she insisted on identifying as her husband — Edward Aveling. The Pankhursts’ 13-year-old daughter, Sylvia, watches Eleanor — who, at 41, has already been crowned by the British socialists as “Our Mother”— with all the curiosity with which a teenager gawps at a celebrity. Although she is struck by the “dark brows and strong, vivid colouring” of Eleanor, she finds the husband “repellent” and catches him complaining grumpily about “that confounded draught”. Continuing with Sylvia’s-eye-view of the occasion, Holmes writes, “At which Eleanor smiled at him and turned up the collar of his coat.”
The incident would have been unreservedly amusing had the import of history not pressed down on it. Here is Eleanor, the successful activist-writer, her father’s ideas made flesh, as it were, sitting amongst her comrades — stalwarts of the socialist and reformist movements which would birth the Modern era. Eleanor herself played not an insignificant role in the ferment of those shifting times, however unfashionable this free-thinking, free-living woman might seem in these conformist days. Her dark brows and vivid colouring — suggesting intellectual strength and a perceptible joie de vivre — that so impress Sylvia, tell us something about the kind of woman she was, while her smiling sufferance of the tantrums of the husband hints at her fatal flaw, her tendency to “[love] others better than she loved herself”. Yet, for all her evident vitality, just two years from the event described above, Eleanor would be lying dead in her white summer dress in the chill of March, having consumed prussic acid.
Suicides always make meaty subjects for biographers. Besides, it is a universally shared suspicion that if a youthful, volatile woman with brooding Jewish looks (as Eleanor was) does herself in, there must be a man lurking somewhere close by. Holmes builds up her case against Aveling in the course of the book — and, going by his deeds, other people’s opinion of him, and, one must add, his photograph, the man was a rascal. Holmes ends with the verdict that Aveling caused Eleanor’s death. Recreating Eleanor’s final hours in a manner that would have made Agatha Christie proud, Holmes suggests that Aveling may even have murdered her. The philandering Aveling, embezzling Party funds, sponging on Eleanor, using her as his “cash-cow and passport to cultural capital”, may well have brought about Eleanor’s death by his final act of infidelity, but one feels uncomfortable with that ready connection. Was the fiery Eleanor actually so weak as to be felled by that mite of a man? Or were more insidious forces, social as well as ancestral, conspiring in her death?
Eleanor had written in the essay, “The Woman Question” (1886), co-authored, significantly, with Aveling, that “Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves. Women will find allies in the better sort of men, as the labourers are finding allies among the philosophers, artists, and poets. But the one has nothing to hope from man as a whole [my italics], and the other has nothing to hope from the middle class as a whole.” This clear-headed acceptance of the reality — that women cannot expect to be saved by men — seems to find a physical expression in Eleanor’s gesture towards Aveling in the meeting attended by the Pankhursts. That simple act of turning up the collar of the husband who cannot think beyond his own comforts in a space where high ideals of liberation and struggle are presumably being discussed, seems to signify an affectionate, and a little patronizing, tolerance of the man. She appears to expect nothing better of him. Could this Eleanor suddenly have laid all her dreams at Aveling’s feet, so that she had to kill herself when she discovered that he had tread on them? Apart from Aveling, Marx and Engels are also held guilty of her death in an indirect way since they had concealed a supposedly devastating family secret from her. Worthy women have been known to lose their good sense when it comes to matters of the heart, but making the men in Eleanor’s life solely responsible for her death seems like the righteous outrage of a socialist and feminist sister who must assert that her beloved comrade was victimized, in order to validate her allegiance to her hero.
Whatever Holmes makes of Eleanor’s death, she manages to do justice to her life. The story begins in the early hours of January 16, 1855, in a dingy apartment in Soho, when Karl Marx is presented with yet another baby daughter when he had hoped for a son. Perhaps it’s the invisible burden of the dashed expectations of her parents that makes Eleanor — or Tussy, as she is lovingly called — grow up into a tomboy. She is soon seen displaying a precocity that would have been frightening had it not been so charming. At 13, she is convalescing from an attack of scarlet fever by sitting in bed sipping port, reading radical nationalist publications, humming songs of Irish independence and dashing off letters on current affairs. She calls her father by his nickname, Mohr; exclaims, “Halloo old boy!” on seeing him after a long time; writes letters to Abraham Lincoln, advising him on the American Civil War. But one also has to appreciate the liberal, bohemian atmosphere of the Marx household that allowed such an exceptional child to be herself.
Closest to her father, Eleanor got a rigorous intellectual training from him at an early age. As Holmes says, in that cosy voice of a family friend in which she speaks throughout the biography, “Tussy and Capital grew up together.” (Calling Eleanor Tussy in sections of the book is part of this tone of over-familiarity although Holmes has Eleanor’s backing on this — she insisted that people dear to her should address her by this name.) Eleanor’s mother, Jenny Marx, was as unconventional as her husband. She had no time for the affectations expected of a Victorian lady. Her daughters were trained not in coquetry but in Shakespeare. Jenny found “parents who did not give their children wine a little odd, rather mean and proscriptive”.
There is bound to be a downside to this eccentric living. Not surprisingly, at one moment, Eleanor is seen at the height of her boisterous self — reading non-stop, writing articles, researching for her father, debating with the highest minds of the time — and in the next, she is collapsing, suffering from anorexia, chain-smoking, trying to drown herself in work. So the very un-Victorian girl, with her loose dresses worn without corsets, her carelessly tied hair from which pins would drop over library catalogues, and a red-blooded life of the mind, also proves to be a victim of the common feminine malady called hysteria, so usual among Victorian women and so expertly diagnosed by Freud. Holmes writes about Eleanor’s phases of darkness, points at their possible origin in the thwarted desire to live the life she longed to, but does not connect these to Eleanor’s final act.
But Eleanor’s life is not defined by her depression and her suicide, in a way, say, Sylvia Plath’s life has been, a definition in which the latter had made as much contribution as her fans. When one reaches the end of the book and reads about the suicide, it is like a heavy black curtain falling in the middle of a celebration. It is to Holmes’s credit that she makes this remarkable woman come across to the reader as she must have been in life — gypsy-spirited, vivacious, loving to a fault, and an ardent believer in her father’s ideals, putting them into practice in a way perhaps no Marxist has done ever since. She fought with workers for their rights, helped them organize themselves into unions, spoke out vociferously for that proletarian in the home and the factory, the woman, who is denied her due on all fronts.
Her opinions about gender equality, sex education, her pointed analyses of the economics and psychology of oppression sound so contemporary that one tends to overlook the fact that she lived in the 19th-century. And it is then that one realizes how radical Eleanor must have been for her times. She expresses her delight on getting at last her personal study (the words, “My study”, come with three exclamation marks and three underlines in the letter she writes to her sister describing her new house) in 1895, some 35 years before Virginia Woolf would stress the necessity for a woman to have a room of her own.
For Holmes, putting together the biography through extensive research into the life of an almost forgotten woman must have been a labour of love, and therein lies the problem with the book. Holmes’s stance is that of the ‘best friend’ who watches the antics of her hot-headed comrade with a critical eye, powerless to prevent the mistakes she commits but unwavering in her affection for that chipped human being, who is simply too good for many of the people around her. To Holmes’s advantage, most readers would feel the same for Eleanor. So if her account of Eleanor’s life seems a tad too sweet at times, one must give it to Holmes that the daughter of Marx does elicit that reaction. Perhaps the world was never meant for one as beautiful as Tussy — to use the words sung with Holmes’s kind of perfervid devotion for that other victim of love, “Vincent”.