Book review: Eleanor Marx: A life - Rachel Holmes

A stone sculpture of Karl Marx, whose daughter Eleanor is the focus of this book. Picture: AP
A stone sculpture of Karl Marx, whose daughter Eleanor is the focus of this book. Picture: AP
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‘KARL Marx was the theory: Eleanor Marx was the practice,” writes Rachel Holmes, in this lively, informal and engaging account of the life of Marx’s youngest daughter.

Eleanor Marx: A Life

Rachel Holmes

Bloomsbury, £25

And she does bring this passionately political woman to life, from her early years in genteel poverty, when her father read her Shakespeare, through her own struggles as an intellectually gifted young woman trapped at home, to her engagement to French ‘Communard’, Hippolyte Lissagaray, a match her father resolutely opposed.

Eleanor, or Tussy as she was called, emerges as her father’s child, but that didn’t mean they always got along. She became a committed Socialist and feminist though, and his death in 1883 did mean, as Holmes says, she had “lost her first love”. What her devoted parents would have made of her taking up with Edward Aveling, whom she lived with but never married, one can only guess. Holmes is revolted by him from the start, even though their joint writing ventures like The Woman Question and The Working Class Movement In America showed like-mindedness between them, a strong political bond.

Eleanor’s idealism, so useful to her political vision, let her down in relationships. Shortly before she died, she was disabused of her father’s honesty when it was revealed he had fathered a child with their housekeeper and “second mother”, “Lenchen”, Helen Demuth. Aveling’s lack of fidelity and financial integrity might have left her with few illusions about him, but even she didn’t know until the last that he had secretly married another woman. Did the revelation cause her to order prussic acid and kill herself? Or was it something more sinister?

Holmes shows a woman often brought to the brink of exhaustion but who was still regarded as “strong as a horse”; who suffered severe nervous complaints and contemplated suicide. But she also shows a woman fun and full of life, who empathised with the poor and braved police at protest meetings. A compassionate idealist, she was both of her time and ahead of her time.