‘Eleanor Marx: A Life’ reviewed by Kate Soper

Eleanor Marx: A Life

Bloomsbury, London, 2014. 528pp., £25 hb
ISBN 9780747583844

Reviewed by Kate Soper

About the reviewer

Kate Soper is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at London Metropolitan University, and a Visiting …


An exceptional figure of her times, Eleanor Marx (Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, 1855-98) was nowhere more so than in her capacity to operate so intensively and effectively as a socialist-feminist agitator while entrammelled in such ongoing domestic drama and distress. The record provided by Rachel Holmes in this new biography of her day-to day activities as amanuensis (both to her father and others), literary editor and collator, translator, writer and journalist, trade union activist, educator and orator is dizzying; and it testifies not only to her intellectual acumen and political instinct but also to her immense organisational power and efficiency. But the private life of ‘Tussy’, as she was known to family and friends, was altogether more conflicted and chaotic. There were the many agonising illnesses and deaths of close relatives and friends, including those of her younger sister’s children at a very early age. There were the tensions between her love of family and strong sense of duty to it, and her need for independence – and the chain-smoking, anorexia and nervous exhaustion that ensued. There were the pains occasioned by the breakdown of her early engagement to the Communard fighter (and historian of the 1871 Paris Commune), Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. Later came the crisis, which may have contributed to her depression and suicide, of her discovery that her most important mentors – her parents, their housekeeper, Helen Demuth (‘Lenchen’) and Engels – had all colluded in concealing from her Karl’s paternity of Lenchen’s child, Freddie Demuth. (Eleanor did what she could thereafter to rectify what she saw as the shabby treatment of Freddie). But above all, there was her disastrous choice of Edward Aveling as her live-in lover, and her seemingly perverse (and ultimately fatal) attachment to him despite the cruelty and duplicity of his behaviour towards her throughout their relationship – which included continuous thwarting of his promises on marriage and parenthood with her, and thus deprived her of motherhood.

Rachel Holmes has assembled and ably orchestrated the materials that go towards an understanding of the various points of overlap and disjuncture between the public and the private person. As she makes clear in her opening chapters, Eleanor Marx was first and foremost her father’s daughter (and the child with whom he in turn, following the deaths in childhood of both his two legitimate sons, came most closely to identify: ‘Tussy is me’, he claimed in a Flaubertian flourish). Although a touch prosy at times, Holmes’ narrative provides a compelling picture of Eleanor’s formation in a family that was intellectually driven, atheistic, egalitarian, convivial, and almost always, despite Engels’ unfailing generosity to all its members, relatively impoverished. (Marx’s mother refused them funds, expressing a wish that her son would earn more and write less about money). We are also given interesting insights on the domestic relations of a household of three adults and three children living initially in a two-roomed Soho flat. Notable here is the magnanimity shown by Jenny Marx (née von Westphalen) and Helen Demuth, both in their roles in supporting the paterfamilias despite a sense of frustration of their own development, and in the closeness of the friendship they sustained throughout. Holmes does well here to point to the historical silence on this side of the story relative to the fame of the friendship between Marx and Engels, and to cite Eleanor Marx’s later explanatory assessment that ‘the life of woman does not coincide with that of man’ (and nor therefore, Holmes adds, does its afterlife). But Marx (or Mohr, to use his family nick-name) was also, it should be said, no typical Victorian patriarch. He never, it appears, resented the children interrupting the composition of Capital, and spent a great deal of time with them, either entertaining them with his witty and inventive saga of the goings-on in Hans Röckle’s toy-shop or more generally fooling around with them. (Tussy’s first memory, she claimed, in an apt retrospection, was the view of the world from his shoulders). Aided by Engels, Marx also undertook the education of Eleanor, who, unlike her two sisters, never received any formal schooling. She, in return, never deviated subsequently from her commitment to historical materialism and to preserving the paternal legacy. Whether she was as able an interpreter of her father’s theory as Holmes claims is not easy to discern from what is quoted from her expositions in this work. One rather suspects not. But what is clear, is that she possessed a shrewd understanding of the complex and often compromised nature of the tasks involved in any political implementation of it. She also came to understand, perhaps better than Marx himself, the important role of education in the preparation for proletarian revolution. Where her father had spoken of the workers understanding Capital in their gut, and had argued for the integral connection between theory and practice rather than actively exemplifying it, Eleanor Marx became directly involved as a teacher in the movement for working class education, and in policy initiatives to improve the conditions of labour, notably the outlawing of child labour, the introduction of the eight hour day, the formation of trade unions, and provisions for strike support. As a Marxist, then, she conceived her role primarily in terms of praxis, in other words, the attempt at practical enactment of its vision in the consolidation of the international revolutionary movement and the development of effective union and parliamentary representation of the proletariat. But she was also, of course, an intellectual pioneer of socialist-feminism, one of the first who was active in the working-class movement to address the gender issue, and in the writing she did with Aveling, notably On the Woman Question, provided the movement with some of its founding texts.  

The most enduring family influences in the making of Eleanor Marx were clearly those in which the family itself was most unconventional; and these, in turn, were formative on her maturer relations both with lovers and friends. She remained close throughout her life to many from her parents’ circle of political associates, especially Engels and Liebknecht. She also developed a very special bond with Olive Schreiner, and sustained friendships with Havelock Ellis (who was to marry Schreiner), George Bernard Shaw (who was a suitor for a period), Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and William Morris and his daughter May (she was another admirer, although undeclared). But politically radical and non-conformist as it was in so many ways, the Marx family also shared in the enthusiasms of many other Victorian Londoners for Shakespeare and the theatre, and this, too, had a major impact on Eleanor’s commitments and emotional life. For a while she aspired to make a career of acting, received some training in it and proved quite competent at it, giving a number of public recitations, including popular renderings of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. As her feminist sensibilities developed so, too, did a passion for Ibsen, whose plays she and Aveling (an aspiring dramatist himself) championed, and staged on more than one occasion. We might note, too, in this mix of influences the role of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (of which Eleanor provided a first, if somewhat wooden, English translation).

The rooted materialism and political compassion of Marxism, the power and illusion of theatre, the romantic frustrations of Emma Bovary, the forceful exemplar of the Ibsenian heroines: this is the complex of commitments, attachments and inspirations that may help to explain the differences of style and achievement between the political and personal lives of Eleanor Marx. Eduard Bernstein spoke of the ‘psychological enigma’ of Eleanor’s passion for Aveling and loyalty to him despite everything that gave evidence (and indeed were damning proofs to others) of the deceptions of his sexual life, his shameless and fraudulent drain on her money, and his ruthless indifference to her wellbeing. Holmes is surely right here in her general assessment that Eleanor would have fared much better had she ‘applied the same principles to her personal life as she did to her politics: actions not words; first hand evidence; material proof; lack of sentimentality’. While the public front was that of socialist-feminist collaborators sharing their mutually sensitive views on the ‘woman question’, lecturing together on working-class oppression and politics in America, or reflecting together on the relative male and female influences on Shelley’s life and politics, the private scene was that of Edward’s humiliating abuses and Eleanor’s denials and excuses. And this continues more or less to the point of her suicide by prussic acid poisoning, which Aveling’s secret marriage to another woman certainly triggered even if he did not connive directly in it. Other commentators then and since have been no less baffled than Bernstein in trying to explain this anomaly. Holmes, for her part, while providing a good account of Eleanor’s delusions does not hazard much in explanation other than the view that Aveling ‘brought out the feminine’ in a woman who saw herself, and was seen by others, as overly ‘masculine’ in character. It is true that Eleanor herself voiced something to that effect in a letter to Olive Schreiner, but one feels that this is only the beginning of an account, and that there is as much evasion as there is insight in it. (What, for example, are we to understand by this counter-point of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’? What did Eleanor herself mean by it?) One other possible factor, however, as Bernstein speculated at the time, was a faith, extracted from or reinforced by her readings of Ibsen, in the power of the exceptional female to correct the depravities of the male, and that this formed the basis of a mission to cure Aveling of his moral failings. But if so, it was doomed, and her success in mitigating some of the political turpitude of her times was never to be matched by any similar achievement in the redemption of Aveling. Indeed, given Aveling’s criminal behaviour both before and after her death (for which he was spared being brought to trial only by his dying himself within a year) it is difficult not to feel that there was something altogether fantastical in any belief in his possible conversion.

It is the achievement of this biography, however, that it allows us so large and transcendent a view of its subject. There are some oddities and awkward transitions in its writing and one or two curious errors (Galileo is credited with ‘discovering’ that the earth goes round the sun; Woolf is said to have a character called Miss Le Troke in Between the Acts); but these are minor flaws in a biography that succeeds very ably in highlighting the full reach and contemporary relevance of Eleanor Marx’s political contribution to socialist and feminist thinking. What in the end we retain from this account of her life is not the anguish and tragedy of the relationship with Aveling, but the compassion and energy with which she confronted the oppressions of her day and her very considerable role in advancing the emancipatory programme that came to be associated with social democracy over the next century: an agenda, as Holmes reminds us, now severely threatened by the commitment to the neo-liberal growth economy, and the inequalities, consumerism and global commodity capitalism that are its consequences. ‘Tussy’s life,’ Holmes writes, in her conclusion, ‘is a reflection on the methods and values that got us to the forms of liberty, education, job protection, reproductive rights and rights to healthcare that underpin social democracy and a strong civil society. If we don’t remember how we got there, we won’t know how to fix it’. It is well said.

2 October 2014


  1. Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading this book, and works by Kate Soper.

    Psst, a slight inattention which Ms Soper might like to correct: ‘There were the many agonising illnesses and deaths of close relatives and friends, including those of her younger sister’s children at a very early age’. Eleanor Marx had no younger sister.

  2. Thanks for the correction ! In my mind I was thinking of the ‘younger of her two elder sisters’ – but it didn’t end up that way on the page.

  3. I share thanks and the correct point like Peggy’s and Lagatta’s. In Korea the status of women has been improved legally including the abolition of the patrimony of the patriarchal householdership. But the substantial ststus of the women will be attained througth the male’s awakening and practice of the dignity of women and women’s own struggle. In virtue of you there emerges a strong will to share Eleanor Marx’s compassionate and energetic life represented by you. I appreciate you.

  4. I regret to have missed Kate Soper’s review. It is so well written.

    We do come across details of Tussy’s life in Mary Gabriel’s popular ‘Love and Capital’, but Holmes’ is a more complete work.

    I suppose another study of Eleanor Marx is called for – perhaps psychoanalytical – to better explain the tensions of which her self was composed. All in all, she was a great though tragic character and for whom one feels very sorry indeed.

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