Tuesday 12 December 2017

Tragic end to a brave feminist's short, inspiring life

Eleanor Marx, A Life
Rachel Holmes
Bloomsbury €37.25

Eleanor Marx
Eleanor Marx

Rosita Sweetman

What could be more satisfying than a really good biography? In Eleanor Marx, A Life author Rachel Holmes has delivered a cracker.

It helps that her subject was the daughter of a very famous father, Karl Marx, that she was beautiful and intelligent, pivotal to the social and political movements of her day, and that despite being a lifelong feminist she fell in love with a cad who dished out years of misery and almost certainly murdered her.

Regardless, Eleanor Marx achieved an incredible amount in her short lifetime. We can thank Eleanor says Holmes - "and men and women like her, for the eight hour day. The outlawing of child labour. Access to equal education. Freedom of expression. Trade unions. The universal suffrage. Democratically elected parliamentary representation. Feminism".

Not a bad legacy, especially in these corporate times when the "undermining of employment rights, socially stigmatizing the poor, blaming the sick, demonising immigrants, betraying child labourers, polluting the environment in the name of surplus value …" is part and parcel. Still, this is no book of gloom; or unmediated politics. The sensationally chaotic Marx household where Eleanor grew up (Karl and Jenny Marx had been driven out of Paris) in Dean Street, Soho, London was then home to the poor, the prostitutes, the gamblers and the pawnshops.

Eleanor, or 'Tussy' as she was known to family and friends, was her father's favourite, and happily rode piggy back on his broad frame while he chain smoked and formulated Das Kapital, "surviving on booze, insomnia and tobacco". She was home schooled in a house where three languages were spoken, social politics were passionately discussed along with music, theatre and the arts, where her mother believed (against most of her class and kind) that children should be free, and where her father unlocked the real secret of education - 'to try and think, to try and understand for herself'.

Life was peopled with the stalwarts of British Socialism. Engels (Marx's life long friend and supporter left a legacy especially for Eleanor), George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis, Olive Schreiner, Will Thorne, William Morris were all confidantes, and she lived the socialism her beloved father had theorised putting feminism, (as she saw it equal pay for women) at its centre.

She helped found the first women's trade union at Silverton, supported the Bryant and May match children's strike, the Gas workers strike, the glassblowers strike, the Crosse and Blackwell strike (where women put in 14 hour days, up to their elbows in vicious chemicals). She supported the Irish land struggle and travelled across Europe, and twice to America - on a fifteen states speaking tour, supporting condemned anarchists, striking workers and cowboys (they weren't allowed form unions). All this as well as being her father's secretary, confidante and help mate.

Shortly after her mother's and then her father's heart breaking deaths her cad -Edward Aveling - made his move.

The youngest sickly son of a Congregationalist preacher he had previously married and left another woman he thought he could live off, and cleverly presented himself as a socialist soul-mate to generous, life-loving Eleanor. To the horror of her family and friends, she succumbed.

Our own George Bernard Shaw, himself once interested in Eleanor, dubbed Aveling 'a reptile.' After years of infidelity and double dealing, he secretly married a 23 year old.

Eleanor, finally roused, changed her will. On the morning of March 31st 1898 there was an argument. Then, Gertie, Eleanor's loyal companion was sent to the chemist for chloroform and Prussic acid 'for the dog'.

When the unsuspecting Gertie went to her beloved mistress's room an hour later she found her purple, and dead. Aveling was nowhere to be seen.

At the subsequent inquest he described Eleanor as 'suicidal' and spent the last of Engel's legacy to her on lavish fittings for his new home.

Rachel Holmes has stitched her extraordinary story into the fabric of British Victorian society. And Eleanor is brought to life so sympathetically, that despite the horrors and the sorrows (including the Big Family Secret - Karl had a love-child with his wife's lifelong live-in friend) and her terrible end, you feel so glad to have "known" her.


Eleanor Marx, A LIFE

Rachel Holmes


Sunday Independent

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