Saturday, April 11, 2015

Revolutionary Road - A biography of Karl Marx's youngest daughter

Rachel Holmes: Eleanor Marx - A Life
Reviewed by KAREN OLSSON
It’s counter-intuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians. In the 1880s, these included radicals like George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. They worked there, and they talked during smoke breaks and visits to Bloomsbury tea shops. They moved fluidly between politics and the arts, deploring factory conditions as fervently as they dissected Ibsen’s plays. The reading room was a vital seedbed for such Victorian-era social-reform causes as women’s rights and trade-union organizing.

It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as “in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum” and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about “less talking and fewer marriages.” Among the liaisons fostered there was Aveling’s with Eleanor, an energetic feminist and socialist who, after her father’s death in 1883, blazed a bright trail of her own. As Rachel Holmes illustrates in her engaging new biography, she emerged as one of the London intellectual Left’s leading thinkers and activists, forcefully insisting that advances for women and advances for workers be fought for in tandem.

And yet even as she strode confidently across the public stage, Eleanor attached herself, for fourteen years, to Aveling, who turned out to be the sort of person we might now call a lying scumbag. This mystified her friends, and it remains something of an enigma today: While she and Aveling were never legally married, she considered herself his wife, and she stood by her disastrous man until the very bitter end.

Then again, a little Marx-family history reminds us what strange arrangements and dark secrets lay behind the scrim of Victorian domesticity. One need look no further than Eleanor’s own parents, a prototypically unpredictable Victorian union: Jenny von Westphalen, a debutante from an aristocratic Prussian family, and Karl Marx, a family friend of hers but also a Jewish philosophy student. This match, like many others forged in the centers of European intellectual life, suggests that the more privileged partner aspired to something other than her foreordained social destiny—in Westphalen’s case, the life of a typical bourgeois woman in the provincial German city of Trier.

She went on to endure many hardships, none of them bourgeois. Three of the six children she bore died young; her family, which eventually settled in London, was in near-constant financial straits; and in 1851 her housekeeper and confidante, Helene “Lenchen” Demuth, gave birth to a son fathered by Karl. (After that, Lenchen stayed on with the Marxes, while the child, Freddy, was sent to live with another family. For most of her life, Eleanor understood Freddy Demuth to be the unacknowledged son of Friedrich Engels.)

As Holmes tells it, young Eleanor—nicknamed “Tussy”—was protected from the brunt of all that. With two mother figures in Jenny and Lenchen, as well as two much older sisters, she was the pet of the household, who by the age of six could recite large chunks of Shakespeare and, a few years later, wrote letters to Abraham Lincoln advising him on the Civil War. Her father doted on her, told her stories, gave her books, and played chess with her—when he wasn’t at work on Das Kapital, or felled by illness, or shuffling debts. Periodically, the Marxes’ financial situation grew dire, but then a loan from a family member or a gift from the well-off, avuncular Engels would make it possible for Karl to continue his low-paying work.

Eleanor identified with her father, and he with her (“Tussy is me,” she recalled him saying). She received almost no formal education but learned at his feet, and in her early teens she became his research assistant and secretary—much more than an honorific post, as local and national workers’ organizations throughout Europe began expanding and consolidating across borders. Karl was at the forefront of the new international movement, and the revolutionary leaders of Europe became Eleanor’s pen pals. Her first long romantic relationship was with Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, an exiled Parisian Communard seventeen years her senior.

By then she was surely aware of her mother’s depressions and of some of the tribulations that marriage and childbearing had brought to her two older sisters. Laura, the middle Marx daughter, would lose all three of her babies at young ages, while the eldest sister, nicknamed Jennychen, would find herself unhappily married and exhausted by caring for her six children. Like her mother before her, Eleanor wanted to make a different sort of life for herself.

Holmes, the author of two previous biographies and a coeditor of an anthology called Fifty Shades of Feminism, writes with great sympathy for her subject. Her purpose, it seems, is less to analyze or contextualize Eleanor Marx than to tell us the story of an exemplary public figure. To the extent that Holmes gets under Eleanor’s skin, she characterizes her as a woman with too much empathy for others, a condition that left her unable to care for herself and predisposed toward “the whole infuriating syndrome of Victorian feminine neurosis”—aka hysteria.

The vivacious girl became a bold woman who tended to overtax herself. In her twenties, she undertook paid editorial work, translated her lover’s memoir of the Paris Commune, continued to help her father, and tried to become an actress. Karl grudgingly agreed to pay for stage training, but before beginning her lessons, during a period when her father, her cancer-stricken mother, and Lenchen traveled to France—leaving Eleanor to her own devices for six weeks—she worked herself to the bone, barely ate or slept, and suffered a nervous collapse. Holmes tallies the causes:

Use of too many stimulants. Insomnia. Depression. Frustrated desire. Surfeit of unchannelled ambition, intellectual talent and energy. Resentment at being for so long a repressed, obedient daughter fighting her contrapuntal desire to break free and strike out on a line of her own. Passionate will to live her own life. Underpinning the intensity of her reaction: guilt, regret, foreboding, self-doubt, insecurity. And . . . her awareness . . . that she was losing her mother. Grief.

No doubt at least some of these were to blame, but in leaping from the onset of Eleanor’s crisis to what reads like voice-over narration for a TV documentary, Holmes seems more interested in Eleanor the feminist case study than Eleanor the woman. It seems worth noting that the meltdown happened after she had been freed from her daughterly obligations and left alone to work. The room of her own quickly became a prison.

It’s also striking just how much loss Eleanor had to contend with during her young adulthood. The story of the Marxes is laden with physical and mental illnesses... 
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