A Review of Eleanor Marx (2014) by Rachel Holmes.
We’ve all heard the expression “the film of the book” but it was the talk of the book that sold it to me.
Rachel Holmes appeared before the GMB Book Club in March this year and spoke for about 45 minutes about Eleanor Marx, giving a well-considered, broad-sweep overview of Eleanor’s life. The best public speakers are the ones who don’t sound like public speakers, but have the air of someone energetically holding court around a convivial table in their local pub. Holmes did exactly this and was very natural – a speaker of great passion and intellect, not unlike her subject. I’d have paid good money to hear Rachel Holmes speak, and there was no way I was going to walk out of the room without her book tucked under my arm.
Nevertheless, I had questions about it, some of which I put to the author in her Q and A session. If she were as “passionately partisan” about her subject as was claimed by The Guardian, did this create difficulties in writing the book? Did it undermine her objectivity and was there a chance that the book would slip into the realms of hagiography? Mulling this over whilst simultaneously harbouring the hope that Holmes’ work would be a real page-turner, I took the book home and plunged into the near-500 pages.
Eleanor Marx was born in 1855, the daughter of Karl and Jenny (nee Von Westphalen) Marx. The family lived frugally in London lodgings, pawning linen and jewellery and receiving handouts from the generous Friedrich Engels, with whom Karl had collaborated on the Communist Manifesto (1848). There are piquant descriptions of the Marx home, an ordered chaos of soot, smoke, babies and books. “Restless, curious, wanting to know everything, and constantly widening the horizon of her mind,” Eleanor spent a bustling childhood developing interests ranging from chess to China, vamping with words, and more significantly, cultivating a political consciousness. She did, after all, grow up as Daddy was writing Capital (published in 1867), and even had the chutzpah to correspond with Abe Lincoln when she was nine. Then again, she was reciting Shakespeare at the age of three.
Described by her mother as political “from head to toe”, Eleanor the international socialist either led or was involved in numerous campaigns: the Paris Commune March, the eight-hour day, women’s education policy, women’s trade unionism, the gasworker’s union and more. Championing “socialist feminism,” she believed in free love and equal marriage and saw the fight for the equality of women workers as being inseparable from the struggle of both sexes for improved working conditions and pay. As a writer and journalist, Eleanor harnessed the powers of new technology – the typewriter, popularised in 1868, and for me, one of the great enfranchisers of women – to write challenging papers like The Factory Hell (1885) and The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View (1886). Particularly recommended is the former, a brilliant read, not least because it is based on painstaking research. Marx was nothing if not thorough.
What on earth can we make of her love life? There was Olivier-Prosper-Hippolyte Lissagaray, French Socialist and the author of The History of the Commune (1871). He was twice Eleanor’s age and a womaniser. She terminated the relationship in 1882, before finding love with Edward Aveling, Socialist pioneer and influential writer – also bigamist, shameless philanderer and fraud (he stole money from the labour movement). He was reviled as having caused Eleanor’s suicide in 1898.
Eleanor Marx’s achievements are manifold. She founded the Socialist League and three trade unions, played a leading role in the “New Unionism” of the 1880s and, according to Holmes, “changed the world.” It’s a big statement, suggesting that Eleanor in Rachel’s hands has truly joined the saints – but wait a minute, what’s not to like about Marx? She was diligent, believing that laziness was the root of all evil; she liked booze, defining her idea of happiness as champagne; she smoked; she ate pies; and she quite clearly cared for others rather too much at her own expense. Just for good measure, she hated shopping and housework. Was she without fault? Well, she liked puns, didn’t suffer fools gladly and was not above calling her friends “stupid” if they had acted unwisely – but we shouldn’t hang her for that!
Rachel Holmes’ preface informs us that Eleanor “had many shortcomings, frustrations and spectacular failures.” She was, then, like all of us, and that’s why we warm to her.