January arrived, bringing time to edge myself back to mid-Victorian London, the time and setting for my long-neglected novel. Looking along the shelves for the right book to nudge my mind along, I spotted one inviting title. The book was ELEANOR MARX, written by RACHEL HOLMES, her biography of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. Another point in its favour was that I had seen YOUNG MARX at THE BRIDGE theatre, and the play set questions murmuring in my head about the man and his family.
The biography certainly covered the time-span of my “work-in-progress”. Eleanor Marx was born in 1855, but earlier in the 19th Century was there on the pages, looking back at the young lives of both her parents. The book seemed a good “starter” to glance though, so I began on the first chapters . . . and then I kept reading, way past the point of any practical research.
Eleanor Marx, as revealed by Rachel Holmes, is a wonderfully compelling character and, furthermore, the sweep of her life reads like the plot of a classic novel.
Eleanor never went to school - unlike her two older sisters who benefited from a burst of prosperity- but she was too curious about everything to stay uneducated. She learned to read and write early, and was an eager student of subjects she valued, taught by various friends and by her father. Surrounded by books, if not much else, Eleanor loved reading Grimm’s folk tales and reciting Shakespeare’s plays and was a keen little letter-writer herself. She grew up speaking German, French and English and, as an adult enjoyed learning languages. As Eleanor moved into her teens, she began helping her adored father with his work, notes, translations and correspondence. By the time she was sixteen, her own life was becoming absorbed in social struggle, and in the dilemma of balance relationships between man and woman equally.
Yet this is only the start of Holmes sweeping biography. Through the pages, we see Eleanor living so closely with all the social struggles of the nineteenth century that she almost seemed a kind of Mother Courage to me. What was particularly valuable about this biography is the very width of its context.
Eleanor was involved with so many of the significant events and movements of the age: the Paris Commune of 1984; the rise of Irish Home Rule & the Fenians; protests and demonstrations against industrialisation, suffrage, the fight for an eight hour day and equal wages, child labour, and education for all.ot limited by "Victorian England": as a refugee and an immigrant, with sisters and relatives living across Europe, she never loses an international perspective, and nor does this book.
Although Eleanor trained as an actor, she had little success but nevertheless those same skills, and the warmth of her personality, made her into a great public communicator. She travelled constantly as a speaker, even to America to speak to the worker’s unions, and was acknowledged almost everywhere for her knowledge and understanding of her father’s arguments, beliefs and philosophy.
Holmes looks into this revolutionary age, revealing some uncomfortable truths such as the lack of empathy between “society suffragettes” and working-class women; the active animosity between the various anarchist and parliamentarian Socialist parties; the English workers general rejection of European Socialist perspective and solidarity, the rise of antisemitism and more. Despite some progress, this was not a trouble-free time, nor was her own personal life free of conflict and deep tragedy.
However, as I read about the different issues she faced, it was impossible not to feel that Eleanor Marx’s life echoed then with many questions and problems that exist - maybe in growing intensity - in our 21st century society, which adds a darker note the journey.
Yet, reading this biography, there is no doubt that Eleanor Marx was remarkable. Through Rachel Holmes enthusiastic writing, she is shown as a truly impressive woman in her own right. And on she goes, through these great flowing pages of history, constantly organising, writing; campaigning; addressing conferences and rallies; travelling and serving her father’s cause, as she tries to face the hidden costs in her own life. One can only admire her generous heart and her bold hope for the future. A remarkable book too - and the end of her story had me in tears.