A Tragic Heroine of the Reading Room

Eleanor Marx at the age of about sixteen, 1871

On Thursday, March 31, 1898, a few weeks after her strenuous involvement as campaign manager and fund-raiser for a lengthy strike of British engineers, Eleanor Marx instructed her maid Gerty to unwrap her favorite white dress from the tissue wrapping in which it had been packed away for winter. The dress was white muslin, a flimsy material for an English spring. In the middle of the morning she sent Gerty to the pharmacy close to her suburban south London house with a prescription for two ounces of chloroform and an eighth of an ounce of prussic acid. It was Gerty who, later in the morning, found her mistress stretched out on the bed dressed in the white muslin, mottled blue with the effects of prussic acid poisoning. Most of her friends and socialist colleagues believed she had died for hopeless love.

Hers was a death to rival that of Madam Bovary in its despairing histrionics, its intensity of passion. In fact Eleanor Marx, a fine linguist, had been commissioned in 1885 to translate Gustave Flaubert’s novel into English. Julian Barnes plays brilliantly with the parallels in a spoof exam paper invented for his book Flaubert’s Parrot:

E1 led a life of sexual irregularity….

E2 led a life of sexual irregularity….

E1 committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.

E2 committed suicide by swallowing arsenic.

E1 was Eleanor Marx.

E2 was Emma Bovary.

The first English translation of Madame Bovary to be published was by Eleanor Marx.


Rachel Holmes’s is not the first substantial life history of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. Both Chushichi Tsuzuki’s pioneering biography of 1967 and Yvonne Kapp’s devotedly detailed two-volume Eleanor Marx (1972 and 1976) depicted her not simply as Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, secretary, chief assistant, editor, biographer, and general keeper of the Marxist flame. Both books showed Eleanor Marx as a charismatic and influential figure in nineteenth-century international socialist politics on her own account.

Nor is Holmes the only writer to address the glaring contradictions in the splendor of the life of the political activist and feminist and the final suburban pathos of her death. The feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham as far back as 1982, in a fine introduction to The Daughters of Karl Marx, a collection of the family’s correspondence, pointed out the “disjuncture between the public Eleanor, the brilliant and hard-headed socialist writer, speaker and organizer, and the private Eleanor” whose political loyalties, sexual needs, and indeed protective Jewish maternal instincts bound her to a socialist comrade lover, Edward Aveling, a confidence trickster and a womanizer on an epic scale. This is the disjuncture followed through by Rachel Holmes in her large and unashamedly partisan biography.

Eleanor Marx tumbles prematurely into the world in London at the moment before dawn on Tuesday 16 January 1855. Puffing…

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