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 anxiously on a cigar in the corner of the overcrowded room at 28 Dean Street, Soho, is Europe’s greatest political scientist. Karl and Jenny Marx have another child.

They’d hoped for a boy. It’s a girl.

One quickly forgives Holmes for her rather bludgeoning narrative style. She has written a thrillingly revisionist book, energetically researched and convincing in its argument that Eleanor Marx’s life “was one of the most significant and interesting events in the evolution of social democracy in Victorian Britain,” leaving a substantial legacy for coming generations.

Holmes is vivid in her detailed description of the cramped and crowded, dusty, dirty, smoke-filled two rooms in Dean Street with their broken, tattered furniture and welcoming atmosphere of conspiratorial camaraderie. A multilingual household in which German, French, English, Dutch, and Yiddish merged. A family of many nicknames: of Eleanor’s two sisters, Jenny, then eleven, was “Jennychen” while moody ten-year-old Laura was renamed “Hottentot.” Baby Eleanor herself came to be known as “Tussy,” not—her parents would explain—to rhyme with “fussy” but with “pussy.” (“Tussy” has another, less reputable usage as a vernacular term for vagina.) The Marx house of fond diminutives was also a place of sexual secrets, as Eleanor was to discover much later in her life.

Her German-speaking mother Jenny described her as having been from infancy “eine Politikerin top to bottom.” Edgar, her only surviving brother, died from tuberculosis twelve weeks after Eleanor’s birth and after this she gradually filled the vacant role of son and heir. Tussy became the cosseted companion of her father, taking long walks with him, hearing the fairy tales that Karl Marx loved, absorbing the other worlds of the Arabian Nights and Grimm. She grew up to share Marx’s enthusiastic knowledge of Shakespeare and the theater. And from her father, who had first arrived in the safe haven of London in 1848, after a series of political adventures around the continent, she heard those more immediate real-life stories of revolutionary Europe in the turbulent decade before her birth.


Eleanor Marx had little formal education. What she learned she absorbed almost entirely from her father and his collaborator and financial supporter Friedrich Engels, Eleanor’s literally angelic second father figure, “Uncle Angel” as she called him. It was Engels who urged Marx to start the great work of economic analysis and explanatory theory of historical materialism that became his definitive Capital. Painfully, laboriously, this was the work in progress throughout Eleanor’s formative years: “To say that Eleanor Marx grew up living and breathing historical materialism and socialism is therefore a literal description and not a metaphor.” Holmes reminds us that her intellectual closeness to her father gave her insights into economic theory that were totally unique for a woman of her time.

At the age of sixteen Eleanor was already embroiled in political activity. She was arrested by the police as she and her sister Jenny were traveling through France at the time of the uprising of the Paris Commune in spring 1871. This heroic uprising lasted for only two months but it remained historically significant as the only attempt to carry out a proletarian revolution in nineteenth-century Europe. Its opponents claimed it as an insurrection plotted by Karl Marx’s First International workers’ freedom organization. The Commune was significant as well for its reliance for defense on fighting revolutionary women, the Union des Femmes, the “bellicose viragos” of the barricades. In that it challenged the image of the docile supine woman, the Paris Commune was indeed “a great gender event.”

All three Marx daughters fell in love with revolutionary Frenchmen. Did Communard Paris have an erotic charge? Laura married the leading dissident Paul Lafargue; Jenny married Paul’s fellow activist Charles Longuet; the ardent young Eleanor formed a liaison with the already legendary Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, a tall, dark, handsome Basque from the Midi-Pyrenees who had fought heroically on the Paris barricades and escaped to London, having been condemned to death. Eleanor called him Lissa and surrendered her virginity. They became secretly engaged.

Defying her father, who disapproved of Lissa and indeed his other daughters’ revolutionary choices, the eighteen-year-old Eleanor went to live in Brighton on the south coast, setting out to support herself by teaching. But she had to return home again only five months later, distressed and anorexic. This became a kind of pattern identified by Holmes as an example of the Victorian feminine neurosis depicted so effectively by Wilkie Collins, whom she describes as “that great expressionist of the effects of patriarchal repression and thwarted desire in intelligent, ambitious daughters.” Eleanor was removed to Karlsbad by Karl Marx to take the waters in that fashionable cosmopolitan spa town. Father and daughter, subsidized by Engels, stayed at the sociable Germania Hotel.

At the heart of Holmes’s book lies the fascinating theme of the dominating father. “Jenny is most like me, but Tussy is me,” Karl Marx would assert. It was only after Marx’s death in 1883 that Eleanor began to establish her own separate political identity. What made her so remarkable was not just her inherited cosmopolitanism of outlook, her Marxist grasp of economic theory, her indignation at labor injustices, and her involvement in the early days of the trade unions and the whole emergent nineteenth-century anticapitalist thrust. Her real importance lay in her sense of what women lacked to make them completely fulfilled people. It was Eleanor who added feminist thinking to that fundamental radical life question: “What is it that we as Socialists desire?”

The British Museum Reading Room has a special role in the history of nineteenth-century dissidence in London and the story of the Marx family in particular. It was the place where Marx himself so often took refuge from the hurly-burly of his household to pursue his studies. Its circular pantechnicon form encouraged sociability. Women and men sat alongside one another. “It was here,” Holmes tells us, “that Eleanor and her Victorian Bloomsbury group worked, flirted and subverted.” Eleanor was a distinctive figure with her dangling pince-nez and her uncorseted clothes. Beatrice Potter (the future Mrs. Sidney Webb) observed her disapprovingly as “dressed in a slovenly picturesque way.” But the relatively liberated British Library respected some conventions. Eleanor was indignant when told she could only read the Kama Sutra at a specially designated table under the librarian’s supervision. Why should different rules apply for women and for men?

The practiced flirter Edward Aveling approached her in the Reading Room soon after Marx’s death, claiming a false intimacy with her father and commissioning her to write two articles on Marx in Progress, the monthly magazine “of advanced thought” that he coedited. Aveling, the son of a distinguished intellectual Congregational minister, was a clever, hardworking academic who had specialized in zoology. He was an enthusiastic Darwinian, following the controversial theories on evolution in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He was passionately interested in the theater and, breaking out after an upbringing of rigorous solemnity, obsessive in pursuit of worldly pleasures.


Aveling was by no means prepossessing in appearance. He was short and shifty-looking. A spinal injury in childhood gave him a slight stoop. “Reptilian” was the word many people reached for in describing Aveling. George Bernard Shaw saw him as having “the face and eyes of a lizard, and no physical charm except a voice like a euphonium.” The Socialist leader Henry Hyndman pronounced simply, “Nobody can be as bad as Aveling looks.” But Aveling was himself a consummate actor with the dangerous gift of empathy with women. When Shaw introduced himself to Eleanor in the Reading Room Aveling was watching from behind the book stacks, already willing to warn prospective rivals off.

“It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of ‘free love’ comes into the foreground.” This was a comment made by Eleanor’s mentor and supporter Friedrich Engels in an article he wrote for Aveling’s Progress magazine, an observation gathering in relevance as Eleanor and the already married Aveling made the decision to “set up” together, renting rooms at 55 Great Russell Street, directly opposite the British Museum, place of their first meeting. They moved in on July 18, 1884, Eleanor with some anxieties about the reactions of her sister Laura and her friends, telling people she would understand if they found her new situation unacceptable but asserting her right to independence of judgment: “You know I have the power very strongly developed of seeing things from the ‘other side.’” Eleanor had accepted the story Aveling told her that he had long been separated from his insufferable wife Bell. He could not marry Eleanor since Bell refused to divorce him on account of her religious beliefs.

In a book alive with interesting insights, Rachel Holmes makes much of Eleanor Marx’s pioneering work on Ibsen. She taught herself Norwegian in order to translate his plays, as her Socialist colleague William Morris learned Icelandic at a period of English rediscovery of Nordic culture. On Eleanor and Aveling’s quasi honeymoon in the Peak District in Derbyshire she arranged a reading of part of Ibsen’s then new and scandalous play Ghosts. As Holmes points out, “There are uncanny resonances between Ibsen’s Ghosts and the emotional underworld of Eleanor and Edward’s free-love union…. In the disastrous marriage plot, Captain Alving is damaged goods before Helen marries him.” Aveling’s own moral blankness was already obvious as he left the Nelson Arms after the “honeymoon” without settling the considerable bill.

In 1885 Eleanor and Aveling coauthored a pamphlet, The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View, published the following year in the Westminster Review. This collaboration has a certain irony in that Aveling so expertly and blatantly exploited women. “No woman seemed able to resist him,” said George Bernard Shaw resentfully, going on to use Aveling as the model for the morally degenerate doctor in his play The Doctor’s Dilemma. But of course it was just this underlying sense of insoluble problems in relations between the sexes that made The Woman Question so resonant and pertinent to emergent feminism of the 1870s. Eleanor Marx had come to realize from her own already agonizing sexual experience how vulnerable women are to their own bodies, to “the muscles, pulleys, levers and hormones designed to produce further life,” as Rachel Holmes describes them, as well as the social conditioning of her age.

Eleanor’s close relationships with other women informed her feminist vision. Her most intimate friendship was with Olive Schreiner, the feminist South African writer and author of The Story of an African Farm. Holmes describes the two women as “like magnets.” She also suggests, though without providing evidence, that Eleanor was “secretly desired and adored” by May Morris, William Morris’s textile designer daughter who showered her with Morris furnishings and fabrics. Certainly Eleanor’s thinking on The Woman Question was affected profoundly by the researches of Olive Schreiner’s lover Henry Havelock Ellis, author of intrepidly liberated studies on female sexuality and desire.

A depth of psychological sexual understanding gives Eleanor’s political arguments for the emancipation of women particular forcefulness. She insists that modern society needs to talk openly on questions of sex:

Our children are constantly silenced when they ask about the begetting and the birth of offspring. The question is as natural as one about the beats of the heart or the movements of respiration…. To us, it seems that the reproductive organs ought to be discussed as frankly, as freely, between parents and children as the digestive. The objection to this is but a form of vulgar prejudice against the teaching of physiology.

As Holmes convincingly points out, Eleanor brings Freud and the fledgling discipline of psychoanalysis into the debate on the equality of women. In this she argues as a woman too, with an intelligence and empathy that links her back to Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century and forward to Virginia Woolf.

More than Wollstonecraft or Woolf, indeed more than her own father, Eleanor Marx was an activist. She was there flamboyantly at the center of the struggle to obtain the political power of the proletariat, organizing, cajoling, speaking publicly until (as it sometimes did) her voice gave out. By 1884 she had become a leader of a small, new, revolutionary socialist party, the Social Democratic Federation. Eleanor was at the organizational hub of the developing socialist movement in Britain, sitting on the SDF executive council alongside William Morris, her grasp of economics usefully counteracting his own lack of it. Morris, describing himself as “a poet and artist, good for nothing but sentiment,” confessed that “I want statistics terribly.”

When Morris broke away from the SDF to form his own political party, the Socialist League, Eleanor Marx and Aveling seceded with him. Morris admired Eleanor while remaining in awe of her. Powerful women tended to unnerve him. It is tempting to see her as the model for the glamorous warrior women in Morris’s late novels: Ursula in The Well at the World’s End, whose armor is worn over a fur jerkin with sleeves of green silk; Birdalone in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, who is “armed in a light hauberk” having “covered up the lovely shapeliness of her legs with long boots of deer-leather.” Eleanor herself showed real courage in the mêlée as police violence against the socialist factions in London stepped up in the mid-1880s.

From 1887 onward she was involved directly in labor unrest. In London’s East End she was especially active in defense of Jewish workers. She led strikes of dock workers and gas workers in 1889, and sat for several years on the council of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. We find Eleanor Marx addressing a crowd of a quarter of a million at the first May Day rally to be held in London in 1890. Mrs. Marx Aveling, as she styled herself, became a popular national figure, known fondly in trade union circles as “Our Mother” and even “Our Old Stoker.” Her great originality of thinking lay in her conflation of the rights of women with the rights of workers. For a laboring woman it was not a simple matter of campaigning for sexual equality. Eleanor had the intellectual breadth to comprehend that working women had to free themselves from capitalist oppression first.

By this time, Eleanor’s own inner strains were worsening. In 1886 she and Aveling had traveled to America, arriving in New York harbor on the liner City of Chicago. Their four-month speaking tour organized by the Socialistic Labor Party of America took them to fifteen states. Their mission to bring internationalist and feminist thinking to socialism in America was partially successful but was undermined by Aveling’s reckless self-indulgence, treating himself to upgrades in hotels and Pullman trains, buying corsages for his many female conquests, flouting abstinence laws in Prohibition states. In Rhode Island he ordered a bottle of champagne, reporting that “in ten minutes a bottle of Heidsieck was before me and, soon after, within.” On their return to England a damaging expenses scandal broke. Engels loyally defended Aveling from charges of swindling. But Eleanor’s old tendency to depression returned. It seems she made a first suicide attempt early in 1888.

The question is not only why Eleanor Marx eventually successfully ended her own life but how she had endured life with Aveling for so long. She depended on him sexually. Holmes impatiently reminds us how love had “made her stupid.” She relied on his political cooperation. Aveling may have been a blackguard. He was also a good socialist. Holmes at this point advances the interesting view that his ruthless self-centeredness fascinated Eleanor as being diametrically the opposite of her own generous self-abnegating nature.

Politically the 1890s were notably successful for Eleanor. Her speech at the 1891 Brussels Congress of the International was widely praised. But her spirits were gradually undermined by a sequence of devastating revelations, unfolded by Holmes with the narrative twists of a nineteenth-century sensationalist novel.

First it emerged that the story Aveling told her of his first wife Bell refusing to divorce him was false. He had walked out many years before on Bell, who was more than willing to agree to a divorce. Aveling preferred to stay married till she died, when he stood to inherit her estate. When Bell finally died in 1892, this amounted to £126 15s 4d, which Aveling invested in a residential property.

In March 1898 there was another shock. News reached Eleanor, no one seems quite certain how, that in the summer of the previous year Edward had secretly married a young actress named Eva Frye, using his professional stage name of Alec Nelson. He had been determined to keep this event from Eleanor, knowing he was named in her will as sole executor and chief beneficiary. She altered the will, naming her sister Laura and her sister Jenny’s children as the beneficiaries, in the days immediately before her death.

But could a further, slightly earlier discovery have been the one that tipped the balance? As Engels lay dying in 1895 it finally emerged that Freddy Demuth, assumed to be the son of a liaison between Engels and the Marx family housekeeper Helen Demuth, was not Engels’s illegitimate son but Karl Marx’s own. Eleanor was the recorder of the life of her loved father. Had her death to do with her biographer’s dilemma in accepting that this truth would forever be off limits, that the picture she was painting of her parents as “lifelong friends and lovers” who were “faithful till death” was necessarily a false one? Did she get out her white muslin in mourning of the fact that our serious endeavors are so often tinged with farce?