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on 14 June 2015
In her Preface to Eleanor Marx: A Life, Rachel Holmes makes some very large claims for her subject. For instance, the first line reads: 'Eleanor Marx changed the world' (p.xi). We then read how 'Eleanor Marx was the foremother of socialist feminism' (p.xiii) and 'one of the first and most prominent leaders of the new trade unionism' (ibid). And, lest we forget, her father, Karl, was 'the most famous philosopher in the world' (p.xvi). But whereas Karl was a theory-driven egghead, Eleanor was a gung-ho rebel delivering wisdom to the proletariat, or, in Holmes's pithy phrase, 'If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice' (ibid). Such a sentiment misjudges Karl Marx's political manoeuvring (like the creation of the First International) and downplays Eleanor's intellectual endeavours. Yet this heavy-handed approach to the facts, coupled with the author's overwrought identification with her heroine, creates issues throughout the book, issues which undermine the gargantuan research on show.
The book itself is told in a linear fashion, so, with Eleanor's birth, we are immediately plunged into the émigré milieu of the exiled Karl. Stuck in London, and working on the interminable Capital, Marx still managed to carry out his fatherly duties. He was, however, clearly attached to Eleanor (or Tussy, as the family called her), and came to be seen as her 'first friend and primary playmate' (p.13). Growing up, Eleanor was incredibly precocious and inherited her father's 'unconditional love of Shakespeare' (p.17); she also inherited her father's atheism, which was actively encouraged chez Marx, a move Holmes rightly describes as 'unusual and radical' (p.18) in Victorian England. The intellectual atmosphere of the Marx household was intense, and Eleanor imbibed it all. Marx 'was committed to the education of women' (p.53), and this egalitarian spirit meant that Eleanor had a 'home-schooling of the most entertaining form' (p.52), i.e. she read 'widely and deeply' (ibid) in the arts. So while Eleanor grew up in a house that was 'short of food, fuel, clothing, shoes, furniture and medicines' (p.56), at least it was multilingual, cerebral, and never short of 'paper or ink' (ibid).
But this intellectual environment didn't produce the dog-eat-dog attitude needed to survive in the outside world. Eleanor may've been quick to 'sniff out posers' (p.69) but she suffered from 'an overdeveloped ability to empathise' (ibid), an emotion which would lead to tragic consequences. Anyhow, quick to throw her weight behind any revolutionary cause, Eleanor became instrumental in the running of the First International, backed the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and helped look after the numerous exiled Communards that passed through the house. Yet such labours ensured that while she was viewed as a 'Socialist feminist activist, [and] intellectual, budding woman of letters' (p.148), she still needed to 'murder the self-sacrificing, eternally good, dutiful, boiling with resentment, angelic' (ibid) young daughter she undoubtedly was. So by the time her parents met the grave, the stage was set for her to do just that.
Yet this period of her life, both mournful and liberating, coincided with her meeting Edward Aveling, Holmes's pantomime villain. As 'a confirmed atheist and freethinker' (p.224), Eleanor immediately hit it off with the atheist and freethinking Edward. They had a shared love of Ibsen, and both performed his latest works. But where she was thrifty, he was a spendthrift, and where she was passionately loyal, he was a philandering toerag. Their love affair, however, plays out against a heavily researched backdrop, a working-class scene that's catalysed by the multifarious left-wing movements underpinning New Unionism. As such, we read of Eleanor's gruelling schedule in proselytising to Britain's proletariat, and even of a prolonged excursion to American, where she was influential in drumming up international solidarity. These seemingly indefatigable acts of zealousness lead Holmes to describe Eleanor as 'midwife to the twins of trade unionism and socialist internationalism' (p.313). Even so, the successes of the public and political were sullied by the toils of the private and the personal.
In short, Edward's terrible ways were soon found out, and Eleanor was, as ever, the last to know. The embarrassment caused her to take her own life. This part of the book, however, creates problems for its author. Basically, Edward had married another woman. Now, 'No record survives of how...[Eleanor] found out' (p.431), but when she did, she reacted by 'immediately changing her will' (ibid) and by writing 'a long covering letter to Crosse' (ibid), her lawyer. Apparently, the new will made her sister and her deceased sister's children the sole beneficiaries of her estate, i.e. the Marx legacy. But Holmes has no proof of this, because after the inquest the 'court returned Eleanor's letter to Crosse and the codicil enclosure to Aveling without further investigation' (p.435), which enabled Aveling to inherit everything until his own death, when the estate returned to Eleanor's family. And as Aveling must have destroyed the codicil, the supposed evidence of Eleanor's volte-face, we don’t know what it really said. And nor does Holmes, although that doesn't stop her from guessing that the codicil was changed to entirely disinherit Aveling. But this, unfortunately, is wishful thinking on the author's part, a guardian's wish to protect her charge, and only represents what she hopes Eleanor would've done in that position.
Yet this familial (and at times mediumistic) bond between Eleanor and Holmes is present throughout the book, and it becomes a little bit annoying. For example, when Eleanor is duped by Edward (a constant refrain), she is reprimanded by her biographer, as Holmes tells her 'she should have known better' (p.239). Then, at another point, Holmes describes a location as 'Romantic' (p.387), which entices her to add '(with a capital R, as Tussy would say)' (ibid). What does this add to the narrative? Nothing. And then, when Edward deserts Eleanor, the author gives us a few 'if only' pleas: 'If only Tussy could have called on George Bernard Shaw' (p.416); 'If only Tussy had refused to see him then' (p.417). Well, history's full of 'if only' moments, so why bother speculating?
And if this foible isn't irritating enough, Holmes concocts some truly hideous phrases. Let's take three: (1) in this book, animals don't go on hair-raising adventures, they go on 'fur-raising adventures' (p.15); (2) when Engels moves house, he does it 'lock, stock and a multitude of vintage barrels' (p.88); and (3), which is possibly the worst, we are told that when Edward first meets Eleanor he is involved in an awkward love triangle, and that Eleanor's arrival in the mix really did 'put the socialist cat amongst the secularist pigeons' (p.192). Yet even if we forgive Holmes's purple prose, she still has the habit of making declarative statements that can be argued all night long. Is Capital 'the most influential piece of writing since the Bible, Quran, Talmud and the works of Shakespeare' (p.47)? Is English 'the greatest theatrical and poetic language in the world' (p.135)? Did Marx and his family really change Britain 'for ever' (p.43)? These are all statements which many would disagree with, and their inclusion adds an exaggerated and sensationalist element where it really shouldn't be.
That being said, the book is rather enjoyable in places. Holmes's depiction of the nascent trade union movement in Britain and America is fantastic, and her thorough notes and bibliography revivify some long-dead names. There is also the absorbing backstory detailing the early days of Marx and Engels, which, for all its familiarity, is handled very well. But there is just not enough objectivity in Holmes's approach. Now I'm not advocating a dry-as-dust scholarly detachment, but a little distance would be helpful. Some reviewers have said it reads like a novel, and it does in places, but it reads like a nineteenth-century sensationalist novel. And then there's the moment when Holmes, in her guise as an omniscient narrator, has a stab at free indirect discourse and puts the words 'Aveling be damned' (p.428) into Freddy Demuth's mouth. This is a departure from the historical record and takes some crazy liberties with the truth; yet it also represents where Holmes lost her way. To be honest, she might have been better off writing a historical novel in the manner of Hilary Mantel, as it would have been a sufficient repository for all her research and her penchant for narrative techniques and characterisation. As it stands, we have a weird literary hybrid, a biogranovel (to a coin a horrific term of my own), a book with a split personality, and one which, because it doesn't know what it wants to be, succeeds in being neither. And that's a shame, as there has clearly been a lot of work poured into this book, although it's work that has been squandered in trying to do too many things at once.