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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I Inherited My Father's Nose...Not His Genius"
"Eleanor Marx changed the world" states Rachel Holmes in the preface to her book about the life of the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. The author subsequently tells the reader how Eleanor often claimed that she had inherited her father's nose, but not his genius. However, she was wrong; Eleanor did inherit his genius, as Rachel Holmes' meticulously researched biography...
Published 7 months ago by Susie B

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good
Certainly worth reading, but doesn't come close to Yvonne Kapp's 2-volume biography which Eric Hobsbawm rightly judged one of the best biographies of the last century.
Published 6 months ago by Jack Spot


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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I Inherited My Father's Nose...Not His Genius", 11 May 2014
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
"Eleanor Marx changed the world" states Rachel Holmes in the preface to her book about the life of the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. The author subsequently tells the reader how Eleanor often claimed that she had inherited her father's nose, but not his genius. However, she was wrong; Eleanor did inherit his genius, as Rachel Holmes' meticulously researched biography shows.

In 1855, in cramped rooms in a rented house in Soho, with no plumbing or gaslight, Eleanor was born into a family of political radicals, the youngest child in the Marx family by ten years. There were two older sisters, Jenny and Laura, a brother, Edgar, who sadly died from tuberculosis soon after Eleanor was born, and another brother, Heinrich Guido, who died from meningitis within a fortnight of his first birthday. Money was in very short supply, but as Eleanor's father's finances improved (partly from an inheritance, but mostly from the help of his close friend, Friedrich Engels, co-author with Marx of 'The Communist Manifesto'), the Marx family moved into better accommodation in a more prosperous part of London, but they were never well off and often in debt. A lack of money for school fees combined with Eleanor's reluctance for formal schooling, meant that Eleanor, or Tussy, as she became known by those who were close to her, was mostly home-schooled by her father, and soon, we learn, books became her closest companions and friends. Although Eleanor received little formal schooling, she not only spoke English, but learned German from her parents and French from her older sisters - languages that came in very useful in her later translation work.

Whilst Eleanor was growing up, her father was writing 'Das Kapital', a study of social, political and economic history and, as the author tells us,"Tussy and 'Capital' grew up together" with Eleanor receiving a thorough grounding in these subjects along the way. For years Eleanor worked for her father as his secretary and his researcher (Marx once told Eleanor that her sister Jenny was most like him, but that Eleanor was him) however Eleanor was not only her father's helpmate, she was also a pioneering feminist who wanted to make a difference and she set out to do so, putting into practice what she had learnt from her father and Engels. During her relatively short life (she died tragically at the age of 43) Eleanor was a pioneer of Ibsenism in Britain, she was the first translator of Madame Bovary into English, she edited and translated her father's work and she was also her father's first biographer. In addition Eleanor attended demonstrations, supported striking workers and was one of the first leaders of the new trade unionism; she also travelled extensively educating and advising workers on their rights and she spent her life fighting for the principle of equality. Eleanor was approachable, caring and had many devoted friends - Rachel Holmes writes that: "Loving others better than she loved herself was one of Tussy's key failings; by contradiction, it is also one of the characteristics that made her so human and likeable." How sad it is then that Eleanor chose to ignore her friends' warnings about the man she fell in love with, Edward Aveling, a fellow socialist, but also a fraud and a feckless philanderer, and a man who later ruined her life.

Rachel Holmes' excellent biography is a scholarly and scrupulously researched account of a rather remarkable and revolutionary woman, but it is also a vivid, absorbing and very readable story which brings the life and times of Eleanor Marx very much to life. Highly Recommended.

5 Stars.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great celebration, a great tragedy and a timeless inspiration, 12 May 2014
This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
I am ashamed to say that I had known Eleanor Marx only as the champion, editor, translator and representative for her father Karl Marx and his closest friend Friedrich Engels. Upon reading this thrilling, fast-past, hugely informative and enjoyable biography, I know so very much more: Eleanor Marx was an activist, a political leader and organiser, an actress, a champion of the arts, a journalist, a linguist and an utterly unconventional character, full of charisma and intelligence, living at the heart of the creative and political circles of the the mid 1800s in Victorian England. Her life was led at the crossing point of so many fascinating forces: the birth of English and international socialism; Darwinian and Freudian understandings of sexuality, family, society and history; the stirrings of suffrage and enfranchisement movements and so very much more.

I learned all this from reading Holmes's biography, which prickles with energy, insight, humour and utterly rigorous research. I'm trying not to give away the endings but the central tragedy is that Eleanor herself was an absolutely open and honest person, full of heart and mind and integrity... yet surrounded and poisoned by some serious ethical betrayals, So there's great darkness amidst all the glitter. I began reading this as a thorough and very warm history ...it rapidly gained pace, depth and dazzle until I was racing towards the end. Days later I am still haunted by all Eleanor Marx achieved - and all she could have achieved had her personal, financial, social and political circumstances been different.

A must, must, must, must read. Sometimes there's great joy to be had in reading about something you knew nothing about and having a whole world opened up to you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Karl was the theory; Eleanor the practice...., 15 July 2014
By 
Wynne Kelly "Kellydoll" (Coventry, UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
This is a really entertaining, informative and compelling biography of Eleanor Marx. She was the youngest daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx and from early childhood she was revealed to be clever, passionate and loyal. She exhibited amazing intellectual powers and a flair for languages despite her schooling being somewhat minimal.

As I raced through this fascinating book I kept saying to myself again and again: “Why do we know so little about her?” I knew that she helped to translate Das Kapital but had no idea of just how active she was throughout her life. She clearly adored her father and devoted her life to ensuring his legacy was understood. She worked tirelessly for the socialist cause – supporting trade unions, strikes and strike funds and petitions. She was always in demand for speaking tours and lectures and commanded huge audiences wherever she went in Britain, Europe or North America. Her feminism permeated all her work and she was a passionate advocate for human rights.

As Rachel Holmes says: “Karl Marx was the theory; Eleanor Marx was the practice.”

In the light of her undoubted talents her relationship with Edward Aveling is puzzling. Contemporary accounts show that many of her friends tried to warn her about him but she always excused and forgave his bad behaviour.

This is much more than a political biography – at times it reads like a whodunit as secrets and crimes are revealed.
A brilliant book that should be read by anyone interested in socialism, feminism or nineteenth century history.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good, 6 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
Certainly worth reading, but doesn't come close to Yvonne Kapp's 2-volume biography which Eric Hobsbawm rightly judged one of the best biographies of the last century.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, accessible and revealing account of Eleanor Marx's life and work, 7 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Kindle Edition)
This biography introduces Eleanor Marx as a human being, a child of Karl and Jenny Marx's extended family which closely included Frederick Engels and Helen Demuth (housekeeper) who were all lifelong friends, confidantes and collaborators

It shows Eleanor Marx as an original socialist thinker and leader in her own right and the somewhat tragic circumstances and contradictions of her existence as an educated revolutionary woman in the sexually oppressive England of the 19th century.

I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read and has an ounce of curiosity about Eleanor Marx, the living conditions of Marx and Engel's friends and family or the first beginnings of socialist feminism.
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2.0 out of 5 stars A Heavy-Handed Approach, 9 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
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 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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Simply superb!, 17 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
I agree very much with the other 5-star reviews of Rachel Holmes' biography. She combines the personal with the political quite superbly and the book is a magnificent achievement.

Like one of the other reviewers, I also have to admit to knowing very little about Eleanor Marx before I read this: essentially, all I knew was that she was a rather sad, peripheral figure with a poor choice in men. How wrong can one be? Eleanor was right at the heart of the 19th century struggle for workers' rights, feminism and socialist thought and was a central, indeed leading participant in so many issues of the day and has been most shamefully neglected since her death. She emerges from this book as a wonderful fighter for justice and a truly inspiring figure.. Her work ethic was absolutely phenomenal: how she managed to lead a union (the gas workers') - itself a full time job for a normal person - at the same time as editing her father's papers, giving endless public lectures, earning a living by writing journalistic articles and running her home, was a wonder. Read this book if you can, it was inspiring and I felt quite bereft at the end, with its tragic denouement.

If I were to make one criticism, it's not what Holmes put in but what she excluded: the ending is rather rushed and I would dearly like to have known what happened to those who outlived Eleanor: especially Wilhelm Liebknecht ('Library'), Eleanor's sister Laura and her children, and so many others. But this is a small criticism indeed to set against Holmes' achievements in writing this biography.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Holmes certainly has a few annoying habits, or maybe the book is badly edited, 8 July 2014
This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Hardcover)
I was attracted to this first by a sneering review in the London Review of Books by Christian Lorentzen; it was a case of 'listen to the fool's reproach/it is a kingly title' because I've rarely managed to finish a review by the same man, who is unable to write. Holmes certainly has a few annoying habits, or maybe the book is badly edited; at the point I'm at at the moment she is alternating between the names 'Tussy' (Marx's childhood nickname) and 'Eleanor' without explaining why, and Karl Marx is alternately called Mohr and Marx and Jenny Marx Senior Mohme - somebody should have told her to stick to one title. But that said, her writing is clear and evocative, the reader never has to go back a few pages to check who somebody is, because the initial description fixes him or her in one's mind so clearly. The world of the unusual but still conventional Victorian lower-middle class family is very clearly described as well.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesing life but book marred by writing style., 12 Jun 2014
This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Kindle Edition)
Style is tiresome. often word chosen only vaguely means what she wants - e.g demi-monde was used to mean sort of middle class, but in fact it means unrespectable women e.g. mistresses. Content very interesting, but that is thanks to Eleanor Marx.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent biography of Eleanor which places her in her right ..., 11 Dec 2014
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This review is from: Eleanor Marx: A Life (Kindle Edition)
An excellent biography of Eleanor which places her in her right place in history - as a thinker, an activist and trade unionist. Such a pleasant change from the depiction of her a dominated by her father and then abandoned by her lover
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Eleanor Marx: A Life
Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes
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