In profile: Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx

Her father was the famous economist and philosopher Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto. But it is Eleanor, his youngest daughter, who is the subject of a new film exploring her life and legacy as a pioneering feminist and ceaseless campaigner for women’s and workers’ rights. Here, ahead of the release of Miss Marx, Rachel Holmes explores the life – and tragic, untimely death – of a woman who transformed British politics in the 19th century…

Eleanor Marx Aveling, the English-born youngest daughter of Karl Marx. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Who was Eleanor Marx?

Born: 16 January 1855, London

Died: 31 March 1898, London

Known for: foremother of socialist-feminism; editing her father’s work and thus securing his intellectual legacy; campaigning for an eight-hour working day; unionising working-class women; founder of International May Day; translating Ibsen and Flaubert

Parents: Karl and Jenny Marx 

Married to: Never formally married 

Children: No children 

Siblings: The Marx family knew much poverty and strife and lost many young children.  Eleanor’s surviving siblings were sisters: Jenny Longuet (1844–48) and Laura Lafargue (1845–1911) and her half-brother Frederick (Freddy) Demuth (1851–1929), founder member of the Hackney Labour Party and longest surviving of Karl Marx’s children

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Eleanor Marx was the foremother of socialist–feminism. Internationalist, trade unionist, editor and multilingual translator of her father’s archive, she loved Shakespeare, both of the Shelleys, good company and bad puns. A failed actress, she became one of the most sought-after public orators in Victorian Britain. White was her favourite colour, and German Sekt (sparkling wine) her idea of happiness, when she could afford it. Eleanor was a changemaker in a revolutionary moment of the 19th century and she is aptly returning to us today, in our current turbulent times, with the new Italian film Miss Marx, starring a well-cast Romola Garai and directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli.

Born in a cramped two-room flat in Dean Street in Soho to Karl and Jenny Marx on 16 January 1855, Eleanor was the only British-born Marx. The family’s favourite – nicknamed Tussy by her parents – she was home-schooled at the kitchen table by her father while he wrote his critique of political economy and the workings of capital that gave capitalism its name. When a little older Eleanor became Karl’s personal secretary, researcher and collaborator. Not merely his scribe, Eleanor was a tireless activist who took her father’s ideas and legacy into the world to test them. Karl Marx was the theory: Eleanor Marx was the practice. Her favourite motto from childhood was “Go ahead!” – and go ahead she did.

Eleanor and Karl Marx and family
Philosopher Karl Marx with economist Friedrich Engels, his wife Jenny and his daughters Laura and Eleanor. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Women’s rights

A disenfranchised woman in Victorian Britain without the right to education, Eleanor was sensitive to the strife of working women within the broader context of working-class labour conditions and socialist movements. From youth she became a powerful and effective political organiser and mobiliser, as well as an imaginative pioneer of radical cultural works. She was the first to translate Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) into English 30 years after its publication in France, and she pioneered bringing the work of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen to the London stage. It was at her 31st birthday party in her Bloomsbury flat in 1886 that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was first performed, with her friend George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad and Eleanor, of course, as Nora Helmer. She also translated Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1883), as she wrote to her sister Laura, “for the magnificent sum of £5”.

Eleanor Marx campaigned vigorously for the eight-hour working day and the establishment of an annual international worker’s day – May Day. She was a founder of the mighty Gas Workers and General Labourers Union – now the GMB – earning her the moniker ‘Our Old Stoker’. Committed to including those previously excluded from unionisation, Eleanor organised with women workers as well as Jewish workers in London’sEast End who experienced antisemitism in the established labour movement. She was a leader of the ‘New Unionism’ and a significant force in the foundation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.

Eleanor Marx
Eleanor Marx was sensitive to the strife of working women within the broader context of working-class labour conditions and socialist movements, writes Rachel Holmes. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Organising and speaking with passion and lucidity, she played a significant role in fighting for the establishment of social democracy in Britain. Her speech to tens of thousands at a rally in Hyde Park at the first May Day in 1890 resonates today:

“we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and the bottom of society will be got rid of… this is not the end but only the beginning of the struggle… we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.”

Texts and treatises

Eleanor wrote many powerful texts expanding, improving, disputing and building beyond her father’s legacy. Her key works include her treatise The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View (1886), tackling head-on her father’s inattention to the structural inequality affecting women of all classes. “The life of woman does not coincide with that of man,” she wrote, in a sentence that still rings true. The founding text of socialist-feminism, this was the most important intervention in feminist political philosophy since Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Eleanor’s lectures on Shelley’s Socialism in 1888 and ground-breaking book The Working Class-Movement in America (1888) stand among her significant works, alongside The Factory Hell (1891); Value, Price and Profit (1898); and essays on child labour, the Paris Commune, the International and TUC congresses, modern theatre and new literature.

 

Edward Aveling

However, even as a radical Victorian woman Eleanor struggled against the same powers she tried to help others undo. Committed to free love, she experienced the profound difficulties of free-spiritedness in a conventional society. ln her late twenties she fell in love with Edward Aveling, a socialist educator and would-be agitator who shared her passion for radical culture and joined in her political work. But Edward never matched Eleanor’s intellectual spark and political stature. Increasingly jealous, he took advantage of her in manifold ways.

In 1897 Edward Aveling suddenly abandoned Eleanor, removing much of the furniture in their shared home while she was away at a meeting. A few months later he was back at ‘The Den’ – as Eleanor called her much-loved Sydenham home. His old kidney disease had returned, complicated by abdominal abscess and pneumonia. Eleanor agreed to see him through surgery and nurse him. In January 1898 she told intimate friends and family that Aveling’s doctors now believed his condition to be terminal and that she would nurse him lovingly to the end. Eleanor paid for his surgery and supported him through his recuperation at home.

Even as a radical Victorian woman Eleanor struggled against the same powers she tried to help others undo

On 31 March 1898 Eleanor Marx was found lifeless in her home in Sydenham, a victim of poisoning by prussic acid – chillingly, the same method by which Madame Bovary met her death [in Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel]. In the days preceding her sudden, mysterious death Eleanor discovered that Aveling had secretly married one of his former students the previous year in June 1897 and set her up in an apartment – on Eleanor’s money. And he was already attempting to blackmail Eleanor about her father’s paternity of Freddy Demuth, her half-brother. Learning of his duplicity, Eleanor immediately changed her will, removing Aveling as sole executor and chief beneficiary and wrote a long covering letter to their lawyer, Arthur Wilson Crosse. I document in detail in my 2014 biography the events of that tragic day when Eleanor Marx’s murder was framed by Edward Aveling as “a suicide pact”. Eleanor’s correspondence, diaries and professional bookings for the rest of the year suggest that, far from intending to die, she was planning on how to live after Edward’s anticipated death.

Sadly, the episode unfolds like the murder mystery it was: the violent argument between the lovers overheard by Eleanor’s loyal housekeeper Gertrude ‘Gerty’ Gentry, who was shortly afterwards sent to the pharmacist Mr Dale with a sealed envelope containing a script initialled ‘E.A.’ with Edward Aveling’s card clipped to the corner of the note, which read: “Please give bearer chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog.”

Edward Aveling
Edward Aveling, a socialist educator and would-be agitator. (Image by Alamy)

Gerty came back to ‘The Den’ with the packet and the poison book for signature. Eleanor was alive and Edward still in the house when Gerty left once again for the pharmacy to return the poison book to Mr Dale. When she returned to ‘The Den’ the only sound in the house came from Eleanor’s meowing cats. Gerty found Eleanor dead in her bed, her face and body discoloured to the lurid mottled indigo consistent with prussic acid poisoning. Edward Aveling had disappeared, taking with him Eleanor’s revised will and covering letter to their lawyer, Crosse. Having engineered Eleanor’s murder ‘suicide’, Aveling swiftly created an alibi and, as it later transpired, bought the silence of Arthur Crosse.

Verdict of suicide

The inquest concluded a verdict of suicide, but Eleanor’s friends, family and political colleagues were certain Aveling had murdered her. Political leaders Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein were among friends of Eleanor’s who immediately decided to bring legal action against Aveling. Eleanor’s close friend Robert Banner, who was co-founder of the Socialist League, was devastated by the news and deeply suspicious of the circumstances, pursued Aveling in the press for answers to what had happened to Eleanor’s letter to Crosse and why Aveling’s version of events differed in every point to Gertrude Gentry’s. Aveling’s death from kidney disease on 2 August 1898 put an end to the call for justice.

Eleanor Marx’s legacy

Eleanor Marx insisted that economics were inseparable from the fight for women’s freedom and equality. She toiled ceaselessly to organise working women and protect children whom she knew were among the most disenfranchised victims of capitalism. Her work as cultural pioneer, as well as editor of her father’s archive, is still breaking new ground. The new film about her, Miss Marx, promises to show the drama of a truly radical life in a singular moment in history. Eleanor Marx’s unique, inspirational personality and many healthy contradictions – a disciplined free spirit, joyous despite her many troubles – made her much beloved and admired wherever she went. An accurate portrayal that focuses on her sunny disposition and forceful charisma as well as the shadowlands of her story will captivate many hearts, offering the opportunity to make her a powerful interlocutor for our troubled times, rather than just another sad victim of patriarchy.

Eleanor Marx’s death was tragic: her life was not

Eleanor Marx’s death was tragic: her life was not. A brilliant, accomplished woman ahead of her time who challenged the boundaries set before her, Eleanor made a significant contribution to the establishment of British social democracy and is alive today in the words and deeds of those who work for a world more just and equal for all. Eleanor Marx worked hard to change the world for the better, and Miss Marx will introduce her to many others who will, in turn, be changed, warned and inspired by her.

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Rachel Holmes is the author of Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014). Her latest book is Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, 2020)