Review:  Eleanor Marx led a revolutionary life with a tragic ending

Author Rachel Holmes and the cover of the book "Eleanor Marx"
Author Rachel Holmes and the cover of the book “Eleanor Marx”

The idea of Eleanor Marx is terribly attractive. Here was a young woman born in Victorian England, holding her own while living among some of the great intellectuals of her time — and ours. All those history books that depict the march of ideas and politics as the exclusive interests and provinces of men, leaving the Angels in their Houses? They ought to be revised to reckon with the likes of Eleanor Marx.

In a relatively short lifetime she managed to translate Flaubert, introduce literary London to “A Doll’s House” and help birth a new union movement. Oh, right, and usher along the publication of her father Karl’s masterwork, “Das Kapital.” Then, just as Marx hit her 40s, she learned that the man whom she’d lived with for years, Edward Aveling, had gone and secretly married a young actress. Soon after, a devastated Marx committed suicide with chloroform and prussic acid.

All of that sets her up as the perfect subject for a lively, juicy biography. Yet somehow Rachel Holmes, in “Eleanor Marx: A Life,” seems to feel the need to argue her subject into the scene. After declaring that “Eleanor Marx changed the world” in the book’s opening sentence, Holmes continues on bombastically to bestow titles: “a revolutionary woman writer; a revolutionary woman, and a revolutionary.” Possibly just one of those would have done.

To be fair, “revolutionary” is not the wrong word here. Marx (nicknamed Tussy, an endearment that Holmes uses herself to rather irritating effect) shared with her father a conviction that the current economic order had to be reversed. And as regards gender, her politics were not particularly subtle, either. Her most famous tract, published in the 1886 Westminster Review and co-written with the man who’d later betray her, is on “The Woman Question.”


It is about as unequivocal as such writing gets: “The life of woman does not coincide with that of man. Their lives do not intersect; in many cases do not even touch. Hence the life of the race is stunted.”

Careful and extensive though Holmes’ research may be, it is often marshaled in support of pat statements like: “The narrative of Tussy’s life begins to take shape like that of a feminist anti-heroine of the great Victorian novels.” Perhaps, but rather than force Marx awkwardly into a paradigm, Holmes could have simply presented the facts.

High-flying social connections, direct involvement in politics, extensive self-dramatization: They are all there in the text of Marx’s life. Beyond the clear connection to Marx and Engels, George Bernard Shaw and Havelock Ellis were good friends of hers. Her admiration of Flaubert and Ibsen shows how she was well connected to the artistic movements of the time. In politics, she was always found at the head of the socialist organizations, sometimes the only woman there.

On more personal matters Marx was so self-dramatizing that the book might’ve questioned this tendency rather than piling on more rhetoric. From the start she seems to have had a taste for martyrs; a list of favorite things, drawn up at age 10, lists Lady Jane Grey as a heroine. (Grey, you’ll recall, was the intelligent, educated noblewoman who had her head chopped off for trying to usurp Mary Tudor.) Years later during a period of romantic turbulence, she begs writer Olive Schreiner for the salve of female friendship: “Write me a line in case I do not see you tomorrow or the next day. Just one line — say you love me.”

Holmes uses these documents to get personal with Eleanor, but it can often be too much. She is of the school of biographers who believe their hours in the library have opened a wormhole right into their subject’s head. Deep research is continually interrupted with personal remarks. For example, on Marx’s surrender of her virginity to her first love: “She was not the sort of girl to lose it, as if by accident.”

Except that in a way she was. What Holmes records here is a woman whose taste in men left something to be desired. From the start, for example, Marx’s friends all hated Edward Aveling. He was selfish and boorish; he refused to divorce his first wife and “forgot” to tell Marx that she’d died till long afterward. Yet in a letter to Schreiner, Marx insists, “It was Edward who really brought out the feminine in me. I was irresistibly drawn to him.”

This self-destructive approach to love, embedded in a woman of such fine intelligence, is a rich vein to mine in women’s biography. It happens, in short, too often.

By the time the chloroform and prussic acid come out in Holmes’ narrative there is a creepy, familiar cast to the story. By way of digesting the suicide in the epilogue, Holmes offers, “Death can help people discover who they are.” Presumably she doesn’t mean that it helps the dead person, but it isn’t quite clear. Sadly, Holmes has not managed to help us discover who Eleanor Marx is, either, though it made me eager to read a less lead-footed biography.


Dean is at work on “Sharp,” a forthcoming book about female intellectuals.

Eleanor Marx
A Life

Rachel Holmes
Bloomsbury: 528 pp., $35