Marx and Engels with their families, including Karl's daughter Eleanor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Kapital gains: the short, stirring life of Eleanor Marx

The elements of Rachel Holmes's biography of Karl Mark's daughter Eleanor that survived the abridger’s pen on Radio 4 were well worth tuning in for.

Book of the Week
BBC Radio 4

Rachel Holmes’s excellent new biography of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl, sounded as lopsided on the radio (5-9 May, 9.45am) as most books abridged into 75 minutes. As listeners of Book of the Week, we are used to characters being described in detail only to be completely abandoned come the middle of an episode. One of seven official Marx children (there was also an illegitimate son), Eleanor was born in 1855 in a two-roomed flat in Soho. She was very close to her father, who schooled her himself at home and described his daughter as a “remarkably witty fellow” as she stood around, knee-high in muck, in the backyard of their north-London house.

Surviving on “booze, insomnia and tobacco”, Karl Marx published Das Kapital when she was 12; his inclinations were inherited by the fiercely admiring Eleanor. Suffering from fainting fits and anorexia as a girl, she remained determinedly “elemental and mercurial and unvapid” as she worked as an orator and libertarian, dropping hairpins into books in the British Museum reading room, translating Madame Bovary into English.

What jarred most as I listened was that Eleanor’s reaction to her father’s death in 1883, aged 64, did not survive the abridger’s pen. The pair might have quarrelled in later years but she had been his personal secretary and nursed him before his death; it was vital to retain some detail here. By that point, the focus of the story had become Eleanor’s relationship with the Darwinist Edward Aveling, who, with his cruel indifference, apparently drove her to poison-induced suicide aged just 43 – a Flaubertian catastrophe that, reasonably, dominates Holmes’s book. But you wished you’d heard a little more about Karl’s relationship with the family housekeeper and how much that revelation must have weighed upon his idealistic daughter, who had believed that her parents were “faithful till death”.

Still, what a short, stirring life. Writing Das Kapital, Marx would actively involve Eleanor in his ideas by bringing certain arguments alive. As the passionate Holmes puts it on the page, at least: “To say that Eleanor Marx grew up living and breathing historical materialism and socialism is therefore a literal description and not a metaphor.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit