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

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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