Marx and Engels with their families, including Karl's daughter Eleanor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

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

GETTy
Show Hide image

Why is Alan Dein so good at getting his interview subjects to talk?

The presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Aftermath never traps or exhausts his subjects – he just gets them to open up.

“I like to feel like I’m a conduit, an enabler – does that sound soppy?” After listening to a couple of episodes of his exceptional new series, Aftermath (23 January, 8pm), I wanted, not for the first time, to know what drives the oral historian Alan Dein to keep making the sorts of radio programmes that he has made for the past 20 years. These include the award-winning Lives in a Landscape and Don’t Hang Up – ostensibly uncomplicated exchanges with people going about their daily lives, sometimes revealing very little, sometimes more than you can bear. (Landmark radio initiatives such as The Listening Project owe a great deal to Dein.)

In Don’t Hang Up recently, a woman mentioned that her grandmother had flown herself across Africa in a biplane in the 1930s. Dein always seems to have the same sort of response to any such information: lightly intrigued sympathy, shot through with an implacability, like a ship’s figurehead battling into the elements.

In Aftermath, he explores what happens to a community after it has been at the centre of a nationally significant event: Hungerford; Hyde in Manchester, post-Shipman; Morecambe Bay. Some of the most memorable parts of the first programme involve Dein simply driving around the streets of Hungerford with a resident. As the car’s indicator softly clicks, the interviewee points out the plethora of yew trees in that pretty Berkshire town. A great place to make cricket bats, the man thinks out loud, as Dein unhurriedly steers the conversation back in the vague direction of the shootings.

Dein never seems to set traps for his interlocutors, never exhausts them. And yet unhealed wounds are frequently bled. Has he always been good at getting people to talk? He tells me that when his dad took him as a kid to watch Arsenal play in the 1970s, he found he was always more interested in the crowd than in the match, in “looking at faces and wondering about how they spoke to each other”. He says that one question guaranteed to get someone talking is, “Why do you live where you do?” All things will unfurl from this: personal circumstances, family history, work. Communicated in that quintessentially undramatic Dein way, like puddles gently drying in a courtyard.

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era