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23 May 2014

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.

By Antonia Quirke

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.”

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