Book review: Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

April 23, 2014
Those expecting another pious addition to the canon of Victorian feminist worthies are in for a shock with Rachel Holmes’s biography Eleanor Marx, which casts Karl Marx’s daughter as the lead role in a gripping melodrama—Ibsen meets Henry James. Eleanor’s life was blighted by patriarchy, and by her own lack of self-belief. Her observation that she had inherited her father’s nose but not his genius was typically self-deprecating. Intellectually precocious, and a charismatic organiser, activist and writer, she was thwarted in her bid for an independent career by her selfish father, who wanted her for his secretary. And although she helped establish three major trade unions, the Second International and the Social Democratic Society of Great Britain, much of her own writing was “ghosted” for men. Fluent in several languages, she wrote the first English translation of Madame Bovary.

Eleanor committed suicide in 1898, aged 43. Caught in an extraordinary set of intrigues over the destiny of her father’s unpublished and valuable literary estate, she was blackmailed by her common-law husband and chose death over dishonour—or in this case her father’s dishonour. Holmes brilliantly evokes the febrile atmosphere of leftist fin de siècle London, her cast including George Bernard Shaw and Ellen Terry. Eleanor abandoned early ambitions to take to the stage, despairing of the lack of substantial female roles; and in her case, sad though it was, life most decidedly trumped art.

Bloomsbury, £21.99