Eleanor's packed, difficult existence, in which she struggled to reconcile the conflicting demands of work and parental duty, carries fresh resonance for every generation. Last Friday, at a conference at the University of London, devoted entirely to Eleanor Marx, speaker after speaker evoked the variety of her achievements and the ways in which her life, though unique in its close proximity to the sources of radical thought, paralleled that of other intellectual women, even now, in many ways.
Neither Eleanor not her father had much time for organised feminism, believing it to be both bourgeois and premature. They also claimed the suffragists had an insufficient grasp of economics. On an intellectual level, Eleanor was deeply involved in the debates about art and science that took place in literary London in the last two decades of the 19th century.
As a member of the Bohemian circle that congregated in and around the British Museum, she included among her friends the novelist Olive Schreiner, the poet Amy Levy (another brilliant Jewish woman who committed suicide), the sexologist Havelock Ellis and the playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw.
In her short, 43-year lifespan Eleanor undertook journalism, translations (hers was the first translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary), histories of socialism, theatrical reviews, reports to German, Russian and British papers, and editions of her father's work. She worked tirelessly to spread the doctrine of international solidarity, and taught many early working- class socialists to read and write.
Eleanor had had a happy Victorian childhood. Picnics on Hampstead Heath, family performances of Shakespeare - this was a household of nicknames, games and pets. Her own nickname was "Tussy", inspired by her love of cats. By the time she was born, in 1855, a series of small legacies had meant the worst period of family poverty was over - in any case, Marx's friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels could always be counted on to help with bills or to supply wine for celebrations.
Marx was a doting father, the very centre of Eleanor's life, and as the youngest daughter she was cosseted not only by him but by her two elder sisters, Jenny and Laura. She bore a striking physical resemblance to Marx, and they were so alike in temperament that he would often remark that "Tussy is me". When she spoke from platforms in Hyde Park or at worker's rallies in the East End, she made an indelible impression on her audiences, with her wild black hair, intense dark eyes and theatrical manner.
As Eleanor grew older, however, she felt oppressed by domestic responsibilities and the sense that real happiness had
eluded her. Her sisters had married and were living in France with small children to look after, and the burden of caring for her ailing parents fell directly on her. In her 20s, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and bouts of what we now recognise as anorexia. Desperate to break free from her parents, she wanted to earn her own living, but Marx the Victorian patriarch was unwilling to let her go.
The letters she wrote to Jenny and Laura at this time are full of anguish. "What neither Papa nor the doctors nor anyone will understand is that it is chiefly mental worry that affects me. Papa talks about my having `rest' and `getting strong' before I try anything and won't see that `rest' is the last thing I need." Ironically, it was Eleanor, 28 when Marx died, who was landed with the extra task of sorting out his papers and arranging for publication of his work, a job she did with characteristic ferocity.
Distraught as she was, Eleanor found some kind of release in her father's death. Loving and passionate by nature, she had recently broken off her only serious long-term relationship, with a glamorous Communard twice her age, partly because of Marx's disapproval. He already had two revolutionary sons-in-law, neither of whom had turned out to be very satisfactory husbands, and he did not want a third.
Within a year of his death Eleanor had set up house with Edward Aveling (the model for Dudebat in Shaw's Doctor's Dilemma). Aveling was a man of many, mostly failed, parts - playwright, critic, scientist - with a reputation as a philanderer and embezzler. Eleanor fell deeply in love with him, perhaps seeing in him something of Marx's energy and sexuality, certainly recognising him as a man who would give her confidence to work.
This he undoubtedly did, but it didn't take her long to perceive the superficiality of his nature. "How natures like Edward's... are to be envied, who in an hour completely forget anything," she wrote to Olive Schreiner. Even so, she continued to live and work with him for the 15 years which separated her father's death from her own. She chose to interpret his womanising and sponging as a disease, a compulsion that could be cured by hard work. Clearly the sexual pull between them was very strong: "Edward really brought out the feminine in me," she wrote. "I was irresistibly drawn to him."
Eleanor's final years were full of turmoil, so that, with hindsight, and given her history of depression, her suicide comes as no great surprise. There were violent international squabbles over Marx's papers; there was the shattering revelation that Marx had a son, Freddy Demuth, who had previously been passed off as Engels' offspring. And there was Aveling's increasingly demanding behaviour. The final blow came in March 1898.
The previous summer, Aveling had left her for a 22-year-old actress, whom he subsequently married. On 31 March 1898, he was back at Eleanor's house in Sydenham, probably trying to extort money from her, or to threaten to expose the truth about Marx's "secret" son. As soon as he had left, she put on a white bridal dress, went up to her bedroom and swallowed a substantial quantity of Prussic acid. Her suicide note read: "My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years - love."
In her life, a victim of her own loyalties, Eleanor Marx survives as a symbol of the woman who is almost free.
Faith Evans is a literary agent, critic and translator. She translated and edited `The Daughters of Karl Marx: Family Correspondence 1866-98' (Penguin, 1984).
The father of socialism was simply `Dear Dada' to his most loyal follower
1, Modena Villas
19 March 1866
My Dear Dada,
As Jenny is going to write to you I may as well enclose a short letter. Your first adventure is very amusing. that you took a deaf man for blind is capital. I wonder the "ears of the deaf" were not unstopped at your arrival. I can quite understand your having felt shy at being left alone with a deaf man, who was blind.
Now - Dr. Karl Marx of bad philosophy I hope you will keep your promise and come on Thursday. So with love good-bye and believe me.
Your affectionate Ellie
1, Modena Villas
26 April 1867
My dear Dada,
Just as your letter came I was declaring that I thought you never could stay away a whole fortnight without writing, and that I never would forgive you, but my rage began to evaporate amazingly quickly, as soon as your letter was read, and now I am actually writing to you. I have not as I used to do looked in the beds for you, but I constantly sing, "Oh! would I were a bird that I might fly to thee and breathe a loving word to one so dear to me." Paul [Lafargue] has been keeping me in books, he got me Cooper's Deerslayer, Homeward Bound, Eve Effingham, and I am going to read the Watermate and Two Admirals. You see I'm quite "going the hog." We had pounds 5 sent us from the Cape which was a very agreeable surprise. I have not arranged your books yet, but I'm going to tomorrow. "The Knight of the Rueful Countenance" is looking more rueful than ever because his holidays are up next. On Good Friday I eat [sic] 16 hot cross buns, Laura and Jenny eat [sic] 8. Louisa and Percy Freilgrath came here the other day and Percy jumped out of the window on the first landing, because I said he could not, and he wrote me that he would jump out again if I asked him to. Tommy, Blackie, and Whisky send their compliments. Paul and Laura have had three riding lessons. Laura looks very nice in her riding habit, and Paul looks a little shakey [sic]. The days after the lessons however both were rather stiff and I had to make Paul a cushion to rest his bruised behind upon. I was much surprised to receive a letter from Franziska.
Now dear Daddy, goodbye.
Your undutiful daughter