When the political figure’s wife, pregnant with their fourth child, took a brief trip to try to raise money for his work, he slept with their live-in housekeeper and got her pregnant. In a panic, he persuaded his most loyal follower to claim paternity, and the baby boy was sent away to be raised by another family. For the real father, out of sight was out of mind, and for decades he kept the secret of his paternity. Only as an adult did his youngest daughter find out that the young man, by then married, who had come to be her close friend was also her half-brother, and thus learn of her adored father’s betrayal.

It might be another contemporary scandal like those of John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But this philandering husband was Karl Marx; the year was 1850, his wife was Baroness Jenny von Westphalen, and his self-sacrificing friend was Friedrich Engels. Mary Gabriel’s hugely ambitious biography gives us a more human and more flawed Karl Marx than the stern patriarch, intellectual giant and revolutionary theorist we have seen before. “Love and Capital,” which last week was nominated for a National Book Award, is also a a thrilling story, heroically researched, with passages on every page so startling, exact, moving or perceptive that I wanted to quote them all. Hard to imagine that a weighty book on Karl Marx could be a page-turner, but this one is.

Gabriel is writing a new genre of biography. Historians have established the vogue for history from below, analyzing events in terms of the perspectives of ordinary people, rather than the theories and actions of the great and powerful. But “Love and Capital” is biography from below — telling the life and career of Karl Marx from the perspective of his wife and children and putting the history of Marxism in the contexts of a family history. The revelations and contradictions are fascinating. For a great theorist of capital and economics, Marx was astonishingly improvident and ignorant about money. As Gabriel comments, “he recognized economy only when he wrote about it.” The family lived on the brink of destitution, begging Engels and others for financial help. Letter after letter laments their desperate poverty, and the bailiff was often at the door. But when he received a windfall, usually a legacy from a dead relative, Marx managed to spend it quickly on housing above his means.

His love for the working man knew no bounds, but his own family suffered from his readiness to sacrifice their needs to the Cause. He was an affectionate father and husband, a passionate friend to Engels and others, but also capable of blocking out the problems and sorrows of those closest to him and retreating to the British Museum to pursue his great work. Of the seven children, four (including his three legitimate sons) died very young. His three beautiful and talented daughters dedicated themselves to their father’s “grand idea, even at the cost of their own dreams, even at the cost of their own children.” All three chose men much like their father in temperament, but without his intellect or self-discipline — passionate revolutionaries unable to earn a living and seeking handouts from the patient Engels and their own family legacies. Eleanor took her own life with cyanide in 1897 when she learned that her common-law husband Edward Aveling had embezzled her money and secretly married someone else. In 1911, Laura’s husband, Paul Lafargue, killed her with the same poison and killed himself the same way a day later, leaving a suicide note that proclaimed “Long live Communism!”

Yet Marx does not emerge from these pages as an unlikeable Asperger’s-like unemotional genius. Gabriel shows how his remarkable charisma and drive had already emerged by adolescence. At the age of 18, a hairy student described by a friend as “nearly the most unattractive man on whom the sun ever shone,” he nonethless captivated the beautiful, intelligent heiress Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a Prussian baron, who was 22 and sought after by many wealthy men. During their long, tempestuous marriage, they moved frequently around Europe, suffering poverty, persecution and tragedy, but Marx kept on writing. In 1851, he told Engels, “I am so far advanced that I will have finished the whole economic [expletive] in five weeks time.” Actually “Das Capital” took him 16 more years to finish and on publication “caused barely a ripple.” Marx wrote on despite ridicule and rejection, despite endless plagues of carbuncles, boils, toothache, liver problems and hemorrhoids. He set out an agenda of work and stuck to it. In the end, Jenny forgave him and admired him, and the reader does, too.

‘Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution’ by Mary Gabriel (Little, Brown)

Communism is dead as a political practice and yet lives on, continuing to animate its accolytes and enrage its enemies. Gabriel suggests that after the crisis of 2008, as “academics and economists openly questioned the merits of free-market capitalism . . . Marx’s writing . . . seemed all the more prescient and compelling.” Whatever you think of his ideas, this biography, which Gabriel describes as “the story of a group of brilliant, combative, exasperating, funny, passionate, and ultimately tragic figures caught up in the revolutions sweeping nineteenth-century Europe,” is a compelling study of Marx’s revolutionary idealism and the price his loved ones paid for it.

Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University and a specialist in Victorian culture who has written about Eleanor Marx. Her most recent book is “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.”


Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

By Mary Gabriel

Little, Brown. 709 pp. $35