Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

ELEANOR MARX
A Life

By Rachel Holmes

Bloomsbury. 508 pp. $35

It is rare to read a biography that packs as powerful an emotional punch as Rachel Holmes’s account of Eleanor Marx’s brilliant, significant and ultimately tragic life. Holmes foreshadows the book’s key surprises but keeps readers unfamiliar with the subject guessing. One hesitates to spoil the experience by giving too much away.

To Americans, Eleanor Marx (1855-1898), Karl’s favorite daughter, is not an especially well-known figure. In Britain, where this vivid, perky and tendentious biography was first published, she is better appreciated as the pioneering feminist, socialist and labor organizer who co-wrote the essay “The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View.” Her achievements, as Holmes notes, transcended the organizing and oratory at which she excelled. Multilingual and polymathic, she was a Shakespeare enthusiast and an early translator of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and of Ibsen’s plays. An intimate of Friedrich Engels, Henry Havelock Ellis and George Bernard Shaw, she began a biography of her father that remains an important scholarly resource.

“Eleanor Marx: A Life” by Rachel Holmes. (Bloomsbury)

“Eleanor Marx changed the world,” the admiring Holmes says in a preface. “Not since Mary Wollstonecraft had any woman made such a profound, progressive contribution to English political thought — and action.” She was also a popular and charismatic personality, Holmes emphasizes — someone “who effortlessly attracted and compelled others.” The problem was that she, too, was compelled.

Barred from top universities, forbidden to practice many professions, women in Victorian Britain faced daunting barriers to an independent, creative and fulfilled life. Institutional constraints were augmented by social pressures, often internalized, to remain supportive of or subservient to fathers, husbands and other family members. And then there was the problem of children, for whose care women, perhaps aided by servants, were almost entirely responsible.

In the examples of her mother, two older sisters and others close to her, this explicitly feminist biography asserts, Marx observed how the system failed women — how “as they matured, [they] became more self-critical and angry about how they’d allowed themselves to be short-changed by their political, intellectual men.” Holmes describes Marx’s sisters as “clever, capable and talented women enchanted by charming, likeable, liberal Bluebeards who lassoed their desire with babies, domestic drudgery and censorious in-laws.” Facing a similar fate, Marx — for all her great gifts — had “a potentially perilous weakness — an overdeveloped ability to empathise, too much feeling.”

The Marx family religion was socialism, in its internationalist form; anarchists, as well as capitalists, were the enemy. The Marx home was filled with revolutionary strategizing. Ironically, considering Karl Marx’s politics, only the wealth and generosity of Engels, his closest friend and collaborator, kept the household solvent. At 17, with sister Laura married to a Frenchman and sister Jenny soon to marry another, Eleanor embarked on a serious love affair with Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, a handsome French revolutionary twice her age. Holmes, like a worried mother, frets about this relationship, during which Eleanor acted as “the far too dutiful amanuensis” for Lissagaray’s history of the Paris Commune.

She also laments how much of Marx’s life was spent as an unpaid secretary to her father, unpaid nanny to her sisters’ children and caretaker to her aging parents. As a result of the conflict between duty and independence, Holmes writes, Marx suffered from “desperation, frustrated rage, eating disorders and near breakdown.” In 1888, dogged by depression, she reportedly attempted suicide.

In her seemingly frenetic political work, Marx sought to wed socialism with a broadly conceived feminism that advocated the cause of working women. Holmes’s discussion of the schisms and controversies within 19th-century radicalism, and the British labor movement in particular, seems informed but turns out to be the least engaging part of the book. More intriguing are the scandals and secrets that enveloped Marx and her circle — including Engels’s freewheeling relationships with two Irish sisters in succession; the mysterious paternity of the Marx housekeeper’s son; the tug of war over Karl Marx’s intellectual legacy; and, not least, Eleanor’s own problematic relationships.

In 1884, after breaking with Lissagaray, Marx began living with Edward Aveling, a married man with whom she shared both a political calling and a passion for theater. Aveling had diverse talents as a science educator, a secularist pioneer, an actor, an orator and a cultural critic. What he lacked, by all accounts, was moral character. Holmes describes him as “reptilian” and “an attractive, clever cad.”

Marx was aware of Aveling’s continuing dalliances with other women — they had agreed on an open relationship — and his financial irresponsibility. But “love made her stupid,” Holmes writes. In any case, Marx radically underestimated his emotional, sexual and financial duplicity, which included significant bad debt, blackmail and, after the death of his first wife, a treacherous secret marriage to another of his lovers. As the soap-operatic truth dawned, she expressed both her heartbreak and her reluctance to make a final break. “I see nothing worth living for,” she wrote at one point. In the book’s murky ending pages, Holmes raises the question of whether Aveling, who benefited financially from Marx’s death in 1898, might have been criminally liable for what was ruled a suicide.

What is clear is that Marx’s feminist ideals could not overcome her depression and despair. In one of the biography’s epigraphs, Marx writes in 1892 to her sister Laura: “Is it not wonderful when you come to look at things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practice all the fine things we preach to others?” It was all too prescient an insight.