Cad Whose Cruelty Killed Karl Marx's Daughter; Eleanor Marx's Intellect Was as Dazzling as Her Beauty. but Then the Trailblazing Feminist Fell Foul of a Callous Charmer; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: BEL MOONEY

ELEANOR MARX -- A LIFE

by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury PS25 PS20)

SHE WAS the apple of her father Karl's eye, a child so bright that at the age of eight she was writing to an uncle like this: 'Although I have never seen you I have heard so much about you that I almost fancy I know you ... I wish you a very happy new year, and daresay you are as glad to get rid of the old one as I am.'

Eleanor Marx drank in political awareness with mother Jenny's milk; no wonder she continued that precocious letter with an improbably un-childlike question: 'How do you think Poland is getting on? I always hold a finger up for the Poles, those brave little fellows.'

This trilingual prodigy was to become a revolutionary writer in her own right, a trailblazing feminist, a lover of literature and a tireless activist on behalf of the poor, and oppressed all over the world.

Her life was extraordinary, yet its failures and heartbreaks all too ordinary. She believed in the best yet suffered the worst.

To read this gripping new biography of Eleanor Marx (nicknamed Tussy by all who loved her) is to realise how misguided it would be for anyone to view her as merely 'the daughter of' anybody.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (whom she thought of as her second father) may have shaped her brain, yet her spirit was all her own.

She arrived in the world on the snowy dawn of January 16, 1855 -- her mother Jenny enduring her sixth home delivery in a cramped and scruffy room in Soho. Of those six children only three daughters were to survive; a son and a daughter had already died and the surviving son Edgar was soon to follow them.

So Karl Marx, who had wanted another son, poured all his energies and expectations into this baby daughter -- valuing her intellect and expanding her imagination with his stories and games.

FOR all his faults, Marx was clearly a wonderful father. True, he made a dogsbody-secretary of his home-educated daughter, but he also inspired her and stretched her mind.

Eleanor was born into struggle and debate. She inhaled socialism with the smoke from her father's endless cigars. This odd household (just how unconventional we learn at the end of the book: Marx secretly fathered a son with their housekeeper) lacked food, clothes and comfort, but was always well-supplied with books, paper, pen and ink.

And conversation. Tussy adored her mother and their housekeeper, Helen Demuth, and looked up to her older sisters, Jennychen and Laura. Both those women were to marry impecunious Frenchmen and see any intellectual ambition ground down by exhausting domesticity, but their baby sister wanted more from life.

What she most desired was to change the world. Rachel Holmes is an energetically partisan biographer who believes she did. The evidence is hard to argue with. Eleanor threw herself body and soul into the fight for equality and believed that no just society could emerge from the horrors of industrialisation unless men and women fought shoulder to shoulder, with equal rights.

On May Day, 1889, in Hyde Park, this indomitable young woman (34 at the time) addressed a crowd of more than 100,000 people in support of the docks strike and told them: 'Socialists believe that the eight hours' day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of. …