The forgotten feminist, socialist and activist

Unbelievably, before reading Rachel Holmes‘s biography, I did not even know that Eleanor Marx, third and most-beloved daughter of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen, existed. Having read it, I now add – disgracefully.

Eleanor Marx is the woman for the whom the term ‘tireless’ must have been invented. She organised, wrote, authored, essayed, researched, fundraised, lectured, taught, tutored, translated, acted, produced, befriended, promoted, led, supported, critiqued, spoke, ghosted, rallied and founded all at once. She was integral to the social democratic movement of the late 19th century and the inception of the Labour Party. Without her, the ‘eight-hour day. The outlawing of child labour. Access to equal education. Freedoms of expression. Trade unions. Universal suffrage. Democratically selected parliamentary representation, regardless of class, religion, gender or ethnicity. Feminism’ – all of these would have taken much longer to come about.

But, it’s not just in social action that she excelled, without her our understanding and appreciation of Ibsen – for which she taught herself Norwegian to translate his work – would have been delayed. The introduction of Madame Bovary to the English-speaking world would have been held back as she completed the first translation of Flaubert’s seminal novel. Then there’s our enormous love of Shakespeare, whose revival she and her parents helped foster: ‘Critics panned Irving’s version of Hamlet for breaking with the traditional declamatory tradition of Shakespearean performance. Tussy [Eleanor’s nickname] and her parents pitched in vociferously on Irving’s side in the press controversy over his modern, radical interpretation [of Shakespeare] that followed the new psychological, humanising approach’.
How could this incredible activist and campaigner be so forgotten? I can only assume due to sheer patriarchy – the social system that in so many ways she derailed, ignored and superceded – yet in other ways destroyed her and her legacy. I also blame capitalism, for despite her best efforts the consumer society that she despised still holds sway in England, and our history is that of property owners, monarchists and business magnates not workers, trades unionists and dispossessed.

That her life was cut short, at just 43, seemingly by her husband may well have had an impact, and I feel bereft at this loss to the world. What would she have made of WW1? How much quicker would the suffragette movement have prevailed? Given her interest in the plight of colonial India might she have met Gandhi? So many ifs and what-might-have-beens.

43. I’m 46. To say that she makes me feel inadequate understates it. Yet this is not the right word, for she was clearly beloved, admired and cherished by all who met her – inspiring Sylvia Pankhurst aged just 13 – so her towering abilities clearly did not overwhelm those around her. Except her ego-centric husband, who was her Achilles heel. Nor would she want me or anyone else to feel that they fell short. Rather it’s apparent she encouraged and assisted everyone around her.

In fact, reading this book reassures me that the campaigning, writing and activism that I have been doing for the last two years without mentoring is, in a small way, similar to the work Eleanor undertook. I will take her as my guiding light, in recognition of her brilliance and as a nod to the root of her name – ‘ray of light and bright illumination’.

So, instead of being disheartened by the paucity of my achievements I will, like Rachel Holmes, take from Eleanor Marx her rallying cry of ‘Go Ahead’.

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