Rachel Holmes’s recent biography of Eleanor Marx is an unlikely success. This observation is not meant as a comment on the quality of the book, which is on the whole excellent. But it seems strange that a profile of so radical a woman—pioneering feminist, socialist, and inheritor of her father Karl’s analytic genius, as well as an actor, translator, and literary critic—has been so well received in the relatively conservative world of trade non-fiction.
This cross-partisan appeal is clearly something of which Holmes is aware. A central chapter includes a lengthy block quotation from a Telegraph journalist quite smitten after attending one of Eleanor’s speeches, and—one hopes in an intentional parallel—the book’s cover is adorned with a pull-quote from a similarly charmed, more recent, Telegraph review.
Much of this success can be pinned on Holmes’s attempted humanisation of the biographical subject, but there is such a thing as being too human. Holmes sets two goals: to convince readers of Eleanor’s powerful political force and continued relevance; and to tell a compelling story set on intellectual stage of late-Victorian London, and the balance seems weighted toward the latter, with results that always fall slightly flat. Much of Holmes’s literary effort is expended on sub-Dickensian scene-setting; passages in which more of Eleanor’s voice could have been allowed to shine through—she was a brilliant social analyst, and when her writing is in the foreground, it paints its own backdrop.
Letting a subject ‘speak for themselves’ is of course, from an academic perspective, impossible. On the issue of naming, though, Holmes makes a show of deferring to Marx’s wishes. We are told in the first paragraph that, in her childhood and beyond, Eleanor insisted on being called Tussy—‘to rhyme with pussy, not fussy’—and this convention is retained for most of the book, and expanded into a baffling range of nicknames for all of the principal actors: Friedrich Engels, for example, is referred to by four different names almost interchangeably, a technique as confusing as it is infantilising. Tussy was first a childhood nickname, as were the nicknames she gave to family and friends, and while their use persisted into adulthood within her family and immediate circle, their use as defaults in a biography written a century after the fact creates a sense of intimacy that the reader (at least, to my mind) never feels like they have earned. Holmes presents with great skill the eminence of Eleanor’s ensemble cast—for the most part literary luminaries like George Bernard Shaw, and prominent activists like Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray—and, when invited into this inner circle I found myself feeling almost inadequate, and more than a little like a trespasser.
These naming conventions are an attempt to create intimacy, and this sense of intimacy is undoubtably one of the reasons for the biography’s success, but it is not, then, without its faults. The techniques of ‘humanisation’ that are the biographer’s stock-in-trade are self-evidently literary techniques, and Holmes’s particular rendering of Eleanor’s engagement with literature only makes their theatricality more apparent. Marx’s achievements as a feminist are set in light of her identification with ‘new women’ in (notably male-authored) literature—Nora in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House; Emma, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—and the attention paid to her career as an actor, as well as a translator of literature, contributes to a presentation of Eleanor as embodying these characters, and as a character herself in Rachel Holmes’s great nineteenth-century novel. (An abundance of unnecessarily gendered imagery compounds this fault: for example, the process of writing and publishing is more than once described in terms of giving birth.)
This wouldn’t be a problem on its own—it is clear from her writing that Marx did indeed model herself on these women—but even outside of the literary sphere, the presentation of Eleanor as the manifestation of other peoples’ ideas occurs too often. Perhaps the most repeated words in the book are from Karl Marx’s correspondence, distinguishing between his daughters: ‘Laura looks most like me, but Tussy is me’. Holmes uses this as a compliment—Eleanor is the inheritor of her father’s brilliance—but, as with the insertion of Eleanor into various narrative archetypes, its frequency comes across more as dehumanising.
The best thing about Rachel Holmes’s Eleanor Marx, then, is Eleanor Marx. It is probably the sign of a biography done well that I came away from it with a wish to read more of the subject’s original writing (which, fortunately, is archived online), but in this case it feels more like the the book is incomplete. Nevertheless, the impression one does get of Eleanor is of a woman more than the equal of her peers, and one whose insight still serves as a guide over a century after her death. Her synthesis of burgeoning feminist and socialist thought, and resulting insistence that women’s liberation is an integral part of class struggle, rather than a mere side-effect, demands recognition across the Left, as does her similar insistence on anti-colonial praxis. Her works as a literary translator, teacher, and advocate are testament not only to scholarly skill, but a belief in the necessity of art in building a new society—she was, in this regard, a model public intellectual.
Holmes characterises Karl’s life as devoted to theory and Eleanor’s to practice, but this is a simplistic formulation. Eleanor was just as much a theorist as her father, but as a writer and activist (and actor, and translator, and journalist), contributed in such a way as to render the distinction meaningless. While the immediate future of the Left in Europe remains in question, Eleanor Marx’s return to the limelight offers a powerful inspiration.