Lewisham’s famous women: Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898)
Although commonly remembered as the daughter of Karl Marx, Eleanor Marx achieved a great deal in her own right as a feminist, a socialist, a translator, a journalist and an editor. Eleanor lived in Jews Walk, Sydenham in the borough of Lewisham, from 1895 to 1898.
Eleanor Marx was born on 16 January 1855 to Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen. Nicknamed Tussy, she was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx’s and. She was a lively, talkative, intelligent child whose education was irregular. She was mainly taught by her father and by the age of three she could recite passages by Shakespeare. Marx, who treated his daughter as a “friend and companion” could converse with her as a child in German and French as well as English.
The events of the Paris Commune, 18 March – 28 May 1871, made a great impression on Eleanor. It was the first political event that she was involved in. She experienced the dangers of being the notorious Karl Marx’s daughter first hand and was briefly arrested and interrogated while returning to England.
Karl Marx’s admiration for the Communards drew many refugees to his house. Among the exiles was one of the most prominent Communards, Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. He became Eleanor’s first love. Although Lissagaray and Marx shared the same political views, he disapproved of the relationship because, at 34, Lissagaray was twice the age of his daughter. Plus, his two other daughters had married French revolutionaries with no stable career prospects; Marx didn’t want this to happen a third time.
In a bid for independence, Eleanor left the family home and found work as a schoolteacher in Brighton. After a year in Brighton, she joined up with Lissagaray and helped him write the History of the Commune of 1871. Although Karl Marx liked the book enough to translate it into English, he still refused to give his approval to his daughter’s relationship with Lissagaray.
In 1880 Karl Marx now gave Eleanor permission to marry Lissagaray. However, Eleanor was now having doubts about the relationship and in January 1882, she terminated her long engagement with Lissagaray.
The years 1881- 1883 were distressing for Eleanor, her mother died in December 1881, her sister Jenny in January 1883 and finally Karl Marx in March 1883. Shattered though she was by her father’s death, Eleanor’s life gained a new purpose as she began to put his papers in order and she also became more politically active.
At about this time Eleanor became involved with Edward Aveling, a scientist, free thinker and political writer and lecturer, with who she began to live openly in the summer of 1884. Eleanor’s choice of companion was unfortunate as Aveling was often unfaithful to her.
The couple were badly off and Eleanor made a living by writing articles, translating books, lecturing and doing research work for other people. By now she was active on the Executive Council for the Social Democratic Federation but she was among those who left the Federation in 1884 to form the Socialist League. She contributed regularly to the League’s journal Commonweal and wrote pamphlets for it with Aveling such as “The Factory Hell” (1885) and “The Woman Question” (1887).
In 1885/6 she was working on the first English translation of Madame Bovary by Flaubert and later she learnt Norwegian and translated some of Ibsen’s plays.
In the autumn of 1886, Eleanor and Aveling visited America at the invitation to the Socialist Labour Party of North America and spent fifteen weeks touring the country, speaking and holding meetings.
On 13 November 1887, the violent clash between police and Socialist demonstrators known as Bloody Sunday took place in Trafalgar Square; Eleanor was in the thick of it and arrived home bruised and her clothes torn.
By now Eleanor was very busy with political work both at home and abroad. She attended the International Congress of 15-20 July 1889 in Paris which laid the foundations of the Second International, where she acted as an interpreter and did much work behind the scenes.
Part of the union
In the same year, she played a leading role in a strike at Silvers, in Silvertown. She went daily to Silvertown to speak and to organise the workers especially the women. She also helped the dock strike of 1889 and formed the first women’s branch of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers. After acting as one of the two conference secretaries at the Union’s first conference she was unanimously elected onto the Executive.
The leading trade union leaders at the time paid tribute to the amount of hard graft that Eleanor put in during the dockers’ strike, from public speaking to the unceasing clerical drudgery that went along with the dispute.
In 1879, Will Thorne could only write his name. Ten years later he was the general secretary of that union. Eleanor helped him improve his reading and writing to cope with all the union paperwork.
She also helped draw up the formal rules of the Gasworkers’ Union and the first half-yearly report and balance sheet for 30,000 members.
Eleanor attended the Brussels Congress of 1891 where she made an important speech and worked again as a translator and interpreter at the International Socialist Workers in Zurich in 1893.
The move to Jew’s Walk
In 1895 Frederick Engels died and left both money and Karl Marx’s correspondence and literary writings to Eleanor who began to edit some of her father’s letters and articles. She and Aveling moved from central London to Green Street Green in June 1895 and again on 14 December 1895 to 7 Jew’s Walk, Sydenham.
Eleanor had Jewish ancestry, she knew some Yiddish and she now wrote: “I am Jewishly proud of my house in Jew’s walk”. She still found time for political involvement, acting as an interpreter at the 1896 London International Congress and the 1897 Miners’ International Congress and helping with the engineering strike of 1897.
In June 1897 Edward Aveling using an alias and a false address married a woman named Eva Frye at Chelsea Register Office. In August he and Eleanor quarrelled and parted but he returned to Jew’s Walk in January 1898 after a serious kidney operation. Despite his recent marriage, he stayed with Eleanor and she spent several months nursing him back to health.
Apart from the strain, Eleanor also had to cope with financial difficulties and an increasing feeling that her work was unsuccessful.
On 31 March 1898, Eleanor sent her maid to buy prussic acid from George Dale, a chemist of 92 Kirkdale, Sydenham. The acid was allegedly needed to put down a dog. Eleanor immediately used the acid to commit suicide and her death was certified by Dr Shackelton, the explorer’s father who lived nearby in Sydenham. The inquest was held at Park Hall, Sydenham and a verdict of “Suicide labouring under mental derangement” was returned. Eleanor’s funeral was very well attended, unlike that of Aveling who died later in the year.
Eleanor Marx was a much-loved woman. She struggled against personal difficulties which in the end defeated her but her hard work for the cause of socialism left a lasting legacy.