V.G. Kiernan writes about the Marx sisters

  • The Daughters of Karl Marx: Family Correspondence 1866-98 edited by Olga Meier, translated by Faith Evans
    Deutsch, 342 pp, £14.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 233 97337 0

In a fond description of her three daughters when the eldest was 19, Marx’s wife said that Laura’s eyes shone ‘with a continual fire of joy’. All three had a happy childhood, however materially pinched, like the ‘Little Women’ they sometimes compared themselves with. One was to die of cancer before reaching 40, the other two died by suicide. There was bad health in the family, afflicting all its members, two of the girls with insomnia among other ailments. This state of affairs owed much to poverty, as Marx could not help seeing. If he had to start again, he declared, he would choose the same life of a revolutionary, but he would not marry: his wife had undergone too much, and he was distressed at his daughters exposing themselves to the same fate.

If he had been so cautious, we should not have these family letters, and the loss would be a very regrettable one. They come from a collection given by a descendant to the Marx scholar Bottigelli, were published in French in 1979, and now reappear in the English in which most of them were written, with a new introduction by Sheila Rowbotham. They are arranged in six parts, each covering a period of variable length but with some unity in terms of the family annals. There are helpful explanatory notes, though one or two of them may be queried. It is a little misleading to refer to Marx’s wife as a ‘Prussian’; and when Laura signs a letter as ‘Kakadou’ she is not thinking of the German for ‘cockatoo’, but of her nickname ‘the Tailor’ and of Beethoven’s variations on the air ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’. A list of nicknames is supplied; few circles can have been so prolific of them. A set of photographs shows the faces they belonged to.

All Marx’s daughters followed in his political footsteps, and married or lived with political activists, two of them French; their letters could not fail to supply welcome sidelights on the history of their times. During the Franco-Prussian War Laura and Paul Lafargue reported to Marx from Paris a curious atmosphere of unreality. ‘The beauties of the Boulevards are impatiently awaiting the invaders’; the workers seemed apathetic, and several when questioned shrugged off the war as no business of theirs. In 1871 they were at Bordeaux, and found opinion in the provinces far from unanimously enthusiastic about going on with it. Youngest and most ardently political of the trio, Eleanor had a graphic pen for scenes like the funeral demonstration in the East End in 1887, when an omnibus which tried to break through the procession was halted, and a man on it who had been hitting at people with a stick was rough-handled. Her letters are full of detail about the labour movement in Britain, the unskilled and women workers now flocking into trade unions, and socialist sects and factions and their feuding. ‘It would all be very funny if it weren’t very sad,’ she wrote of these, as she might well write today. She was always exasperated with the devious Hyndman, and with William Morris – ‘a fine old chap’ – and Bax when they wavered towards Anarchism. ‘Bax, reasonable on many points, is quite mad on others.’

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