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.’

In the earlier pages family affairs are the staple. Of the two parents, one figures, as Sheila Rowbotham says, ‘only as a vaguely anxious mother’; though Engels’s tribute to her at her death, printed in an appendix, credited her with a ‘clear and critical intellect’, ‘bold and prudent counsels’ not on domestic matters alone. It was their father – variously called ‘Challey’, ‘Moor’, ‘Old Nick’ etc – whom all the daughters looked up to as a wise, humorous, inspiring friend. They address him with a remarkable easy intimacy. ‘My tongue itches – I must have a chat with you,’ Jenny, aged 23, writes to him when he is away in Germany. Laura likes a photograph of him because it brings out the ‘roguish twinkle’ in his eyes, the good nature blended in him with the sardonic. Home life was as a rule quiet and uneventful, so quiet, Jenny tells us in March 1869, that ‘today Papa proposed a fresh leg of mutton for dinner, by way of an excitement as he said.’ A curious remark from the great firebrand who was storing Europe’s cellars with gunpowder like another Guy Fawkes; it can be seen from his own correspondence that he was deeply preoccupied that month with manoeuvrings inside the First International, and the struggle against Bakunin.

From his talk or his writings the young hopefuls early caught a good measure of insight into people and things, and of his turn for the satirical phrase. Jenny at 23 could recognise both Carlyle’s gifts and his deficiencies. Discussing the Irish situation in 1869, she talked derisively of ‘the “words, words, words” of English political costermongers’. After a visit to a French glass-making factory, and an account of its child workers and Inferno-horrors, she announced that Paul Lafargue was preparing an article on it, adding the shrewd comment: ‘Unfortunately, he is too fond of literary gravy.’ (All the same, Paul developed into a lively and effective writer and propagandist for Marxism in France.) To Charles Longuet, trying to earn an exile’s pittance by teaching French in Oxford before their marriage, she sent words of commiseration: ‘This small world of English university men and professorial shopkeepers must indeed be hopelessly dull.’

Laura at 21 could write in a similar strain about a political bore who kept on talking ‘till the room actually darkened with what I suppose were living incarnations of dead things invoked by his wild words’. She also had a feeling for Nature, a poignant youthful sense of how its sights remain while human beings change. Things changed for her with marriage, in many ways disagreeably. Paul’s father was unbearable, his mother worse. She was very quickly brought face to face with ‘the great question of cash ... that important ballast’; the fascinating three volumes of her and Paul’s correspondence with Engels show her perpetually hard up and having to appeal to him for small sums. Of the three sisters she was luckiest in her partner, but his absorption in politics made him a frequent absentee, leaving her shut up at home: she had scarcely been out of the house for six or eight months, she lamented to Jenny in 1871.

All her three children died in infancy; this was a heavy blow, but in another way a release, leaving her more free to take a share in Paul’s doings. Domestic isolation and drudgery never ceased to weigh on Jenny. She was burdened with six children, Longuet proved a not very amiable or considerate husband; after her death he soon took up with another woman, and the children were neglected. ‘It seems to me a century,’ she told Laura near the end, ‘since I left dear old England and you all,’ for a dreary monotonous existence ‘in the prison called home’, plagued by ‘the wretched small miseries de la vie du ménage, which weigh more heavily upon me than great troubles’. So all the three sisters felt, and countless other women of intelligence and energy must have felt. ‘How I wish people didn’t live in houses,’ Eleanor sighed, ‘and didn’t cook, and bake, and wash and clean! ... I am horribly Bohemian in my tastes.’ She avoided child-rearing, but not house-minding. With all her strength of will and political fervour, she could not do without affection. Aveling aroused her ‘femininity’, as she confessed. Love has never been ‘woman’s whole existence’, as Byron fancied, but even the best-endowed of women may have found it harder to forgo than men. Those who succumbed to it were likely to learn that, as Eleanor wrote resignedly not many years before her death, for most women marriage is only a jump out of the frying-pan into the fire. ‘At the best our state is parlous.’

Most of the later letters are from her to Laura. In her twenties, before her father’s death, she suffered from a frustrated craving to be doing something in the world before it was too late, which he, old and ailing, failed to comprehend: she was pining for work, and he thought she needed a rest. He was ‘a terribly cranky patient’ to look after, but that was not what preyed on her. ‘How I love him no one can know – and yet – we must each of us, after all, live our own life.’ After his death she managed to earn enough to keep going, mostly by dull hackwork, since work of any sort proved very hard to find. One of her ventures was to buy a typewriter and undertake commissions as a copyist. Her true energies went into the socialist movement. She organised the first women’s branch of the Gasworkers’ Union, and was in demand as a speaker up and down the country. This could be exciting and rewarding, like a Scottish tour with Aveling in 1895 when they had ‘magnificent meetings’ and she made the discovery that ‘Edinburgh is assuredly, with the possible exception of Prague, the most beautiful town I have seen.’ In the thick of the faction-fighting she seemed, to judge by her letters, quite in her element. Two months before her death she was pouring out political gossip as eagerly as ever. Yet there may have been an undercurrent of disappointment at the slow progress of socialism in Britain, while life with Aveling was no bed of roses, and when a legacy from Engels set her free from financial worry he very quickly spent half of it.

Many of Marx’s associates outside the family make an appearance, sometimes a surprising one, like that of the Dr Kugelmann to whom an important series of his letters were written. ‘You cannot imagine,’ Eleanor wrote in 1874, encountering him at Carlsbad, ‘how brutish Kugelmann is.’ But the towering personality is, of course, Engels, though we see far more of him in unguarded hours of ease than on the stage of European politics, and mostly in his old age. The sisters grew up calling him ‘Uncle’, and Eleanor’s partial estrangement from him makes painful reading. ‘Engels is of a kindness and devotion that baffle description,’ she had said of him earlier. ‘Truly there is not another like him in the world – in spite of his little weaknesses.’ With one of these she had long been familiar. At the age of 14, staying with him in Manchester, she referred casually to him and his close friend Schorlemmer, the celebrated chemist, getting tipsy. In 1883 she reports the pair of them, in London where he was now established, ‘dividing their devotion between whisky and Pilsner’.

Many of her later letters are about ‘the ménage of Regent’s Park Road (oh! for a Balzac to paint it!)’. One might have expected ‘the General’, as he had come to be called on the strength of his military studies, running his household with the precision of a regiment, but the state of affairs disclosed here was at times very different. After the death of his Irish companion Lizzie Burns he fell, according to Eleanor, under the spell of her niece ‘Pumps’. ‘He rages against Pumps – and loves her.’ Low creature though she is, ‘the General is happiest with his drunken enchanter Pumps,’ like Prospero with a worse than Caliban. She was banished in 1892, but went on hanging about, and kept him, we are told, in abject fear. Much in all this is contradictory, and must be overcoloured by Eleanor’s imagination. Engels, she wrote, ‘seems to get younger and younger’, yet before long he appeared to her ‘utterly depressed, and lonely, and miserable’. An editorial note points out that he was following the socialist movement in seven daily papers and 22 weeklies, and adding new languages for the purpose to his long list. It was Eleanor herself who was sinking into depression and loneliness. Morbid suspicions sprang up in her mind that the precious store of her father’s papers, in Engels’s custody, were in danger of being lost or made away with by his new housekeeper Louise Kautsky and her second husband.

However exaggerated some of Eleanor’s impressions of Engels’s private life, her picture of it must be allowed a share of truth, but she saw only its negative side. A long, laborious life of thought and action demanded relief, on easier, sometimes lower levels of existence – a nostalgie de la boue is suggested by his relation with Pumps. From the same strains, worsened for long years by penury, Marx had a refuge in his family, while his children were still young and uncomplicated; yet he fell into the snare of a liaison whose outcome was Freddy Demuth. This young man’s paternity was a secret until after Marx’s death, but we hear Eleanor saying: ‘I always meet Freddy with a sense of guilt and of wrong done.’ Engels arranged his other world better, with a woman he was fond of but kept at a convenient distance, and, still more, with the bottle, which seems to have had no such therapeutic virtue for Marx (though he was a heavy smoker). Engels’s ability to relax so completely when off duty must have helped to sustain what Eleanor once fretfully called ‘that terrible optimism of his’. Gifted besides with an always bubbling sense of fun, and the robust health which allowed him to go fox-hunting or drilling with the Volunteers, he could, unlike Marx, last out his life without crumbling.

Aveling in his very much smaller way was another idealist working for socialism, but a more hurtfully divided personality for whom the conceit of lady-killing may have been a needful stimulus. To inquire into these things is not to pry indecently, but to seek better understanding of human nature in politics, the terms on which man holds, fumblingly, his tenure as a political being. They relate to both his outward and his inner life, but these two selves are always more or less poorly integrated, and the latter has in general held an inferior place, as an intruder, of slight concern to our fellows, unrecognised except – under the title of ‘soul’ – by religion. To this source much of the pathology of political parties must be traced. Public life may be likely to widen the gap between the two selves, because of the premium it puts on external behaviour. Genuine as an individual’s motives and interests may be, his outward self may grow into something far apart from his other or ‘own’ self, playing a part that he has to make an increasing effort to live up to. While strength and faith hold out it keeps him going, but at the peril of an ultimate collapse. ‘There’s really no time,’ Eleanor wrote in 1895, ‘to consider whether life is worth living or is a most unmitigated nuisance.’ Her health was giving way, and sometimes she found the continual hurrying from place to place, giving as many as three lectures a day, ‘very weary work’ – as much the greater part of any work on any political treadmill must be.