Eleanor Marx: The Last Word

Eleanor Marx at the age of 18, in 1873.

Last year the New Yorker published Paul McCartney’s essay on how he came to write “Eleanor Rigby.” It turns out the main character was based on an old woman he knew in his childhood and her name was not Eleanor at all; it may have been Daisy Hawkins but that didn’t work in the scheme with Father MacKenzie (verse two), so he created “Eleanor” from Eleanor Bron, who worked on the Beatles’ Help movie, and “Rigby” after a shop sign he saw in Bristol.

During the first pandemic year, I wrote my own song about an Eleanor: Eleanor “Tussy” Marx, who died on this day, March 31, 1898. I found myself reading Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution which tells the epic story of Karl, his wife Jenny von Westphalen, and their daughters, Laura, Jenny (Jennychen), and Eleanor. There were others too — Karl and Jenny in fact had seven children but only three survived into adulthood. All three daughters — and their spouses — played a role in the socialist movement, but it was Tussy who was closest to Marx and Engels and the most active politically.

From Rachel Holmes’ biography, I learned that Eleanor Marx had done the first English translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and figured it was high time I read that too. The novel was scandalous for its depiction of adultery and the newspaper that serialized it was tried for obscenity in 1857. It created a stir in England too, where it was secretly blacklisted even into the 1950s, with government files showing that police constables were under orders to purchase and destroy copies they found.

The first half of Madame Bovary is slow going — maybe Flaubert wanted to illustrate how tedious bourgeois life was in the provinces — but the novel shifts into another gear when Emma embarks on her affairs with Rodolphe and Léon, and it’s hard put it down. Here is the necessary spoiler: the fictional Emma Bovary, destitute and heartbroken, kills herself by taking a dose of arsenic.

Eleanor Marx was born on January 16, 1855, and Julian Barnes suggests that Emma Bovary also was “born” around 1855, as the serialized novel first appeared in the Revue de Paris in 1856.

The baby Tussy was vaccinated against smallpox, in compliance with the English Parliament’s Vaccination act of 1853, which mandated compulsory vaccination for infants. The Marxes, who had already lost two sons and a daughter to illness in their infancy, were happy to follow the mandate, and it may have saved her life — her mother contracted smallpox in 1860 and never fully recovered.

Formal education was not an option for girls in 1860s England, but Eleanor attended the South Hampstead College for Ladies and her teachers at home were top-notch: Marx, Engels (when he visited), and Engels’ partner Lizzy Burns, who could neither read nor write but interested Eleanor in the cause of Irish independence. From an early age she accompanied her father to the reading room at the British Museum and at the age of nine wrote letters to Abraham Lincoln, letters which her father pretended to mail but instead shared with Engels. By fourteen she was assisting both Marx and Engels in their research. She learned German and French and later studied Norwegian for the sole purpose of translating Ibsen.

Rachel Holmes argues that the feminist movement properly dates to the 1870s, not the 1970s, and considers Eleanor Marx the foremother of socialist feminism. The right to vote in England was predicated on property ownership; working class men could not vote, and women could not vote no matter what their social status. Eleanor supported the call for women’s suffrage, but always framed the question of women’s rights, as “the sex question and its economic base,” that is, she dealt with it from the perspective of working class. “Women are the creatures of an organized tyranny of men,” she wrote, “as workers are the creatures of an organized tyranny of idlers.”

Eleanor was her father’s first biographer, writing an important article for Progress magazine on his life and on the theory of surplus value. She organized the first women’s trade union sections and was a leader of the Gasworkers and General Labourers union (today’s GMB, who present an honor in her name each year).

Both Eleanor and Emma, writes Julian Barnes, led lives of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people. For Emma Bovary, that irregularity was a series of adulterous affairs. For Eleanor Marx, it meant living for fifteen years in an open relationship, a free union, with Edward Aveling, whom she met in 1884, in the reading room of the British Museum. Aveling was a member of the Secular Society, a Darwinist, zoologist, actor-playwright, literary critic, socialist, and by all accounts a cad and a compulsive borrower and bouncer of checks.

“He has the eyes and face of a lizard,” wrote her friend George Bernard Shaw, and many of her friends refused dinner invitations if they thought Aveling might be there. So maybe the “free’ in their free union was mostly for Edward, who spent her money and carried on affairs while she worked tirelessly for the socialist and labor movements and took teaching and translating work to pay their bills.

In 1886 she completed her translation of Madame Bovary, as well as Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune, and staged the first reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in England, while also co-writing (with Aveling) The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View, on the oppression of women and how it affects both men and women. Holmes describes it as a synthesis of Marx, Engels, Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley.

That year the Marx-Avelings toured the United States, at the invitation of the Socialist Labor Party. She abhorred anarchists and their tactics, but still made speeches in defense of those Chicago anarchists who were framed and sentenced to death after the Haymarket Square Incident that May. She and Aveling wrote a treatise on the socialist movement in the States. She was in Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday, November 13, 1887, marching at the front of the rally when the police started beating people.

In 1895 Eleanor bought a small house at 7 Jews Walk in the London suburb of Sydenham, where she lived with Edward, and continued to edit the essays of Marx and Engels for publication. Aveling spent a lot of time in London and carried on a secret life, borrowing money compulsively. He was in considerable debt to G.B. Shaw, who nonetheless continued to loan him money only because Shaw was developing a play, The Doctor’s Dilemma, with a degenerate lead character based on Aveling, and said he wanted to observe his behavior.

On the 8th of June 1897, Aveling secretly married a young actress, Eva Frye, using a fake name on the marriage certificate. He left Eleanor without any explanation, but by the end of the year, he became seriously ill (kidney disease and a recurring abscess) and moved back into the Sydenham house without saying where he had been.

Aveling had been married before and always told people that his first wife — Isabel Campbell Frank — would not give him a divorce, and hence he could not marry Eleanor. In fact, Isabel died in 1892; Aveling had taken her inheritance and bought property that he kept hidden.

At the start of 1898, things were closing in, she was under financial pressure with Aveling’s considerable medical bills, and friends urged her to leave him. But she remained forgiving, to a fault.

“Dear Freddy,” she wrote to the family friend Frederick Demuth, “I see more and more that wrongdoing is just a moral disease, and the morally healthy . . are not fit to judge the condition of the morally diseased, just as the physically healthy person can hardly realize the condition of the physically diseased.” Most historians believe Demuth was in fact her half-brother, Karl Marx’s illegitimate son with Helene Demuth.

In the last week of March, an anonymous letter finally alerted her to Aveling’s marriage to Eva Frye. On the morning of March 31st, they quarreled loudly, and Edward took a train to London. Eleanor sent her maid Gertrude Gentry to the pharmacist with a note, signed “E.A.” and Aveling’s business card attached, asking for chloroform and “prussic acid (cyanide) for dog.” Upon receiving the package, she took her life in the same manner as Emma Bovary.

Gertrude found Eleanor dead in her bed, in her white muslin summer dress, her face and hands turning blue. A doctor was called — Dr Henry Shackleton, whose son Ernest later explored the Antarctic. The coroner’s report concluded, “suicide by swallowing prussic acid at the time labouring under mental derangement.” Her death was registered in Sydenham: “Eleanor Marx, age 40, a single woman.” In fact, she was forty-three.

She left a short note for Aveling:

Dear, it will soon be all over now. My last word to you is the same I’ve said during these long, sad years — love.

I decided to take that heartbreaking line and write a song around it. The line fit best in the four-chord bridge, but sill I had to lop off that last word — love — to make it fit the melody. I’m okay with that, I kinda like that I sing about the word without naming it. Maybe I should have used Paul’s trick, where the bridge — “Ah, look at all the lonely people” — starts the song.

I feel a bit morbid focusing on her death when her life is so inspiring, but telling that life story would have meant writing an opera and that really is best left to McCartney.

p.s. Jennifer Julia Eleanor Marx was cremated at the Woking Crematorium, and her ashes had their own history — brought first to the SDF offices, later in possession of the British Socialist Party and then the British Communist Party, then moved to the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green, where they were displayed on a bookshelf in the Lenin room. In 1956, when Karl & Jenny’s tomb was built in Highgate Cemetery, her remains were buried alongside them.

p.p.s. Edward Aveling lasted only four months longer, succumbing to kidney disease on August 2, 1898.

The Last Word

I fell in love with a communist cad

A free union, he drove me mad

Isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it nice

Labor and capital, value and price

Labor and capital, value and price

I will tell you one last word

I will tell you one last word

I told you lies but I never deceived you

You only heard what you wanted to hear

Send for the chemist, send for the maid

My time has come, I’m not afraid

I will tell you one last word

I will tell you one last word

My last word to you is the same that I’ve said

During all of these long sad years

My last word to you is the same I’ve said

During all these long sad years

These are the ashes of Eleanor Marx

Jennifer Julia Eleanor Marx

Who took her life, on the last day of March

Jennifer Julia Eleanor Marx

Dean Wareham founded the bands Galaxie 500 and Luna. His most recent album, I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of L.A.was released in 2021.