Eleanor Marx: The Crowded Years

Eleanor MarxThis was part two of Yvonne Kapp’s enormous biography of Eleanor Marx, and I confess, not as enjoyable as the first (you can read about that one here).

Perhaps this is partly because so many of the grand personalities are dead or moved away by the end of the first volume, and there is not the immediacy of family drama. That is undoubtedly part of it. You know the rest will die by the end.

But really, mostly, I think it’s due to the deadly and boring factionalism of the left between 1884 and 1898, after all, that’s what I had to plod through in Morris’s biography as well. A few highlights shine through like the organising of the gas worker’s union and their victory in obtaining the 8 hour day, or the dockers’ first strike, and of course Eleanor is there supporting them. Why I love her. But she spends so much time trying to bring male egos together, to create movement, to keep schisms from growing ever further.

Unless we’re talking about the anarchists. That is one bridge she is busy burning rather than trying to put back together again. I’m still not sure I can wrap my head around the politics of those days, but I didn’t try too hard. Many of the descriptions and long detailed accounts of infighting here made my eyes glaze over I confess…I am also rather jaded by the continuing dose of them still fracturing movement today.

Still, this is well worth a read. Even if you can’t make yourself care about all that the way many still seem passionately to do. So here are some highlights of what I did love — from the frivolous to the important.

Frivolous, but cool: to find out that Eleanor and Edward Aveling spent their sort-of honeymoon in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, where Mark and I just were for our own holiday and loved enormously. We weren’t at the Nelson Arms, and in Wirksworth proper, but still. A lovely place.

There’s some lovely scatterings of social history on the East End:

The fight for free speech and the right of assembly had a long and stormy history. In the early ‘eighties, the East End Radicals who held regular meetings on Mile End Waste in Stepney were constantly chivied by the police. They then adjourned to Limehouse where an open air meeting in Piggot Street, off the junction of the Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road, was addressed by a member of the SDF. it was stopped by the police for causing and obstruction. Thereafter both Radical Club and SDF speakers took to nearby Dod Street, mainly occupied by factories and warehouses and thus deserted on summer Sunday mornings. (69)

The importance of these East End Radical Clubs — which covered the boroughs from Poplar and Hackney, Bermondsey and Stepney as far west as Islington and Finsbury, with their local Federations — lay in that they drew together politically conscious working men…(196)

On Sunday 27th September 1885, 60,000 people marched from Stepney Green to take possession of Dod Street to protest ongoing arrests.

I loved how theatre and literature never ceased being important parts of Eleanor’s life — and Aveling never stopped trying to make his fortune through plays either, curiously enough.

The impact of Ibsen upon Eleanor and her immediate circle was violent: as violent as the sense of outrage felt by the majority of English critics at the first performance of his plays. This new “social drama” stunned them — though not into silence — by its complete break with the theatrical conventions of the time, both in manner and content. (100)

Although it seems that Eleanor lost many of her female friends (a tragedy that I am sure put her more at the mercy of her own depression and Aveling’s moods — though it was Aveling that was the most likely cause), it does seem that at one time, Eleanor met them regularly to go to the theatre– herself, Dolly Radford, Olive Schreiner, Honor Brooke and Edith Lees would pour out afterwards and argue and talk on and on about them.

There a number of curious little views into the left society of her time — like the programme for an Arts Evening to raise funds for the SDF. G.B. Shaw and Kathleen performed in a piano duet composed by Mendelssohn, Aveling read Shelley’s Men of England, Mother Wright read from Adam Bede (!), Bax played Schumann (and went on too long apparently), Morris read his own poetry (went down very well), and a dramatic piece filling the 2nd half saw Eleanor and Aveling playing main roles in In Honour Bound.

There are some interesting asides on Marx’s papers as well, such as Engles ruminating on the translation of Capital, and the difficulties of it:

To translate such a book, a fair knowledge of literary German is not enough. Marx uses freely expressions of everyday life and idioms of provincial dialects; he coins new words, he takes his illustrations from every branch of science, his allusions from the literature of a dozen languages; to understand him, a man must be a master of German indeed, spoken as well as written, and must know something of German life too… but there is something more required. Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too… Powerful German requires powerful English to render it; the best resources of the language have to be drawn upon; new-coined German terms requires the corresponding new terms in English… (113)

Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Edward Aveling
Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Edward Aveling in America, 1886

Then there was that time Michael Davitt refused to meet Aveling because he was an atheist, while both were speaking at the Easter Sunday ‘gigantic demonstration’ in Hyde Park, 1887. Maybe there were other reasons, he is the constant unsettling rather unprincipled presence that seems to taint everything. This in spite of Kapp trying to be rigorously fair. But he causes drama and discord everywhere he goes, undoing every effort by Eleanor.

At least they are equals in calls for speaking, Eleanor spoke at that same rally with Aveling and Davitt, and there is a constant whirl of public speaking engagements that continues through the whole of her life. More than I can possibly imagine.

Returning to 1887, a brilliant description of direction action tactics I wish I’d thought of:

One of the “small matters” which had become “a great question” was the conduct of the unemployed. Some of them had hit upon novel ways of drawing attention to their plight, such as holding church parades in various parts of the country, marching into places of worship to swell the congregation which they treated as a public meeting, objecting loudly and strongly whenever they did not agree with the sentiments of the speaker in the pulpit. (219)

We are also coming to what Kapp believes was a pivotal moment in Eleanor Marx’s life, she writes to her sister Laura that the year is harder than any within recent memory, and quotes Maggie Harkness as a source. Later she writes to her friend Dolly Radford:

…in the streets here one sees so many starving people — people with hunger in every line of their faces that one cannot but be wretched… (222)

This is the background for Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar Square, that day that so impressed everyone on the left, but in very different ways.  Eleanor writes in a letter to Laura:

Last Sunday the troops had ammunition ready and stood with fixed bayonets. Next Sunday I think it very possible they will actually fire. That would be very useful to the whole movement here. It would complete the work some of us have been doing this long while past, of winning over the better Radical element to Socialism. (230)

She is determined to march, to provoke. Kapp’s interpretation is rather lovely, but I am not sure she is entirely right about these being Eleanor’s thoughts:

In Eleanor’s view only those who tried their wings would ever learn to fly. Revolution for her did not have a “a very big R”: it was a process inherent in the small act of standing your ground, asserting and extending your rights, defending your dignity as a human being in every situation and in all the circumstances of daily life. In that way, and that way alone, would men and women change their conditions, their circumstances and, in doing so, themselves. (231)

This was also a pivotal moment for Morris, but from it he took the lesson of retrenchment and building the revolution more seriously. Many felt that way, many experienced and understood the day not as Eleanor did, but as Shaw’s letter to Morris revealed, dated 22 November:

you should have seen that high hearted host run. Running hardly expresses our collective action. We skedaddled and never drew rein until we were safe on Hampstead Heath or thereabouts. Tarlton found me paralysed with terror and brought me on to the Square, the police kindly letting me through in consideration of my genteel appearance. On the whole, I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.  (footnote, 231)

A report of a meeting at the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell Green on what to do following Bloody Sunday from George Standring, editor of the Radical (who later became a member of the Fabian Society in 1893) describes her thusly:

In front of the platform sat Lady Macbeth Aveling and the redoubtable Edward, S.Sc. They were, of course, in favour of a spirited dash at Trafalgar Square; and very fine it was to see the lofty scorn of Lady Macbeth when any speaker on the pacific side rose to address the meeting. When the resolution proposing the Hyde Park meeting was read Lady Macbeth turned to Edward, D.Sc., and hissed ‘C-o-w-a-r-d-s!’ between her teeth. It was very fine indeed… (233)

It’s not flattering, and hard to tell how much the caricature is personal and political, but throughout reading this biography I wondered how much that love of the stage translated into everyday life. I still don’t have an answer.

1888 sees final split of the Socialist League. Important I know, but still. Yawn. But also this continued Eleanor’s evolution, and finally she begins to spend more time with actual working class people and their struggles.

1888 was a year of trade recovery and the great wave of demonstrations subsided. But it was something beyond the ill-usage of the unemployed that now produced a shift in her attitude to the working class. She had begun to explore the East End, sometimes alone, occasionally with Margaret Harkness, not as a speaker nor a demonstrator but more as an explorer, and what she discovered left her deeply and personally involved with the lives of the people. They were not any less the downtrodden and exploited “masses”…but they were no longer featureless crowds… (261)

In letter after letter written at that time, whether from London or the country, this preoccupation with suffering is reflected. (262)

Curious her wandering about with with Margaret Harkness. She describes the docks:

To go to the docks is enough to drive one mad. The men fight and push and hustle like beasts–not men–and all to earn at best 3d. or 4d. an hour! Si serious has the struggle become that the ‘authorities’ have had to replace certain iron palings with wooden ones–the weaker men got impaled in the crush!…You can’t help thinking of all this when you’ve seen it and been in the midst of it… (263)

This is the year of the match girls strike, Eleanor becomes fast friends with Will Thorne, labour leader of the gas workers to victory. After reading his biography and without this assumed familiarity, it was funny to read this:

At that time Thorne was not the stout and stolid figure familiar at the House of Commons to later generations. (323)

As Eleanor shifts her work to focus on working class struggle in the East End, there are some more cool glimpses of history, like this of Silvertown:

In 1852 S.W. Silver & Co., “the well-known outfitter of Cornhill”, bought one acre of land between Bow Road and Braking Creek to which it removed its small waterproofing works from Greenwich. It was the oldest factory on the waterfront. Seven more cares were added in the next few years and, by 1860, the premises were so extensive “that the name of Silvertown was given to the district of which they formed the centre.” (336)

There’s a fascinating aside (possibly just to me) about the transportation links available to Eleanor when she was going to Silvertown daily from Chancery Lane in support of the strike:

  • Metropolitan and Inner Circle line running 6 am to midnight, taken from Farringdon to Aldgate, connecting to Great Eastern or Blackwall Railways to Silvertown.
  • North Metropolitan Company tramcars between Aldgate and Bow, Stratford and Dockland.
  • A Blue Bus from fleet St or Ludgate Hill, a Green Bus from Holborn every ten minutes.

Eleanor became secretary of the Silvertown Women’s Branch of the Gasworkers’ Union in October 1889, and remained connected to them for many years, being elected time and time again to office.

Another little interesting fact from the Trades Union Congress, Liverpool, 1890 — Eleanor was excluded though elected by the Gas Workers and General Laborers’ Union, because she was not a working woman. The representative included 447 men and only 10 women, representing eight womens’ unions with 2610 members. 1300 of them belonged to the Matchmakers Union.

The highlights really, of the whole book, are the letters between Tussy (Eleanor’s childhood nickname) and the General (good old Engels), stories told off the cuff and in great often hilarious detail of the congresses and people attending, and others simply full of personalities, politics and daily life. You remember how much you like her as you read them, a feeling sometimes lost in the detail of the history.

It is even more sad, then, when Engels begins to fail. All the personal drama that surrounds him, and puts Marx’s papers at risk — and god did he have a curious relationship with women. The blow of finding out Freddy is actually her illegitimate brother, tarnishing her view of her father. Aveling was always fairly horrible, and then he goes and marries some very very young woman even though he has an open abscess in his side (I don’t have words for either the ethics or the logistics of that), but Eleanor continues to take care of him, old friends are ill and dying, I’m still unsure of how close her relationship with her sister was, some of their letters are wonderful but not at all personal. She cuts herself off from those who might have been wise and supportive.

And then all the drama at the end. Such immense sadness. The role Aveling may or may not have played. I wanted always a different life for her, but she did so much, spoke to so many people in so many places, supported most humbly working class organising and struggle, tried to bring together a movement across the insularity of different factions and organisations…

Eleanor Marx, presente.

[part 1]

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