Eleanor Marx – A Life by Rachel Holmes

Eleanor Marx: A LifeEleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of Eleanor Marx (youngest daughter of Karl) until a friend bought this for me for my birthday. I blame myself for that, but it is striking that such an important figure is not better known.

Eleanor (or Tussy as she was known to family and friends) was a socialist, feminist and internationalist; a vital figure in trade unionism and radical politics who, from her home base in London, had an influence across the world. She was a key organiser of successful strikes in the 1880s which helped to make the 8 hour working day a reality. She made the first English translations of Madame Bovary and was an early promoter of Ibsen’s work in Britain. She made incisive contributions to our understanding of the relationship between sexual and class inequality. She helped numerous working men and women improve their literacy and knowledge. And she was a friend and collaborator of the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Frederick Furnivall, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, William Morris and numerous others.

Rachel Holmes’s biography is thoroughly researched and beautifully readable. It is by turns fascinating, hilarious, inspiring and heartbreaking. Tussy’s personality shines from the pages, and the reader also comes to love her extended family: her father Mohr (Karl), mother Jenny, surrogate father Friedrich Engels, surrogate mother Lenchen Demuth, sisters Jennychen and Laura, Engels’ companions the Burns sisters, ‘Library’ Liebknecht and many others.

It’s a glimpse at a rarely-viewed aspect of late-Victorian London, of agitators, organisers and idealists – and an inspiration for the challenges that face us now. Recommended without hesitation.

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