Karen Olsson reviews Rachel Holmes's Eleanor Marx: A Life in Bookforum:
It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians. In the 1880s, these included radicals like George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. They worked there, and they talked during smoke breaks and visits to Bloomsbury tea shops. They moved fluidly between politics and the arts, deploring factory conditions as fervently as they dissected Ibsen’s plays. The reading room was a vital seedbed for such Victorian-era social-reform causes as women’s rights and trade-union organizing.
It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as “in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum” and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about “less talking and fewer marriages.” Among the liaisons fostered there was Aveling’s with Eleanor, an energetic feminist and socialist who, after her father’s death in 1883, blazed a bright trail of her own. As Rachel Holmes illustrates in her engaging new biography, she emerged as one of the London intellectual Left’s leading thinkers and activists, forcefully insisting that advances for women and advances for workers be fought for in tandem.
And yet even as she strode confidently across the public stage, Eleanor attached herself, for fourteen years, to Aveling, who turned out to be the sort of person we might now call a lying scumbag. This mystified her friends, and it remains something of an enigma today: While she and Aveling were never legally married, she considered herself his wife, and she stood by her disastrous man until the very bitter end.
Then again, a little Marx-family history reminds us what strange arrangements and dark secrets lay behind the scrim of Victorian domesticity.