Remembering the Jewess: A review of Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk

“She is not a household name in Britain and before Rachel Holmes’s book was not widely known even in academic circles.” These words by Lucy Kaufman, a playwright, are about Eleanor Marx; but Eleanor is Karl Marx’ most English child: her political becoming born out of sympathy for the Fenians after the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs, her early love of Shakespeare blossoming in the mind of one of literature’s finest translators, and powerful presence in the London art scene saw her treading so many significant boards.

So cool and English was Marx that she eventually left London before it was hip to do so, pining instead for the sticks of Sydenham which prior to the creation of the County of London in 1889 was part of Kent and bordered Surrey.

After seeing a tweet by Dan Hancox referencing a potted history of Eleanor Marx’ life in Sydenham I realised I lived about 5 minutes from “The Den” as she’d call it:

In 1895, aged 40, Eleanor purchased a house at 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham. That year Friederich Engels, Marx’s collaborator and Eleanor’s mentor, died, leaving Eleanor £7,000, enough to make her financially independent. She intended buying the house and living there with her lover Edward Aveling.

The potted history, on the Know Your London website, includes a line that I now regularly share with local mates: “Quite why she bought a house in Sydenham is not known for certain. Having lived in Soho and Hampstead and then spent time working with activists in Spitalfields, to move to Sydenham does not appear an obvious choice.” What is she like?!

I popped round, looked at the accompanying blue plaque, took a picture, put it on Instagram, turned a street corner and as luck should have it found a poster in a corner shop window detailing a new play about to be shown down the road on Eleanor Marx’ life. I continued my day (I’d planned a walk to Bromley to visit 6 Crescent Road, where Peter Kropotkin lived for a few years) and later that evening booked my theatre tickets. The playwright is Lucy Kaufman who I mention above.

Eleanor Marx, or “Tussy” (rhyming with pussy) as she was known, was the youngest of Karl Marx’ daughters. He and Jenny Marx had had six children though two had died in infancy before Eleanor Marx’s birth. The Marx’ elder daughters Jenny and Laura were ten years older than Eleanor though it was she who would become Karl’s favourite and be given the responsibility of keeping his works and ideas in the public eye.

Kaufman’s play tells the tale of Eleanor through her most pressing conflict: trying to stay true to herself. Living in Sydenham with her partner Edward Aveling, the womanising actor and prominent British Socialist, and tending to his neediness and perfidious lifestyle, while maintaining her Father’s works; fighting the good fight as keynote speaker and bag carrier at the same time, holding the family secrets under lock and key as best she can, while trying to avoid existential crisis outside of her Ibsenian trap. The number of scene changes can be counted on one hand and we’re thrown into Marx’ claustrophobic world, but in this we also see her wisdom, her fighting feminism, and her humour.

On more than one occasion I’m left laughing away at the curious relationship between Eleanor, played by the wonderful Sarah Whitehouse, and her housemaid Gerty Gentry — who, from Kirsten Moore, has more than just a little of Mrs Doyle about her. Then I’m also thrown into despair at the appallingness of Aveling, played so well by David Sayers that I wanted to boo him when he took a bow at the end of the play.

For the Marxist anorak there is more than enough to keep you pleased. But better still are the subtle references to the things that really got the Marx’s down. I laughed out loud at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Karl’s carbuncles — he suffered with bum boils. And they made up a fair few lines in his correspondence to his family and Engels. It reminded me of one time when Marx is sending Engels — who he calls Fred — parts of Das Kapital, perhaps for proofreading, whereupon he says: “At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day.” Days before, Fred writes to Marx — who he calls Moor — saying: “Sheet 2 in particular has the marks of your carbuncles rather firmly stamped upon it”. The mind boggles.

The references aren’t all so humourous. Hints at the lives of Eleanor’s sister Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue — author of the great Marxist text The Right to Be Lazy, which ought to be mandatory reading were we not all so bloody busy — leave me remembering their eventual suicide pact “for the cause”. Part of Paul’s suicide letter reads “Healthy in body and mind, I end my life before pitiless old age which has taken from me my pleasures and joys one after another; and which has been stripping me of my physical and mental powers, can paralyse my energy and break my will, making me a burden to myself and to others. […] Long live Communism! Long Live the Second International!”

I’m not going to give anything away in saying it was about halfway through the play that I realised I was actually watching a re-telling of Iben’s A Doll’s House. To the one side I’m looking at Torvald, narcissistic and unaware, and then there’s Nora who for all her wisdom is only just realising this. How weighty this realisation will be. He relied on her like a child and that is supposed to be some kind of reward, but it is not.

It should go without saying that I thoroughly recommend the play, fwiw. When I got home after watching it, Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre, a few minutes down the road from where Eleanor lived, I read some notes of hers after she’d “repaired” and “purified the drainage of the “Doll’s House””. The notes can be read here. Amending areas of the play so the English could see for themselves a version she was sure Ibsen himself would prefer, she said:

Finally, we rejoice that the door of the “Doll’s House” may at last be hospitably thrown open to the English public, and that the most modest woman may enter its portals without bringing a blush to the cheeks of the Daily Telegraph.

It is funny she mentions the Telegraph. I remember now reading an article from the paper giving the “inside story” of 7 Jew’s Walk. It read:

It had been Eleanor’s misfortune to choose Dr Edward Aveling as her romantic companion. A free-thinking revolutionary variously described as “a moral wastrel” and “a real criminal type”, Aveling had weaknesses for women, money and drink. His appetites were to cause Eleanor no end of heartache.

Him, and so many other things.