Marx-Aveling, Eleanor (1855–1898)

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Marx-Aveling, Eleanor (1855–1898)

Youngest daughter of Karl Marx, who worked much of her adult life to fulfill the vision of her father and to create a labor party in England . Pronunciation: Marks. Born Jenny Julia Eleanor Marx (all of the Marx daughters carried the name "Jenny") on January 16, 1855, in London, England; committed suicide at age 42, on March 31, 1898, in London; daughter of Karl Marx (1818–1883), the founder of Marxism, and Jenny von Westphalen Marx (1814–1881); sister of Jenny Marx (1844–1883) and Laura Marx (1845–1911); tutored by her father and by Friedrich Engels; took courses at the South Hampstead College for Ladies; not legally married, but maintained long-term household and "free marriage" with the socialist and freethinker Edward Aveling.

Questioned by French authorities during visit to France (1870); accepted teaching job at Brighton (1873); engaged to Hippolyte Prosper Olivier Lissagaray (1882); joined W.M. Hyndman's Democratic Federation and seceded from the organization a short time later (1884); toured the U.S. with Edward Aveling (1886–87); helped organize May Day demonstration for an eight-hour working day (1890); helped found the Independent Labour Party and was elected to the party's first executive committee (1893); rejoined the Democratic Federation (1895); was made financially independent from provision in Engels' will (1895).

Selected works:

The Factory Hell (1885); (with Edward Aveling) The Woman Question (1886); (translation) Hippolyte Prosper Olivier Lissagaray's History of the Commune of 1871 (1886); (translation) Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1886); (translation) Georgi Plekhanov's Anarchism and Socialism (1887); (translation) Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of Society (1888); The Working Class Movement in England: A Brief Historical Sketch (1896); (edited) Karl Marx's Value, Price, and Profit (1898).

Although Eleanor Marx-Aveling was born into a famous family, she was unaware that there was anything unusual about her childhood. Her mother Jenny von Westphalen Marx , who was born into a German noble family, was married to the most famous socialist and one of the most famous writers of the 19th century, Karl Marx. While Marx-Aveling was growing to adulthood, her father was producing his epochal book Capital. Despite his future fame, Karl Marx's work was made possible only by the sacrifices of a family who lived on the economic edge, moving from place to place as events and finances dictated.

The Marxes had left their native Germany in 1849, during a period of monarchical reaction following the failed revolutions of 1848. They settled in England where, penniless and without many friends, they were evicted from lodgings in Chelsea and were forced to settle into a two-room apartment in the Soho section of London. In this crowded flat lived Karl and Jenny, their daughters Jenny and Laura Marx ; their son, Edgar; a devoted housekeeper, Helena Demuth , affectionately known as Lenchen; and, after she was born, Eleanor.

Although Karl Marx was paid for work as a European reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, money was especially short during the economic downturn of the late 1850s. Karl's income as a newspaper correspondent was further reduced in 1861, when the New York newspaper decided to give less emphasis to its European coverage and more attention to the American Civil War. The next year, Karl stopped writing for the newspaper entirely.

The family was forced to borrow from friends and relatives constantly, and Jenny Marx, who frequently had to visit pawn shops to sell family silver and other valuables, developed physical symptoms from the emotional strain; at one point, she went partially deaf. During the harsh winter of 1858, only monetary gifts from Karl Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels—who had returned to the hated cotton business of his father—kept the family afloat.

By the time Eleanor was born, the family had already lost a son, Heinrich (1849–1850), and a daughter, Franziska (1851–1852). The only surviving son, Edgar (1846–1855), was already showing symptoms of a disease, generally thought to have been a form of tuberculosis, which would take his life at age eight, some three months after Eleanor was born. Even Marx-Aveling was sickly—so sick that the family feared she might die until a doctor advised putting her on a special diet until she was five. When Eleanor subsequently developed whooping cough, she was given so much attention by the family, she later recalled, that "the whole family was my bond slaves."

Marx-Aveling seemed unaware that she had been born into near poverty, partly because by the time she was 21 months old, the family could afford to move to larger quarters. It was one of several moves to more "appropriate" lodgings as the older daughters approached marriageable age. Eleanor was keenly aware, however, that she was the only member of the Marx family born in England, and thus the only member of the family who was a British subject. While her older sisters maintained ties with friends on the European Continent, her friendships, and career, were centered in England.

Wilhelm Liebknecht, a fellow socialist and family friend, described the very young Marx-Aveling as "a merry little thing, round as a ball," who was also "restless … wanting to know everything." Although her father joked to associates that she was a sexual mistake, both Karl and the rest of the family, after the loss of two children, lavished affection on Eleanor. Her two sisters were so much older that she was raised almost as an only child, and a special bond developed between father and daughter.

Among the three daughters of Karl Marx, Eleanor alone grew into a fighter dedicated to a cause, a brave, ingenious, never tiring champion of Socialism.

—Chushichi Tsuzuki

Karl, who called Eleanor "Tussy," read to her and her sisters from Homer, the German Niebelungen stories, the Arabian Knights, and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. He carried her on his shoulders around their home and arranged flowers in her hair as he read stories to her. The entire family also admired Shakespeare's plays, sometimes performing improvised scenes as a group. By the time she was four, Eleanor could memorize passages from Shakespeare; her favorite was a soliloquy of Richard III. When she was six, her father presented her with her first novel as a birthday present. Karl took her to a Catholic church to listen to music, but he also described Christianity in "historical materialist" terms, as the story of an impoverished carpenter who was killed by the rich.

Like the rest of the family, Marx-Aveling called him by his nickname "Moor" (a name which referred to his dark complexion). She considered her father a friend, and wrote in a letter, "I am getting on very well with chess. I nearly always win, and when I do papa is so cross." The bond between the two was so close that Karl Marx once said, "Tussy is me."

Eleanor seemed to flourish under her father's tutelage and from lessons at South Hampstead College for Ladies, which her sisters also attended. By age 14, she spoke German, although she could not write the language particularly well. She could also speak French. She began to develop an interest in politics, showing particular concern for the cause of the North in the American Civil War. She even wrote some letters of advice to Abraham Lincoln, which were apparently never mailed.

Engels served as a tutor as well. Before she visited Ireland in 1869, Eleanor stopped for a time in Manchester, where Engels had her read from the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including some Serbian folksongs translated by Goethe.

A trip with her sister Jenny to the European Continent in 1870, in order to visit their sister Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue, became a lesson in politics. A supporter of the Paris Commune, Lafargue traveled with Laura into southern France after the Commune failed. Eventually, they sought safety in northern Spain. Eleanor and Jenny visited them there but were detained by French police, who suspected them of helping Communards, when they crossed the border back into France. Despite Eleanor's insistence ("You have no right to come near a British subject"), she and her sister were questioned by French government agents. The French agent who questioned Eleanor deceived her, claiming that Jenny had signed an admission of guilt. Proclaiming that the French police had told her the "most dreadful lies," Eleanor concluded that her father was correct to condemn European governments as he did.

As she reached adulthood, Marx-Aveling, while embracing her father's political outlook, began to assert how own independence. In 1873, she accepted a teaching position in a boarding school for ladies in Brighton. She was encouraged by her mother, who wrote her that work was one of the few things that could help with the "sorrow and cares of present-day society." Her parents were distressed, however, that Eleanor arranged for her own lodgings and declined to stay with family friends in Brighton.

When her father hosted a party for exiled Communards at their family home, Eleanor met Hippolyte Prosper Olivier Lissagaray. Drawn to the flamboyant Frenchman, she soon announced to her parents that she was engaged to Lissagaray;

Karl was furious. Not only was Lissagaray much older—34—but his dashing image and his reputation as a lover made him unsuitable as a husband. His other daughters were involved with Frenchmen, declared Karl, that was enough.

He forbade Eleanor to see Lissagaray, a decision that left her nervous and withdrawn, with little appetite. Karl twice traveled with her to a spa in Bohemia in search of a cure. Finally, he relented, declaring that Eleanor was allowed to see Lissagaray but that he might not, under any circumstances, call at the Marx house. The "engagement" continued. When Lissagaray published a History of the Commune of 1871, and Eleanor insisted that she wanted to translate it into English, Karl gave her advice on particular sections.

By 1877, Marx-Aveling was working in the British Museum on a variety of projects for organizations such as the Chaucer and the Shakespeare societies. While there, she met George Bernard Shaw, who encouraged her to join the New Shakespeare Society. Shaw reported that he was impressed by her "verve and wonderful voice" and considered her "unusually vivacious." She began to appear in productions of plays at the Dilettante Theater. Shaw commented on the rift between Eleanor and her father, observing that Karl treated his daughter with an "indulgent affection" of the kind that one gives to a "willful child." Eleanor felt guilty when her mother died in 1881, saying that her mother had thought her to be cold and unfeeling. Eleanor became a nurse to her father as he experienced increasing bouts of poor health, although Karl told her: "I would not for anything in the world imagine that a child should sacrifice herself … as a nurse for an old man." Father and daughter struck a deal. Eleanor would agree to stop seeing Lissagaray—the engagement would be "at an end"—and Karl would help Eleanor finance acting lessons.

When her sister Jenny died in early 1883, and her father followed a short time later, Eleanor's interest in the theater became, for a time, the central part of her life. Her stage work brought her in contact with Edward Aveling, a socialist and freethinker who was unpopular in many British political and literary circles. Shaw described Edward as not being a handsome man, saying that although his voice had "beauty of tone," in looks he had "every aesthetic disadvantage." More damaging, Shaw added, was the widespread belief that Edward had character flaws so serious that "he would have been … interesting in a zoological museum as a reptile but [was] impossible as a man."

Many English socialists refused to attend political gatherings if Edward Aveling was present. When American anarchists were convicted of the deaths of police in the Chicago Square Haymarket riots of 1888, Edward collected money to send a telegram of protest to the U.S. president. The telegram was never sent; it was generally believed that he had simply pocketed the money. Yet Eleanor's relationship with Edward developed rapidly. As early as 1884, she was writing that she and Edward were "fond of each other" and intended to live together, or to "set up" with each other, in her words. She reported that she felt more independent and "purposeful" when she was with him, and that they had been married "without benefit of authorities." Edward already had a legal wife but told Eleanor he could not win his freedom from her.

The arrangement placed her in an awkward position, as she gradually came to realize. While couples might cause no waves in Victorian society as long as their relationship was discreet, flaunting such a relationship was frowned upon. Marx-Aveling even told the headmistress of the school where she was teaching about the arrangement, knowing she would be fired, but believing that it was the correct thing for a modern woman to do.

Eleanor did all she could to help Edward establish himself as a playwright, urging influential friends to read his plays. In 1886, she participated, with Edward, in a group reading from Ibsen's A Doll's House. Among the other participants was Shaw. When Edward's play By the Sea was performed in 1887, she played the heroine, but to very tepid reviews; one critic said that her lines "were prettily spoken" but questioned her acting ability, while another complained that she was almost inaudible. Her involvement in the literary world did bring a commission from George Moore, which she eagerly sought, to translate into English Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary. She came to identify with the heroine of the novel, writing: "This strong woman feels that there must be some place in the world, there must be something to do—and she dreams." Her version remained the only English translation for a number of years, and its success resulted in her translation of Ibsen's play An Enemy of Society (later entitled An Enemy of the People).

In 1886, the German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht organized a speaking tour of the United States to raise money for the German Social Democratic Party, then the major Marxist party in Germany. At the time, the party was under legal restrictions engineered by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Liebknecht invited Eleanor and Edward to participate in the tour, which was being paid for by its U.S. sponsor, the Socialist Labor Party.

When Edward submitted a list of expenses at the end of their tour, a New York newspaper reported that the bills were so extravagant that some Socialist Labor Party leaders in the United States had come to regard Edward as a "swindler." It was reported that he had billed the party for some $1,300, including a two-day wine bill and a $42 charge for a hotel (an exorbitant amount at the time), $100 for theater tickets, as well as bills for corsages, cigars, and cigarettes. Edward replied to much of the charges—he had, he pointed out, had to pay the expenses of Liebknecht and his daughter during their visit to Boston—but the "swindler" charge was widely disseminated in English political and literary circles.

One reason that Eleanor was attracted to Edward appears to have been that he was a potential ally in promoting labor activism. When she visited London's East End, she had been appalled at the sights of children looking for bread, children she described as "like skeletons." She hoped that Edward might help her create a range of socialist or labor organizations in England that would prepare the way for the acceptance of her father's ideas. Comforted by her father's memory, she took flowers to her parents' graves every spring. She continued to visit in the home of her father's collaborator and benefactor, Engels, who was working to prepare further volumes of Capital. In fact, Engels was an emphatic defender of Edward Aveling.

Eleanor and Edward worked together in preparing for a Second International, and when they organized a May Day celebration in London in 1889, they were as shocked as many reporters by the sizeable crowd. They also founded the Legal Eight Hour and International Labor League. They worked in several unions and participated in efforts to create labor candidates for seats in Parliament, although they were largely unsuccessful in convincing labor unions to cooperate. As part of this effort, they cooperated, for a time, with the Democratic Federation of the prominent English Marxist H.M. Hyndman. They contributed regular articles on the working-class movement to the Workingmen's Times and tried, largely unsuccessfully, to convert the radical workingmen's clubs to the cause of Marxism.

Together, they also authored a book on the rights of women, The Woman Question. Marx-Aveling believed that women would forever be assigned the most menial jobs for the lowest pay and that since women felt the full effects of inequality between the sexes, they must fight for equality. When she spoke in 1891 at a demonstration for the eight-hour work day, she said that her "great object" was to create women's labor unions "as strong as men's."

The year 1887 proved to be particularly trying. Marx-Aveling participated in a demonstration in Trafalgar Square and once again experienced the dark side of political authority. When the demonstration was broken up by police on horseback and foot, Eleanor reported, "I have never seen anything like the brutality of the police. My cloak and hat were torn to shreds; I have had a blow across my arm from the policeman's baton, and a blow on the head knocked me down."

During the year 1887, Edward also became more distant. He was often away on trips, and Eleanor acknowledged that she often felt "very lonely." As well, the couple was short of money. "We have money troubles enough to worry an ordinary man or woman into the grave," she wrote. After an apparent suicide attempt from an opium overdose, she reportedly had to be fed strong coffee and walked repeatedly around her room by friends.

As Edward was less and less at home, Eleanor began to build her own career as a labor organizer. She was elected to the executive board of the gasworkers union. She kept records and accounting books for the union, and it was reported that she had taught the head of the union to read and write. She helped organize a strike by the union in 1889. Increasingly, she proved to be an adept public speaker. When a self-proclaimed "radical" interrupted one of her speeches to complain that she did not know what Karl Marx meant by "social democracy," Eleanor replied, "Heaven save Karl Marx from his friends."

Marx-Aveling found a special joy in speaking to unassimilated Jewish workers in the East End of London. She apparently became the only member of her immediate family to feel an identity and empathy with them. While Karl Marx, whose Jewish father had been forced to convert for political reasons, had seemed to believe that emancipation from bourgeois society meant separation from Judaism, Eleanor told friends, "My happiest moments are when I am in the east end among the Jewish work people."

In 1893, Eleanor had to battle, without help from Edward, to retain some control over the disposition of her father's papers. After Karl Marx's death, his papers had been given to Friedrich Engels, to help in preparing additional volumes of Capital. Engels had promised Eleanor and her sister Laura that the Marx papers would be returned to them, and Eleanor planned to use some of the papers to write a biography of her father. However, among Engels' close friends were two leading continental Marxists, the Austrian couple, Karl and Luise Kautsky . When Karl Kautsky left Luise for another woman, Luise stayed behind and became part of the Engels household. Apparently at the urging of some leaders of the German Marxist Social Democratic Party, such as August Bebel, Luise Kautsky appeared to begin maneuvering to secure control of both the Marx and Engels papers for the German party.

Eleanor became suspicious when Luise warned her that Helena Demuth—the former housekeeper for the Marx family who now worked for Engels—might take the papers. Luise asked Eleanor to sign a document giving control of the papers to her. Eleanor also learned that Luise was making malevolent comments about her—reportedly telling Engels that "no society" could tolerate a "friendship" between a man and a woman such as Eleanor and Edward's. There were also reports that Luise was telling Engels that the Marx papers were "rightfully" his, and that the Marx daughters were trying to steal his "legacy." (It was about this time that Demuth claimed that her son had been fathered by Karl Marx; Eleanor believed that Luise Kautsky was somehow behind the timing of the allegation.)

Alarmed, Eleanor sent a letter to Engels expressing her outrage. "I should be blind indeed if I had not seen the efforts to set you against us," she wrote. Her pleas had some effect on Engels, who assured her that her father's papers would be returned to her family. But when Engels died in 1895, only a portion of the Marx papers were willed to Marx-Aveling. His will did, however, make a sizable monetary bequest to Eleanor. The bequest made Marx-Aveling financially secure for the first time in her life. Eleanor and Edward used the money to remodel their home, which they called "The Den." (Edward's wife had died in 1892.)

When Eleanor confronted Edward in 1897 with the rumor that he was having an affair with a woman named Eva Frye , he took everything in the house that could be sold and walked out, leaving no forwarding address. Eventually he returned to plead that he needed money to "free" himself from Frye. Eleanor gave him part of her bequest from Engels, and he promised that from now on their love would be "pure." When Edward needed a serious operation because of complications from an abscess in his side, she rented a room near the hospital so that she could be near him during his recovery. In June 1897, Edward Aveling married Eva Frye while Eleanor was attending a congress of a miners' union. He listed his own name on the marriage certificate as "Alec Nelson" and the name of his father as "Thomas William Nelson." Eleanor learned of the marriage from an anonymous letter sent to her on March 31, 1898. In a stormy scene with Edward, she threatened suicide.

Despite testimony at an inquest after her death, it is still unclear how he reacted. Some friends of Eleanor's believed that Edward must have promised to commit suicide with her. The maid, who was sent to a nearby drug store, testified that she was given a note asking the druggist for chloroform and prussic acid "for a dog." Although the maid said that Eleanor gave her the note, she also said that Eleanor and Edward's handwriting were similar enough that she was not certain who had written the note.

When the maid returned to "The Den," she brought from the druggist a book that purchasers of poison were required to sign. She gave the book to Eleanor, who took it into a nearby room, where Edward was present. When Eleanor returned the book to the maid, the signature in the book read "E.M. Aveling." A short time later, Edward left the house. Eleanor then took a bath, dressed herself in white, and went to bed. She left a note to Edward which said, "Dear, it will soon be all over now. My last word to you is the same that I have said during these long sad years—love." The maid later found her barely alive, but she was dead by the time a physician arrived. She was 42 years old.

At the subsequent inquest, Edward testified that Eleanor had threatened to commit suicide "several times." The coroner's jury returned a verdict of "suicide" in the midst of "temporary insanity." Yet Eleanor's friends continued, for a long time, to hold Edward responsible for her death, either directly or indirectly.

Her body was cremated, and Eleanor Marx-Aveling's ashes found no permanent resting place for many years. Her urn was kept initially in the offices of the Social Democratic Federation, later the headquarters of the British Communist Party. When the party offices were raided by police in 1921, the police kept the urn for a time. It was later housed in the Karl Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green. In 1956, it was given a final resting place in Highgate Cemetery, next to the graves of her mother and father.


Florence, Ronald. Marx's Daughters. NY: The Dial Press, 1975.

Knapp, Yvonne. Eleanor Marx. Volume I: Family Life (1855–1887) and Volume II: The Crowded Years (1884–1898). London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1972 and 1976.

Tsuzuki, Chushichi. The Life of Eleanor Marx: 1855–1898: A Socialist Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

suggested reading:

Dutt, R.P. The Internationale. London: Lawrence and Wishard, 1969.

Hastings, Michael. Tussy is Me: A Novel of Fact. NY: Delacorte Press, 1977.

Hulse, James W. Revolutionists in London. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Pelling, Henry. The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880–1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.


After Eleanor Marx-Aveling's death, her papers, and the papers of her father and Engels, were divided between the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (which obtained the archives of the German Social Democratic Party when party leaders were driven into exile in the 1930s); the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow; and the archives of the Bottigelli family, in Paris, France. Materials regarding Marx-Aveling are also contained in the British Library of Political and Economic Science; the British Museum's Additional Manuscripts division; and the Ohara Institute for Social Research at Hosei University in Tokyo. The Dean street house in London in which the Marxes lived is still standing and bears a commemorative plaque to Karl Marx.

Niles R. Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois