Sex and Socialism

Three recent books tell the stories of four women whose lives both absorbed and propelled the vast, multifaceted socialist movement in Britain from 1870 to 1920: Lizzie Burns, Nellie Dowell, Muriel ...

Three recent books tell the stories of four women whose lives both absorbed and propelled the vast, multifaceted socialist movement in Britain from 1870 to 1920: Lizzie Burns, Nellie Dowell, Muriel Lester, and Eleanor Marx. While all of them played roles in the struggle for equality of class, wealth, and opportunity, and all of their lives were determined in large part by the men that surrounded them, each had very different relationships to literacy, learning, and privilege. Together, the lives of these four women reveal the centrality of patriarchy to capitalism, a fact that capitalism’s early critics did not themselves grasp. Though their struggles were arduous and their successes partial, all four sought a revolution in personal as well as economic relationships.

None of these revolutionaries are household names, so each requires introduction. Muriel Lester was an heiress, the daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder, who committed herself to social justice and ultimately divested herself of her father’s fortune. Her loving comrade Nellie Dowell was the daughter of an East End mariner, whose sudden death at sea impoverished his family and forced his daughter into an orphanage. Lizzie Burns was an illiterate Irish worker in industrial Manchester whose life was transformed by her sister’s unmarried union—and later her own—with the wealthy Friedrich Engels. Eleanor Marx was the brilliant and charismatic daughter of Engels’s friend and collaborator, Karl Marx; she was spectacularly wronged by her contemptible partner, Edward Aveling, resulting in her suicide (some think murder) at age 43.

Although the three books under review here deal with overlapping subject matter, they differ in method and approach. Seth Koven’s The Match Girl and the Heiress is a dual biography of Nellie Dowell and Muriel Lester that extends richly into a range of related contexts, from match production to Christian Science. Koven’s scholarship is astonishing in its depth and conscientiousness: he proceeds sensitively and ethically, always alert to the limits of interpretation. Rachel Holmes’s biography is less scholarly and more narrative-driven, a thrilling account of Eleanor Marx’s extraordinary life and achievements that packs a strong political and emotional punch despite some minor errors.1 Gavin McCrea’s novel Mrs. Engels, meanwhile, seeks to bring to life Engels’s partner Lizzie Burns, a woman about whom very little is known. While McCrea’s project is thus a work of imagination rather than history, he is interested, like Koven, in the historical question of how to recover the lives of 19th-century working-class women given how few accounts of themselves they left behind.2

Holmes and McCrea turn the spotlight on the women who formed the bedrock of the Engels-Marx alliance. At the heart of both books lies a domestic secret that each author moves toward breathlessly in the manner of Victorian sensation novelists Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The secret concerns Helen Demuth, whom Holmes memorably describes as “history’s housekeeper,” a phrase that neatly encapsulates the extent to which Marxist thought depended on the many women who tended to Marx. But Demuth’s role in the family went far beyond domestic service: she had been a servant in the family of Marx’s wife, Jenny, from an early age, and their bond was so close that she stayed with Jenny through years of poverty and hardship. Demuth is even buried with Jenny and other members of the Marx family.

Helen Demuth was also—and here lies the secret—the mother of Karl Marx’s illegitimate son, Henry Frederick (“Freddy”) Demuth, a child fostered out from birth to a working-class family. Freddy received little education, though he ultimately became a skilled fitter and turner as well as a staunch trade unionist. Apart from the few who knew the secret (Karl and Jenny Marx, Engels, and Helen Demuth herself), most members of the Marx-Engels circle were led to believe that Freddy was Engels’s son—one of Engels’s many heroic acts of friendship documented here. It was only on Engels’s deathbed, after her parents and Helen Demuth had died, that Eleanor learned the truth. This amazing story, which has been ably told by Yvonne Kapp and others, is powerfully recast in Holmes’s and McCrea’s books from the perspectives of Eleanor Marx and Lizzie Burns. By using Freddy’s paternity to drive narrative suspense, Holmes and McCrea suggest how consuming the secret must have been for the women in the family, though it has become a minor footnote in biographies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. While not all Marx scholars have accepted that Marx was Freddy’s father, Kapp concluded in 1972 that “there can be no reasonable doubt that he was Marx’s son,” and recent biographies of Friedrich Engels, by Tristram Hunt, and Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen, concur.3 Holmes and McCrea proceed as though the matter is settled, with Holmes noting Freddy’s “physical likeness to Karl Marx in every point”—a resemblance evident in the photographs she includes.

The life of Helen Demuth, Freddy’s mother, unites many of the intersecting features of gender and socialism that these books collectively uncover: the absence of working-class women in the historical archive; the efforts and failures of 19th-century socialism to account for women’s domestic and reproductive labor; the emotional and sexual ties that bind people across classes and across genders in ways that seem at times politically unfathomable.

Together, the lives of these four women reveal the centrality of patriarchy to capitalism, a fact that capitalism’s early critics did not themselves grasp.

In the lives of the socialist women profiled in these books, we find versions of the fairy tale that magically lifts one woman out of poverty while doing nothing to obliterate class difference. In Mrs. Engels, McCrea imagines Lizzie Burns looking back on her life, wondering, “Would I be here today, swelling it up, if I’d gone down different alleys, taken up with other souls?” Remembering the summer of 1842, when “the coalpits are shut and the boiler plugs are pulled and the workers gather and the riots flare,” she recalls how she reluctantly sat out the agitation on the advice of her sister, who said, “unless you find yourself a swell and marry up quick, it’s the mill or a pauper’s grave for you.” By the same token, Koven’s history emphasizes that Nellie Dowell’s loving friendship with Muriel Lester in no way erased persistent class difference: “[Nellie] refused to be Muriel’s equal … because she did not want to be. She loved Muriel at least partly because Muriel was so different from her.” Dowell’s letters to Lester insisted on this point: “You only love me and keep me and it’s quite enough to know that.” The munificent Lester sought to overcome barriers of class difference, but Dowell would never acknowledge that this was possible, or even desirable, in the context of their intimate friendship.

If Dowell imagined herself as “kept,” her role in the home was construed otherwise in official quarters: her death certificate lists her as a “spinster domestic housekeeper” for Kingsley Hall, the collective community where she lived with Lester. This was an ironic verdict given that part of the radical social program launched by Kingsley Hall was a critique of “domestic service as incompatible with Christian revolutionary democracy”; possibly it represented an effort to conceal their relationship by labeling it in conventional social terms. Yet even socialists found it difficult to forego the middle-class reliance on female domestic service. McCrea emphasizes this point by imagining Jenny Marx whispering her requests to Helen Demuth, “as if the giving of orders hurts her and must be made soft.”

Alone among the middle-class socialist women profiled in these books, Lester was politically committed to the idea that people should clean up after themselves: “Kingsley Hall insist[ed] that its residents and members perform their own housekeeping labors.” This was, for her, an ethical principle. While serving on the Social Service Subcommittee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Lester helped devise “a set of practical guidelines about the ethical conduct of daily life” that included “to undertake each day some task of manual labor.” It was also an outgrowth of her politics, which rested on an individual rather than systemic approach to socialist transformation. Although Lester worked toward a social “revolution,” unlike Eleanor Marx and Lizzie Burns she believed that “change began with the self, not with social, economic, and political institutions.” And whereas Eleanor Marx and Lizzie Burns thought that violence was sometimes necessary for political change, Lester was a pacifist who rejected any form of violence.

<i>Muriel Lester</i>. Photograph courtesy Princeton University Press

Muriel Lester. Source: Princeton University Press

Although Eleanor Marx and Muriel Lester differed in their ideas of socialism and revolution, they shared an easiness, warmth, and rapport with working-class comrades that set them apart from many middle-class socialists in the movement. George Lansbury, an East London socialist who later entered Parliament, noted that Lester and Marx both “treated the workers as equals and worked to ensure not mere acquiescence in their Socialist teaching but active intelligent co-operation.” Some of the most moving passages in Holmes’s biography recount the words of labor activists who worked alongside Eleanor Marx in the Gas Workers’ Strike and the Dock Strike of 1889. Ben Tillett, for example, recalled how “during our great strike she worked unceasingly, literally day and night … a vivid and vital personality, with great force of character, courage and ability.”

Eleanor Marx and Muriel Lester owed their gift for connecting across class divides to their relations with two obscure working-class women: Lizzie Burns and Nellie Dowell. All three books make apparent our lack of access to these women as compared to Marx and Lester. Burns, who was illiterate, left no letters behind, and novelist McCrea takes up her story fictionally because it cannot be reconstructed otherwise. Dowell had a basic degree of literacy and left some letters—lovingly saved by Lester—as well as state and medical records. Lester also penned an unfinished biographical sketch of her companion. For these two working-class figures, however, the available archive is limited. As Holmes points out, decades of feminist history have made it possible to know much more about Lizzie’s sister, Mary Burns: “Her role in politicising Engels is proven. … She showed and explained to him the conditions of factory and domestic workers.” And yet, McCrea reminds us, it is a fantasy to believe we can truly know the Burns sisters: at one point he compares Engels, and by extension himself as author, to “a young scholar trying to pull truth out of a foreign gospel. If he learns to understand her, and to speak like her, he’ll know what it’s like to be her, and by there [sic] to be poor. Of course, what he’s chasing is a shadow down a passage, for you can’t learn that species of thing.”

In contrast to the case of the Burns sisters, Nellie Dowell’s literacy allows us to apprehend her more directly through the letters that Koven reproduces generously throughout his study. The letters provide a sense of access to Dowell, but they still demand interpretation due to her uncertain grammar and plebeian slang, not to mention the letters’ silence on key issues, such as Dowell’s decision not to take part in the 1893–94 strike at R. Bell’s match factory, where she worked. Throughout his study, despite the depth of research, Koven admirably resists the temptation to claim a full understanding of Dowell’s motivations and feelings, admitting, for example, “I do not know what lessons Nellie took from the strike.”

The limits to scholarly apprehension also extend to female sexuality—especially working-class female sexuality. As Koven writes, “Nothing suggests that Nellie had access to sexological categories, even if Muriel may have.” We have “no evidence that proletarian laboring women like Nellie would have even heard the word [lesbianism].” Koven instead uses the terms in which Dowell herself described her relationship with Lester: “mate,” “love,” and so on. As it turns out, we don’t need precise sexual categories to understand the liberatory quality of their relationship. While we know a bit more about the sexual lives of Eleanor Marx and Lizzie Burns, we cannot assume that their more documented sexual expression resulted in feelings of liberation. Engels married Burns on her deathbed, as she wished, after a 15-year unmarried union; McCrea imagines Burns reflecting, “What puzzles me is why it’s oftenest married people who want marriage abolished, while the unmarried ones, like myself, want it kept safe, in case one day we might need it.”

In Holmes’s account, Eleanor Marx displays an admirable, guiltless sexual agency as a young woman who “gives” her virginity—she certainly doesn’t “lose it, as if by accident”—to French Communard Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. Yet even with this early sexual openness, which suggests that Eleanor was inoculated to some degree against Victorian gender strictures, she still ended up at a fatally gendered disadvantage in her union with Edward Aveling. Aveling is the villain of Holmes’s story, and she provides a detailed catalogue of his avarice and narcissism. A champagne socialist avant la lettre, he was constantly embroiled in expense scandals, begged and borrowed money from all of Eleanor’s friends, and had dalliance after dalliance with young actresses, eventually marrying one behind her back under an assumed name. Aveling and Eleanor worked together, wrote together, and shared socialist politics, but ultimately he was a drag on her genius, her potential, and her life. Why did she love him? Nobody knows. Even after Aveling left her, stole from her, and blackmailed her poor half brother Freddy, she still defended him: “I do see more and more,” she wrote in a letter to Freddy, “that wrongdoing is just a moral disease, and the morally healthy (like yourself) are not fit to judge the condition of the morally diseased.” She made the mistake of thinking she could cure this moral disease: “We must try and cure, and, if no cure is possible, do our best. I have learned this through long suffering.”

These last words—“long suffering”—point us toward what Aveling and Eleanor Marx’s relationship communicates, fundamentally, about 19th-century socialism: that while it sought to alleviate the suffering of workers, it failed to change the ideology or reality of female self-sacrifice. As Holmes puts it, Eleanor’s “overdeveloped ability to empathise” made her a lovable and ethical person, but the trait “was badly aligned to the contemporary historical conditions of a culture enforcing … self-abnegation in women.” Although Aveling and Marx both believed that women’s emancipation must accompany socialist change, she took on all the domestic responsibilities in their household and earned most of their money, too, which he spent. And even before Aveling, Eleanor Marx’s father depended on her for research and support, which she freely and lovingly gave. Her translation, during their brief engagement, of Lissagaray’s The History of the Paris Commune of 1871 was likewise “an unpaid labor of love.”

Friedrich Engels was one of the first socialist theorists to argue that, as Holmes puts it, “patriarchy and capitalism were not just blood brothers but twins.” In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, he described women as the proletariat of the sexual order. Perhaps it was Eleanor Marx—or Lizzie Burns—who helped him see the unacknowledged function of patriarchy in the capitalist economy. But the gap between recognizing this injustice and rectifying it remained enormous, even in socialist circles.

Read in this light, Nellie Dowell’s decision to forego marriage—indeed, as far as we know, to forego heterosexual romance altogether—begins to look like the defining feature of her life. It was the choice that led her to a life of new possibility in Kingsley Hall with Muriel Lester. We know little of the circumstances behind that choice except what Lester records in her biographical fragment: she had a “presentiment that getting married wasn’t going to satisfy her.” What more Lester might have said, in the missing pages torn from this fragment, we shall never know. As Koven reflects, “These lost pages also remind us that archives, like the life stories we make from them, are always fragments.” Mysteries pervade all three of these books. Some, such as the paternity of Freddy Demuth, the authors purport to answer. Others, such as the circumstances of Eleanor Marx’s death or the inner lives of the Burns sisters, are unanswerable. The virtue of all three accounts is that they openly probe these historical gaps and the stories around them—stories of women who were “committed to the unfinished business of reimagining gender, class, and nation by breaking down the hierarchies upholding them.” icon

  1. There are dating errors, for example, as when Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh’s anticensorship activism is situated decades earlier than it actually occurred, as well as some questionable interpretations, as when Holmes describes May Morris’s “secret desire” for Eleanor Marx, without evidence.
  2. Regenia Gagnier estimates that only about 10 percent of 19th-century working-class autobiographies were written by women. See Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832–1920 (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 139.
  3. See Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Volume 1, Family Life (1855–1883) (International Publishers, 1972); Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (Norton, 1999); Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Holt, 1999). Wheen provides a detailed recounting of the evidence for this conclusion, pp. 171–76.
Featured image: Lizzie Burns (c. 1865). Wikimedia