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Eleanor Marx was born in London on 16 January 1855, the sixth daughter of Marx and his wife Jenny von Westphalen. She was called "Tussy" from a young age. She showed an early interest in politics, even writing to political figures during her childhood. The hanging of the Manchester Martyrs when she was twelve, for example, horrified her and shaped her life-long sympathy for the Fenians. Her father's story-telling also inspired an interest in literature in her, she could recite passages by William Shakespeare at the age of three. By her teenage years this love of Shakespeare led to the formation of the 'Dogberry Club' at which she, her family and the family of Clara Collet, all recited Shakespeare whilst her father watched.
At the age of sixteen, Eleanor became her father's secretary and accompanied him around the world to socialist conferences. A year later, she fell in love with Hippolyte Lissagaray, a journalist and member of the Paris Commune, who had had to flee to London after the Commune's suppression. Although he agreed with the man politically, Karl Marx disapproved of the relationship because of the large age gap between the two, Lissagaray being 34 years old. Eleanor then moved away from home to Brighton working as a schoolteacher. A year later she helped Lissagaray write History of the Commune of 1871. Her father liked the book enough to translate it into English, while still disapproving of his daughter's relationship with its author. By 1880, Karl changed his view, however, allowing her to marry him, but her second thoughts led her to terminate the relationship in 1882.
In the early 1880s, she had to nurse her aging parents, but her mother died in December 1881 and her father in March 1883. He gave her the task of taking care of the publication of his unfinished manuscripts and the English language version of his main work, Capital.
In 1884, Eleanor joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led by Henry Hyndman and was elected to its executive. During her work in the SDF, she met Edward Aveling, with whom she would spend the rest of her life. In the same year, a split of the organisation led her to leave it and found the rival Socialist League. The split had two root causes: personality problems, as Hyndman was accused of leading the SDF in a dictatorial fashion, and disagreements on the issue of internationalism. In this point Hyndman was accused by Marx among others of nationalist tendencies. He was, for example, opposed to Marx's idea of sending delegates to the French Workers' Party calling the proposal a "family manoeuvre", since Eleanor Marx' sister Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue were members of that party. Therefore, both Marx and Aveling became founding members of the Socialist League, whose most prominent member was William Morris.
Marx regularly wrote a regular column called "Record of the Revolutionary International Movement" for the Socialist League's monthly newspaper, Commonweal.
In 1884, Marx also met Clementina Black, a painter and trade unionist, and became involved in the Women's Trade Union League. She would go on to support numerous strikes including the Bryant & May strike of 1888 and the London Dock Strike of 1889. She helped organise the Gasworkers' Union and wrote numerous books and articles.
In 1885, she helped organize the International Socialist Congress in Paris. The following year, she toured the United States along with Aveling and the German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, raising money for the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
By the late 1880s, the Socialist League was deeply divided between those advocating political action and its opponents – who were themselves split between those like William Morris who felt that parliamentary campaigns represented inevitable compromises and corruptions, and an anarchist wing which opposed all electoral politics as a matter of principle. Marx and Aveling, as firm advocates of the principle of participation in political campaigns, found themselves in an uncomfortable minority in the party. At the 4th Annual Conference of the Socialist League the Bloomsbury branch, to which Marx and Aveling belonged, moved that a meeting of all socialist bodies should be called to discuss the formation of a united organisation. This resolution was voted down by a substantial margin, as was another put forward by the same branch in support of contesting seats in both local and parliamentary elections. Moreover, the Socialist League at this occasion suspended the 80 members of the Bloomsbury branch on the grounds that the group had put up candidates jointly with the SDF, against the policy of the party. The Bloomsbury branch thus exited the Socialist League for a new, albeit brief, independent existence as the Bloomsbury Socialist Society.
In 1893, Keir Hardie founded the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Marx attended the founding conference as an observer, while Aveling was a delegate. Their goal of shifting the ILP's positions towards Marxism failed, however, as the party remained under a strong Christian socialist influence. In 1897, Marx and Aveling re-joined the Social Democratic Federation, like most former members of the Socialist League.
In the 1880s, Eleanor Marx became more interested in theatre and took up acting. She believed in the art as a socialist and feminist tool. She also translated various literary works, including the first English translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. She also translated Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea and An Enemy of the People. In 1886, she performed a groundbreaking if critically unsuccessful reading of Ibsen's A Doll's House in London, with herself as Nora Helmer, Aveling as Torvald Helmer, and George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad.
In 1898, Eleanor discovered that the ailing Edward Aveling had secretly married a young actress, to whom he remained committed. Aveling's illness seemed to her to be terminal, and Eleanor was deeply depressed by the faithlessness of the man she loved.
On 31 March 1898, Eleanor sent the maid to the local chemist with a note to which she signed the initials of the man the chemist knew as "Dr. Aveling," asking for "chloroform and a small quantity of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) for dog." Eleanor received the chemicals and sent the maid back to the chemists to return a receipt book sent with the drugs. She then retired to her room, wrote two brief suicide notes, undressed, got into bed, and swallowed the poison.
The maid discovered Eleanor in bed, scarcely breathing, when she returned. A doctor was called for but Eleanor had expired by the time he arrived. A post mortem examination determined the cause of death to be poisoning by prussic acid. A subsequent inquest cleared Aveling of criminal wrongdoing, but he was widely reviled throughout the socialist community as having caused Eleanor to take her life.
A funeral was held on 5 April 1898, attended by a large throng of mourners. Speeches were made by Aveling, Robert Banner, Eduard Bernstein, Pete Curran, Henry Hyndman, and Will Thorne. Following the memorial, Eleanor Marx's body was taken to Woking and cremated. An urn containing her ashes was subsequently kept safe by a succession of left wing organizations, including the Social Democratic Federation, the British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, before finally being buried alongside the remains of Karl Marx and other family members at Highgate Cemetery in London in 1956.
On 9 September 2008 a blue commemorative English Heritage plaque was placed on the house on Jews Walk, Sydenham, south-east London, where Eleanor spent the last few years of her life.
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