“Each collected object or manuscript is a pre-articulate empty theater where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. Where a thought may hear itself see.”
—from Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe
Writers of biography are translators of the human experience, responsible for reconstructing a life and deciphering it for us.
It’s a form that has evolved over time—one which Virginia Woolf examined closely in her famous essay, “The Art of Biography.” She wrote that “almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection…He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”
What matters to many contemporary readers is that these fertile facts have the weight of truth behind them. “By telling us true facts, by sifting the little from the big, and shaping the whole so that we perceive the outline,” Woolf elaborated, “the biographer does more to stimulate the imagination than any poet or novelist save the very greatest.”
To document a life through biography, Woolf’s essay seems to say, is to perform a radical and creative act.
The word “document” comes from the Latin word documentum: lesson and proof.
We document other people’s lives in order to understand our own, in order to humanize history, in order to make a narrative out of everything. One person’s life can be told in many different ways. It’s a matter of interpretation.
The biographer’s perception of her subject is key. She gives us a life that has already been lived, so that we can live it again in a condensed amount of time—the amount of time it takes to read the book. To do this, she must spend countless hours sifting through manuscripts, letters, diaries, articles, thousands upon thousands of words.
Which lives are worth documenting in biography and which facts within those chosen lives are worth endowing with meaning? These are not foregone conclusions. They reflect and perpetuate our societal shortcomings, especially in considering women. Rachel Holmes’ book, Eleanor Marx: A Life, is a biography of a protofeminist, and is also a feminist biography. The author’s approach tackles head-on the multiple facets of Marx’s professional and personal life—documented and undocumented—in a pursuit of a richer portrayal that looks beyond the simply scandalous or the adjacent-to-fame. “Eleanor Marx the politician, thinker, feminist, and activist leaves us with our own question of personal responsibility to the common interest that is essential to social existence,” (448) Holmes writes. She was more than just someone who lived an extraordinary life; she is a reminder of “how we got here, where the democratic liberties we enjoy came from.” (448)
Eleanor’s innovative work as a writer and political figure enacted crucial social transformations; she “teased and loosened the bonds of the struggling Victorian anti-heroine” before Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own (124). The daughter of Karl Marx and a socialist leader in England, she translated the first part of Capital into English. She was the first person to translate Madame Bovary into English. She taught Shakespeare and acted, staging the first English performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in her very own living room. Eleanor wrote about prostitution and sexual inequality in “The Women Question,” an essay she co-wrote with her partner, Edward, in 1885. It’s “the founding text of socialist feminism.” She even worked on a biography of her famous father that she never finished because of not knowing how to handle a “shocking, unspeakable secret at the heart of her family” (xv).
Holmes makes clear that Eleanor (nicknamed “Tussy”) was a crucial political figure of her time, dedicating countless hours of her life to improving the lives of others, such as when she worked as secretary of the women gas workers. “She was far more influential, and thus more dangerous, than she appeared superficially,” Holmes writes. “Records of the time reveal her always at the absolute seeing eye of the storm, the epicenter of strategy and organization. She understood the power of the secretariat.”
Early on in Eleanor Marx, Holmes talks about her talents:
“Simultaneous to her work as an emerging woman of letters, hack researcher, running the Dogberries [a group devoted to “play-reading and all other thespian and cultural activities relating to Shakespeare” (132)], acting as Marx’s correspondence secretary, translating her lover’s revisions of his ever-lengthening book, writing her first reviews and political articles, and a catholic range of reading from political economy to poetry to exposures of fraudulent spiritualists, Tussy dutifully and devotedly cares for her parents and her nephews.”
Notice how Holmes lists Eleanor’s work before her familial relationships. Throughout the book, the biographer emphasizes how much Eleanor loved her family and romantic partners (including the man she lost her virginity to, Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, also known as Lissa), but also how extremely independent she was.
When Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist, passed away in 2013, the New York Times ran an obituary that opened with the following two paragraphs:
“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”
This historical connective tissue between Marx to Brill speaks deeply, I believe, to my interest in reading feminist lives. Why is it that women are often portrayed as mothers and wives first, and accomplished professionals as an afterthought? What exactly was the point of the obituary writer in pointing out domestic accomplishments before the professional achievements of Brill’s life? The New York Times changed the opening after numerous people complained about it, but the damage was done. In summing up a person’s life, a woman’s life, the thing that mattered the most was overshadowed by convention.
It’s a problem that was even worse while Marx was alive, for obvious reasons.
Marx was judged for every attempt to be herself, from acting to living with a married man. And even though she ended up in high-powered positions, such as on the national executive committee of the gas workers’ union, she faced constant scrutiny.
“As a woman in public life there seemed to be no escape from being constantly sized up and evaluated by different criteria to men. Critical opinion that she was not cut out for the stage was old news; she’d long given up hopes of a theatrical career. It was rather the sense of weariness that everything a woman did in public life had to be sanctioned, or judged and found wanting.”
Unlike her sisters, who ended up devoting their lives to their husbands and children, Eleanor was a breadwinner. She didn’t want to take money from Friedrich Engels, her father’s best friend and a financial supporter of the family. Edward Aveling, a “playwright” and womanizer, latched on to Eleanor’s loyal nature and lived off of her good will.
But it’s undeniable that Marx had a complicated personal life. She lived out of wedlock with Aveling, a man who might have been responsible for her death, even though it was ruled a suicide. Did Marx kill herself because she suffered from depression, or was she driven to take her own life because her partner had secretly married a younger woman? Aveling was happy to have inherited money from his wife’s estate, but he never even picked up her ashes.
Holmes reveals Marx’s story through direct quotes, many cited sources, and occasionally, conjecture, as she does when she speculates that Aveling could have had a hand in Marx’s demise. But she largely paints a portrait of Marx as a well-rounded workaholic who managed to balance her many tasks with her domestic life. Yet she also ended up in a bad partnership with a man who took advantage of her—something that, as Holmes points out, reflects the complexities of Ibsen’s plays.
When Marx wrote to her friend George Bernard Shaw and asked him to play Krostag in her home production of A Doll’s House, her letter demonstrated how much she yearned for a more complete understanding of life. It’s a yearning that is just as recognizable in 2015 as it was then:
“I wish some really great actors would try Ibsen. The more I study the greater I think him. How odd it is that people complain that his plays ‘have no end’ but just leave you where you were, that he gives no solution to the problem he has set you! As if in life things ‘ended’ off either comfortably or uncomfortably. We play through our little dramas, and comedies, and tragedies, and farces and then begin it all over again. If we could find solutions to the problems of our lives things would be easier in this weary world.”
It’s that search for answers, the ever-elusive explanation for all problems, great and small, that makes Eleanor so fundamentally human. Holmes resurrects her from the ashes of history. “Her life was a mass of contradictions. She is irreducible to either public or private life. And so we need to know the story of both.” (xvi) The point is to dwell in the comfortable and the uncomfortable.
“This tale of Tussy’s life is a remembering, not a recuperation,” Holmes writes at the end of the Eleanor Marx. “As she would be the first to say, all work is just a small contribution towards the next thing.”
Eleanor Marx is a necessary remembrance. Many people don’t even realize that Karl Marx had a daughter who was a powerful influence in England. We learn about the white men who made a name for themselves, but women and diverse voices are continually pushed to the periphery. That doesn’t have to be the case. It shouldn’t be the case in 2015.
“Virginia Woolf imagined a history that challenged the very foundation of history by exposing all that was missing from great libraries and archives,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes in Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. “Her argument that women needed rooms of their own was both literal and metaphorical. Women needed psychic as well as physical space.”
I imagine a library that contains only the stories that were at first overlooked. Isn’t discovery one of the key satisfactions of research? As Susan Howe writes: “The inward ardor I feel while working in research libraries is intuitive. It’s a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.” There’s something sacred about the search. Research is a prayer that is occasionally answered in unexpected ways. The researcher casts their net and hopes for a big catch, but sometimes the result is a tiny but luminescent, glittering fish. Size is deceiving, though. Small occurrences can expand to a larger influence on a life.
I’m still haunted by a book that I read seven years ago: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. The graphic novel is about a woman who enters a traveling library and discovers that it contains her entire reading history. All of the books she has ever read, shelved together. It’s a beautiful idea.
Marx loved to read; so much so that much of her life work was centered on words. In addition to her translations of literature and plays, she also worked on her father’s pivotal work, assisting Engels with Capital after Marx’s death.
Holmes astutely conveys Marx’s workaholic tendencies, her incredible ability to focus, her diligence. Marx’s work covers a sorrow, though, that is evident in a letter she wrote to her sister in 1890: “There’s really no time to consider whether life is worth living or is a most unmitigated nuisance.”
“Work…pulled Tussy back from depression’s abyss,” Holmes writes. How many times did her work save her before she died? Only Eleanor will ever know the answer to that question.
These are a biographer’s frustrations. The attempt to reconstruct a life has its limits.
I’m curious about the moments of a person’s life that are not accounted for, and why they aren’t. What about the thoughts a person has that are never shared in a diary or letter? Do they remain in the universe, floating around in constant conversation with other invisible questions?
I think of my own life and realize that if someone were to write about me, they wouldn’t have access to smaller, barely perceptible stories that make me who I am.
The pencil lead that’s still in my arm from eighth grade: I walked too close to a friend in the hallway and she accidentally stabbed me with her freshly sharpened pencil. It’s a tattoo, in a way, a representation of words that are buried beneath my skin but still visible.
My first real heartbreak: I felt like the world would end, like it had ended, like a giant hand was reaching down from above and pushing me into the floor.
The smell of my grandmother’s house: a blend of fresh laundry and mothballs.
The most intimate thoughts [and memories] can’t always be captured. Humans often process events in their life years after they happened. But I want to know how emotions are dealt with in the moment, and that’s not always possible. That’s the stuff of fiction.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to acknowledge is the bad with the good. We suppress our difficult memories and idealize what came before. But when we are remembering, and when we are depending on others to share their memories, we must search, whether through archives or other sources, for the truth. Or at least the closest thing to the truth.
For Eleanor—as Holmes documents her—“Loving others better than she loved herself” was one of her biggest weaknesses. But it’s crucial to her character; it’s something, as Holmes says, that “made her so human and likeable.”
Her humanity is the story that’s worth telling. Her dimensionalities are what matter. Her life is part of a larger, complex story that is yet to be finished.
It’s as big as the generations of feminists who came after her; as the ones who live now, who work and dream and breathe and birth fertile facts of their own.
Michele Filgate is an essayist, critic, and freelance writer. She is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle.