I’ve shamefully neglected the books page on this blog. I’ve been reading, I swear.
I dragged a big red hardcover through the wilds of Montana, British Columbia, and Alaska and back again, reading it in motels and cottages and people’s homes. It is just exactly the perfect Marx biography for me, meticulously researched and laying out historical context in equal measure with family life.
In his student days, Marx buttoned his frock coat wrong and smoked cigars in public, and Jenny von Westphalen loved him, waiting for years while her young lover studied in Berlin. When they were desperately poor, exiled from country after country, she would pawn their chairs, her shawl, the children’s shoes, and their home was always open to revolutionaries and refugees, who wrote letters about how gracious and comforting she was. The book isn’t a love story between two people like the cover implies, because the family included Friedrich Engels and Helene Demuth (the ‘housekeeper’ who lived with the Marxes her entire adult life, including on the run) and was complicated. It’s a sprawling history of love, weakness, genius, politics, and suffering.
In Love and Capital, Gabriel chronicles the family from Marx and Jenny’s childhood through the decades until the murder/suicide of their last surviving daughter, in loving detail using letters, papers, articles, and occasionally reports from spies and secret police.
I was fascinated by how, after sacrificing for Marx’s genius not just upper-class luxury, but things like food and medicine that may have saved the lives of the children who died, they seemed to have done their best to raise the three surviving daughters as proper Victorian ladies to marry professional men and have well-off lives. All the privation and despair were worth it for Karl Marx, but the socialists, starving journalists, and con men the girls fell for couldn’t hold a candle to him. It must have been heartbreaking for Jenny to see her daughters marry their intellectual inferiors and start the same cycle all over again for so little.
My new least favorite person in history is Edward Aveling, long time partner of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter. He was a scoundrel and a dick, and in the end she committed suicide over him, prematurely ending a brilliant life of achievement.
The book is wonderful, with extensive notes, maps, pictures, and timelines. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to know more about Marx, the 1848 uprisings, journalism, the Paris Commune, and personal life in the second half of the 19th century. Now I have to read Freedom and Necessity again.