Friday, 3 August 2012
Eleanor Marx Exhibition
It’s good that the Kelmscott House museum is running a series of exhibitions devoted to women in and around the Morris circle: May Morris until recently, her friend Mary Sloane in the near future. Might I suggest that we add to this list Eleanor Marx (1855-98), who with Morris was a founder member of the Socialist League in December 1884?
What might an Eleanor Marx exhibition look like, and what activities would it celebrate? Her childhood love of Shakespeare in the Marx household might be seen as anticipating her adult literary work as first translator into English of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and enthusiast for and translator of the plays of Henrik Ibsen in the late 1880s (she even co-authored a sequel to The Doll’s House). Her political activities would feature prominently too, first as secretary to Karl Marx himself, then in her own right in the 1880s and 90s: supporting strikes, organising international conferences, helping to organise the Gasworkers’ Union. And I suppose her tragic personal involvement with Edward Aveling would need to come in here too.
The point of such an exhibition would be not just to celebrate an extraordinary woman, but to raise a crucial and still pressing issue: the relationship between the political avantgarde (1880s socialism, in this case) and the artistic avantgarde (Flaubertian modernism, the Ibsenite New Drama). This vexed issue would come up still more sharply in later years – Russian Futurism and the Bolshevik Revolution, Bertholt Brecht in Weimar Germany, the Tel Quel group and les évènements of 1968 in France – but for us in England its first appearance was in the heady 1880s, and Eleanor Marx as activist, translator, theatre-goer and writer was at the very shaping heart of it.