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The tragic death of Eleanor Marx

Everyone knows something about Karl Marx and for many it is a tragedy that his ideas and insights were so misappropriated.


Tara Bergin. New Photo August

Sean Sheehan


Less well known is a personal tragedy, arising from the life and early death of his youngest daughter Eleanor Marx, born in England in 1855.

“The tragic death of Eleanor Marx” is the title of a collection of poems by Tara Bergin, from Dublin in Ireland and now living in England. Eleanor Marx was a socialist and activist who also worked as a translator, responsible for the first English translation of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. She was in a long-term relationship with a fellow socialist, Edward Aveling, when she discovered that he had secretly married another woman.

Discovering the betrayal, Eleanor Marx committed suicide by poisoning herself with chloroform and hydrogen cyanide (known as prussic acid) that she obtained from a local chemist by claiming it was for her dog:

By Judith Carlin. Wikimedia Commons

Eleanor of the eight-hour day

Gets betrayed by Edward of the two faces.

She orders: chloroform, with just some traces

Of prussic acid – blue – a beautiful imitation.

She says it’s for the dog but she is the dog.

The ‘beautiful imitation’ refers to a similarity between Eleanor’s suicide and Emma Bovary’s.

Only some of the poems in this collection relate directly to Eleanor Marx but what they all have in common are expressions of derelict emotions: loss, separation and desertion are laid out for inspection as on a laboratory table to be coolly appraised. Situations of estrangement are rationally examined, analyses slenderly laid bare (‘She says it’s for the dog but she is the dog’). There is nothing cosy about Tara Bergin’s poetry; it is, on the contrary, sparse and unsparing; happiness is in danger of being a short-lived affair. In “A rented room above the Registry Office”, the narrator lives above Saturday scenes of marital bliss and finds confetti on Sundays:

                          Sometimes I find a tiny heart

                          Stuck on my grubby sole.

Eleanor Marx’s betrayal by Edward Aveling becomes emblematic of the treachery lurking in the bushes, as in ‘Sweet Isis’ where a woman is given an emerald bracelet by her lover ‘To prove he’d not forgotten me’ but she whispers secretly to herself ‘Not nice’ while holding out her wrist and kissing him on the lips: ‘I too, I knew, could play these tricks’.

In ‘Tamer and Hawk’ a man cares for and loves his hawk but:

                        The tamer keeps the hood on.

                       That’s right.

Such succinctness is characteristic of Bergin’s poetry. Silences exist between lines which the reader must essay to fill, disavowals compete with positive assertions, and  frilliness would be a distraction from certain basic truths, as in her poem about children playing with painted masks:     

Eleanor Marx. Wikimedia Commons

They put them on and went around screaming. 

No one cared.

They were both themselves and strangers.

That’s all they wanted.

Edward (‘of the two faces’) Aveling wore a mask but, these poems suggest, we all put on faces to present to other people; our  identity is changeable and trust is a slippery customer.

“The tragic death of Eleanor Marx”, by Tara Bergin, is published by Carcanet.

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