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ON A bitter day in March 1898, a woman was found on her bed at 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham, dressed in a white summer dress and turned bright blue from Prussic acid poisoning.
The woman was Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, and the verdict given at the inquest was “Suicide by swallowing Prussic acid, at the time labouring under mental derangement.” She was 43.
Wikipedia 120 years on gives Eleanor Marx’s death as suicide, in spite of the discrepancies in the testimonies at the inquest and the fact that her friends were suspicious of her common-law husband Edward Aveling and planned to take a civil case out against him for murder.
In 2014, I was in Sydenham, rehearsing my WW1 musical Till the Boys Come Home, a community theatre show following the lives and deaths of local gas workers named on the war memorial in the town, with a cast and choir of hundreds.
At the rehearsal, a member of the choir thrust a pamphlet under my nose, saying: “You must write a play about this woman. She lived in the next road from here and founded the Gas Workers Union. Look. There’s a book about her.”
It was there that I had my first encounter with Eleanor, via a thumbnail of a simple line-drawing on the cover of Rachel Holmes’s newly published biography Eleanor Marx: A Life. A quick google and I discovered Eleanor’s famous family ties and the bare bones of her tragic story.
Playwrights are much like journalists. We can’t resist the whiff of a good story and I dashed to Jews Walk to investigate the house where she lived and died. I knew this particular story had more than the faint aroma of my next play and I knew where it should be staged.
Set entirely at the house there, the final seven months of Eleanor’s life are dramatised in my new play Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk. During my research, I devoured Holmes’s biography, a book as page-turning, rich in detail and darkly Gothic as the best Victorian novels, half-berating myself for not having heard of Eleanor sooner and half-sighing with relief that I had chanced upon her at all.
In Eleanor Marx I discovered the inimitable Tussy, as she was known to her friends and family, but it felt like a rediscovery of someone I had known all my life. As a fellow cat-lover and youngest daughter of a penniless socialist with a bushy beard, huge ideas and a German surname, the young Tussy and I had much in common.
It was the older Tussy, though — the campaigner, writer, translator, political theorist and pioneer feminist — who had more to teach me and inspired me most.
And it was her horrific end I felt compelled to dramatise — how this powerful female voice, one that could have gone on to make further indelible marks on history and which I had grown to love, was silenced forever.
I no longer berate myself for coming late to Eleanor Marx. The name of her more famous father, rightly or wrongly, has eclipsed hers. Her gender, perhaps, has not helped her have a place in the taught history of our socialist past.
Thanks to Holmes’s book, the foremother of socialist feminism is now seeing a revival. A woman a century ahead of her time, perhaps it takes this long for a progressive such as Eleanor to get a firm footing in the public consciousness.
For a modern audience, though, Tussy is a drug. Once encountered, one is hooked. Even my cat is named Tussy.
Eleanor Marx moved to Jews Walk believing that she would be happy there. Her fascination with her Jewish heritage meant the name of the road seemed a good omen. Less than three years later, Tussy was found, bright blue and dying.
Was her death caused by her own hand, as the jury at the inquest believed, or did her “husband” Edward — a man described as physically repulsive and whom her friends called a “reptile,” “a little lizard” and “a disreputable dog” — have a hand in it?
If you're at all curious about how and perhaps why she came to such an untimely end, it's a production not to be missed.
Produced by Spontaneous Productions, the play runs Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre from 18th April-May 12, tickets; spontaneousproductions.co.uk/marx. Lucy Kaufman is an award-winning playwright and author, with many of her plays performed professionally in Britain and Australia. Spontaneous Productions is Sydenham’s professional theatre company, whose aim is to deliver quality theatre at affordable prices.
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