Perhaps not surprisingly, she eventually fell in love with a man who was even more egocentric than her father. Edward Aveling, writer and would-be left-wing politician, was a philanderer and sponger who specialized in seducing actresses. Eleanor wanted to be an actress, and was a natural victim. By one of history’s sharp little ironies, he, Eleanor and George Bernard Shaw took part in the first private reading, in London, of Ibsen’s brilliant plea for women’s freedom, A Doll’s House, Eleanor playing Nora. Shortly before Marx died, she became Aveling’s mistress, and from then on his suffering slave, as her mother Jenny had once been her father’s. Marx, however, may have needed his wife more than he cared to admit.
After her death in 1881 he faded rapidly himself, doing no work, taking the cure at various European spas or travelling to Algiers, Monte Carlo and Switzerland in search of sun or pure air. In December 1882 he exulted at his growing influence in Russia: ‘Nowhere is my success more delightful.’ Destructive to the end, he boasted that ‘it gives me the satisfaction that I damage a power which, next to England, is the true bulwark of the old society.’ Three months later he died in his dressing-gown, sitting near the fire. One of his daughters, Jenny, had died a few weeks before. The ends of the other two were also tragic. Eleanor, heartbroken by her husband’s conduct, took an overdose of opium in 1898, possibly in a suicide pact from which he wriggled out. Thirteen years later Laura and Lafargue also agreed a suicide pact, and both carried it through.
There was, however, one curious, obscure survivor of this tragic family, the product of Marx’s most bizarre act of personal exploitation. In all his researches into the iniquities of British capitalists, he came across many instances of low-paid workers but he never succeeded in unearthing one who was paid literally no wages at all. Yet such a worker did exist, in his own household. When Marx took his family on their formal Sunday walks, bringing up the rear, carrying the picnic basket and other impedimenta, was a stumpy female figure. This was Helen Demuth, known in the family as ‘Lenchen’. Born in 1823, of peasant stock, she had joined the von Westphalen family at the age of eight as a nursery-maid. She got her keep but was paid nothing. In 1845 the Baroness, who felt sorrow and anxiety for her married daughter, gave Lenchen, then twenty-two, to Jenny Marx to ease her lot. She remained in the Marx family until her death in 1890.
Eleanor called her ‘the most tender of beings to others, while throughout her life a stoic to herself’. She was a ferociously hard worker, not only cooking and scrubbing but managing the family budget, which Jenny was incapable of handling, Marx never paid her a penny. In 1849-50, during the darkest period of the family’s existence, Lenchen became Marx’s mistress and conceived a child. The little boy Guido had recently died, but Jenny, too, was pregnant again. The entire household was living in two rooms, and Marx had to conceal Lenchen’s state not only from his wife but from his endless revolutionary visitors. Eventually Jenny found out or had to be told and, on top of her other miseries at this time, it probably marked the end of her love for Marx. She called it ‘an event which I shall not dwell upon further, though it brought about a great increase in our private and public sorrows’. This occurs in an autobiographical sketch she wrote in 1865, of which twenty-nine out of thirty-seven pages survive: the remainder, describing her quarrels with Marx, were destroyed, probably by Eleanor.