Marian Comyn

My Recollections of Karl Marx

First Published: The Nineteeth Century and After, Vol 91, Jan 1922.
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan for in 2000.

I HAVE a vivid recollection of my first meeting with Doctor Karl Marx, whose name has recently been so much on men's lips, whose gospel has, through the action of its Russian exponents, acquired such a sinister significance.

Of his political creed, and the tremendous issues that have resulted from it, I have nothing to say. Much indeed has already been said, and the last word is not spoken. It is of his home that I would speak--the man as I saw him in the midst of his family and friends, to whom I talked in the intimacies of every-day life during his last years, and to whom I owe many memories of kindly words and generous hospitality.

This was in the early 'eighties, when as a political refugee, he had found a home in England, and lived in Maitland Park Road; N.W. My introduction to him took place in his own drawing-room at a meeting of a Shakespeare Reading Club, called the 'Dogberry,' of which his youngest daughter Eleanor (Tussy to her friends) was the leading spirit. Amongst the members of this Club were Edward Rose, the dramatist, Mrs. Theodore Wright, whose acting in Ibsen's Ghosts will still be remembered, pretty Dollie Radford, the poet, Sir Henry Juta, Frederic Engels, and others to whom some measure of fame has come. I had been asked to read the juvenile part of Prince Arthur in King John, but the part was an exceedingly small one, and my attention was riveted less on my princely words than on the figure of our host, who sat at the end of the long double room--an extraordinarily forceful and dominating personality.

His head was large, covered with longish grey hair that matched a shaggy beard and moustache; the black eyes, though small, were keen, piercing, sarcastic, with glints of humour in them. The nose nondescript and not in the least of Semitic type. In figure he was of medium height, but rather broadly built. Behind him, on a pedestal in the corner, was a bust of Jupiter Olympus which he was supposed to resemble.

Near him sat his wife--a lovable and charming woman. She was said to have been beautiful in her youth, but ill-health, and perhaps turbulent times, had taken their toll. Her skin had faded to a waxen pallor, there were purplish brown stains under her eyes, yet there was still an air of breeding about her and a certain distinction of manner. Her maiden name had been Jenny von Westphalen, and there was Scotch blood in her veins--through her mother, I think, who had been a Campbell.

These Shakespearean readings were supposed to take place once a fortnight at different members' houses, but as a matter of fact they were held more frequently at the Marx's than anywhere else. Karl Marx, in common with the rest of his family, was a devoted admirer of the poet and loved to listen to his plays. As he very rarely went out at night, the only place he could hear them was in his own house. He never read a part which, for the sake of the play, was perhaps quite as well, for he had a guttural voice and a decided German accent. He was interested in talking of Shakespeare's popularity in Germany and of how it had come about; Eleanor always maintained that the German dramatic ideal approximated much more closely to the English than the French, and waxed eloquent over Lessing and Wieland, who had both done so much to make Shakespeare known in their own country. And, indeed, the 'Swan of Avon' can hardly have had a more passionate devotee than Wieland, who wrote to one of his correspondents: 'I tremble with the deepest, holiest veneration when I only speak his name: I bow down to the earth and pray when I feel the presence of Shakespeare's spirit.'

I think this fervent declaration embodies something of the sentiments of Eleanor Marx, if not of her father, though it is not likely that either would have formulated their ideas exactly in these words.

It might have struck an unprejudiced person as a little incongruous that after the Dogberry-ites had concluded their serious reading they should finish up the evening with games and such pastimes as charades and dumb-crambo, chiefly--as it would seem from his extreme enjoyment of them--for the delectation of Dr. Marx. As an audience he was delightful, never criticising, always entering into the spirit of any fun that was going, laughing when anything struck him as particularly comic, until the tears ran down his cheeks--the oldest in years, but in spirit as young as any of us. And his friend, the faithful Frederic Engels, was equally spontaneous.

Engels looked much younger than Marx, and probably was. He was a pleasant man, not yet grey, with a trick of twitching back a lock of lank black hair that sometimes strayed over his forehead. He had a house in Regent's Park Road, where he lived with a niece, and was, I believe, a widower. For this niece he once gave a dance.

'Will you come?' he said to the doctor. 'All these' -- indicating a little group of girls round him--' will be there.',

Dr. Marx glanced at the group whimsically, and shook his head.

'I will not come. Your guests are too old.

'Too old at seventeen? '

I like them young-really young,' said the doctor, seriously.

'Ah I understand. The age of your grandchildren!'

Dr. Marx nodded, and they both laughed as at a thoroughly enjoyable joke.

(The dance took place, and was delightful. As a host Herr Engels was also delightful.)

Dr. Marx held that old age was greatly a matter of will. He must himself have been a strong man, for he worked incessantly in his study--a good-sized, well-lighted front room on the first floor of the house, lined with plain wooden bookshelves and having a large writing-table set at right angles to the window. Here he read and wrote all day, and took his exercise in the evening, just as dusk began to fail. Many times, when Eleanor Marx and I were sitting on the rug in front of the drawing-room fire, talking in the twilight, we would hear the front door gently close, and immediately afterwards the doctor's figure, clad in a black cloak and soft felt hat (and looking, as his daughter remarked, for all the world like a conspirators' chorus),would pass along by the window, and not return until darkness closed in.

At this time, I imagine his work must have involved tremendous responsibilities. He held in his hands the threads of that vast network of European Socialism, of which he was the acknowledged leader. But, in spite of all this, he found time for the study of Russian--which language he did not essay to learn until he was past sixty. Before he died, I understood from Eleanor, he knew it fairly well.

So far as outward semblance went, No. --, Maitland Park Road, was a very ordinary suburban villa; the charm of the household, however, was by no means ordinary. I suppose it was Bohemian in its open-handed hospitality, its gracious welcome, to the strangers within its gates. And the strangers were numerous and shared the classic charm of great variety. There was one point of resemblance between them--for the most part they were impecunious. Shabby as to clothes, furtive in movement, but interesting, always interesting.

A goodly number had no doubt found their native land too hot to hold them-clever conspirators to whom London was a chosen centre, political prisoners who had contrived to shake the shackles from their limbs, young adventurers whose creed was of 'if-there's-a-government-I'm-agen-it' order.

Amongst them was a courtly young Russian, who had attempted to blow up the Czar, and who was certainly one of the mildest mannered men that ever cut--his country. He warbled Russian love songs delightfully, and punctuated them with languishing glances, and Ire told us that he had spent over a year in a Petersburg prison cell where there was not room to stand up, or to lie down at full length, and that the snow drifted in through the paneless window until it was chest high. He was accused of being an Anarchist--which accusation was probably not true at the beginning of his incarceration, but pretty correct at its end.

Another stranger whom I chanced to see was a queer, foreign-looking man wearing a frock coat, a wonderful scarf pin, and a big beard and moustache. His name ended in 'ski,' and I was given to understand he had come from Poland, or some other restless region, on a mission to Karl Marx. A week later Eleanor alluded to this person, and I asked whether he had gone back to the land of his fathers.

Why, no,' she answered ; 'since that first visit of his, a week ago, we have never set eyes on him. We have inquired: at the lodgings that were taken for him, and tried every means in our power to find him. But it's no good. Not a trace of him. And the awkward part is that the business he came about is at a standstill.'

I was horrified. Visions of robbery, crime--even murder--rushed through my brain.

'Why not communicate with the police?' I queried.

She looked at me whimsically.

'That's just the very thing we wish to avoid.

' 'What does Dr. Marx say? ' was my next inquiry, and she responded drily:

Cherchez la femme ! '-- adding, ' He'll turnup when he's tired of her '-and sure enough, he did.

Sunday was the Marx's official 'At Home' day, on which they kept 'open house,' and the doctor occasionally forsook his study for a while in order to entertain visitors. He usually came down to meals, which were served in the semi-basement dining-room, and seemed to be going on more or less all the Sabbath day. He had a good appetite, and thoroughly enjoyed his food, which was prepared by Helen, the nice-looking old German cook-housekeeper, who followed the fortunes of the Marx family until the death of the doctor. After that she went into Frederic Engel's household. Helen was an excellent cook--her jam tarts are a sweet and abiding memory to this day. She was a fresh complexioned old woman, who wore gold earrings, and a chenille net over her hair, and who reserved to herself the right of speaking her mind ' even to the august doctor. Her mind was respectfully, even meekly, received by all the family, except Eleanor, who frequently challenged it.

Apropos of luncheon, I remember arriving late for this function one Sunday, and being pretty severely called over the coals by my host in consequence. He wagged his head gravely at my apologies.

'It's waste of breath to tell people of their faults, in the hope that the telling will cure them,' he muttered, in his guttural tones. 'If they would only think--but that is just what they won't do. 'What is man's greatest asset, the most precious thing that is given him? Time. And see how it is wasted. Your own time --well, that does not matter. But other people's--mine-Himmel! I what a responsibility. I looked as I felt--abject. His ferocity disappeared in a charming smile.

'Come, come, you shall be forgiven. Sit down, and I will tell you stories of the days when I was in Paris, and did not know French as well as I know it now.'

One story was to the effect that on getting out of an omnibus --or train--he accidentally trod on a lady's foot. She glowered at him. Sweeping off his hat, he said, with great empressement--

Madame, permettez-moi.'

She glowered all the more, and he went on his way with the hackneyed conviction that women were queer creatures. Later on, it flashed upon him like an inspiration that 'Pardonnez-moi,' might have been more appropriate.

Another family legend was of Madame Marx going to an auction with the intention of buying a certain book, but getting confused between livre and lievre. She returned in triumph with a stuffed hare.

I think the first story was absolutely true. In the second I suspected imagination.

Karl Marx was fond of dogs, and three small animals of no particular breed--of a mixture of many breeds indeed--formed important members of the household. One was called Teddy, another Whisky--the name of the third I forget, but I fancy that, too, was alcoholic. They were all three sociable little beasts, ever ready for a romp, and very affectionate. One day, after an absence of six weeks in Scotland, I went to see Eleanor and found her with her father in the drawing-room, playing with Whisky. Whisky at once transferred his attentions to me, greeting me with ebullient friendliness, but almost immediately he ran to the door and whined to have it opened for him.

Eleanor said:

'He has gone down to Toddy, who has just presented him with some puppies.

She had hardly finished speaking before there was a scratching and scrambling in tile hall, and in bounded Whisky, shepherding Toddy. The little mother made straight for me, exchanged affabilities in friendly fashion, then hurried back to her family. Whisky meanwhile stood on the rug, wagging a proudly contented tail, and looking from one to the other, as who should say :

'See how well I know how to do the right thing.'

Dr. Marx was much impressed by this exhibition of canine intelligence. He observed that it was clear the dog had gone downstairs to tell his little mate an old friend had arrived, and it was her bounden duty to come and pay her respects without delay. Toddy, like an exemplary wife, had torn herself away from her squealing babies, in order to do his bidding.

Judging from tile books on the closely packed study shelves, Dr. Marx must have had a wide and varied knowledge of English literature--not forgetting novels. I once observed on his table a book of Sir Charles Lyell, and near it one of Bulwer Lytton's 'Pelham or the Adventures of a Gentleman.' And I remember a discussion at luncheon on Victorian authors, and the admiration expressed by the whole family for Charlotte and Emily Bronte, both of whom they placed far above George Eliot.

Dr. Marx's manners to his family were altogether delightful. He was tender and considerate to his wife, whose death, I think, hastened his own. Eleanor he treated with the indulgent affection one bestows on a beloved but very wilful child.

Wilful indeed she was, but she was also an unusually brilliant creature, with a clear, logical brain, a shrewd knowledge of men, and a wonderful memory. At one time she was working at the British Museum with the late Dr. Furnival, on the early folios of Shakespeare. It was a subject in which, as I have said before, she was immensely interested. But she was immensely interested in so many subjects. She belonged to the Browning and Shelley Societies, often spoke at Socialist meetings, was well versed in old and modern drama, and rarely missed a 'first night.' For Irving she had an intense admiration, and our subscriptions to the Dogberry Club were expended in buying tickets for his ' First Nights.' He used to let the club have the front row of the Dress Circle on these occasions--to my thinking, the best place in the theatre.

Once, before my admission to it, the club presented him with a laurel wreath, and, in receiving it, he kissed the hand of Eleanor, who afterwards preserved the white kid glove his lips had touched as a precious, almost sacred, possession. This trait was really typical of her, she either passionately admired or desperately scorned, she loved fervently or she hated with vehemence. amazing vitality, extraordinary receptivity, and she was the gayest creature in the world--when site was not the most miserable. Her appearance was striking. She was not really beautiful, but she somehow gave the impression of beauty by reason of her sparkling eyes, her bright colouring, her dark locky masses of hair.

Naturally enough her sympathies were entirely with her father, whose political creed she adopted, and she was perhaps a trifle impatient with those who differed from her. Upon the ladylike accomplishments of Victorian days she poured vials of contemptuous wrath. 'Fancy work' she scorned; plain sewing she looked upon as superfluous in view of the permanence of sewing machines. I still remember her indignation when she once came to reclaim a book die had lent me, and I was discovered, needle in hand, and the book on the table beside me--unfinished.

This lapse was to her an indication of mental, if not moral, ineptitude, and she expressed her opinion with dramatic vigour. In effect, she was dramatic to the depths of her being, and I think one of the sorest disappointments of her life was that she never became an actress. She studied for some time with Mrs. Hermann Vezin, until that lady reluctantly told her she would never achieve real greatness on the boards--the glory would always fall short of the dream. Second fiddle was not to be thought of. She came to me on the day Mrs. Vezin had given her ultimatum--white, tragic, despairing. For some time she sat in her favourite attitude on the rug, nursing her knees, and staring into the fire, then--' Aren't you sick of life?' she said.

'Certainly not.

'You will be when you are as old as I am.' She was then in the twenties.

It's damnably hard not to be able to get the one thing in the world you want. If you were really sympathetic you'd offer to commit suicide with me.'

'Are you really anxious to commit suicide? '

'I'd do it straight away, if it were not for the loneliness.'

I suggested that, as total extinction was for the moment ruled out, we might try other methods of reviving her flagging spirits. After a little more pondering, she sprang up, eager, animated.

'I'll tell you what we'll do--take a-cab and drive round London. Dear, dirty London. I can always draw some sort of inspiration from it. Come along.'

'I can't afford the money.

'Of course you can't. Neither can I, but we'll do it all the same.'

There were no taxis in those days, only stuffy old 'growlers' and nice smart cosy hansoms, which were the more engaging because it was supposed to be slightly improper for young women to drive about in them. We risked the impropriety, and forthwith were bowled along Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Embankment, and I know not where, with the cheering result that Eleanor decided the good things of life were not all beyond her reach.

So much for the dear sorrows of youth.

This was not the only time she spoke of suicide. The prophetic shadow of it haunted her, especially when life's burdens pressed heavily, and the sombre future threatened. Her story is poignantly sad. She gave to the man she loved a devotion worthy of her fine, generous nature; her imagination dowered him with virtues that were not his. In course of time came disillusion, and in a bitter moment of sorrow she voluntarily sought the 'sleep that ends a heart-ache.'

Her epitaph should be 'She loved much.'

It is supposed that her experiences suggested the plot of that fascinating play of Bernard Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma, and that she is its heroine.

Of the other two daughters of Karl Marx, the elder, Jenny, married M. Longuet, the well-known French journalist. I saw her once at Maitland Park Road--a stout, sweet-natured woman, looking rather French than German, and with her children at her knee. One of these was 'little Johnnie'--Monsieur Jean Longuet--who has certainly inherited the family talent and plays his part in present-day French politics. I have not seen him since he grew up, but shortly before her death I had a letter from Olive Schreiner telling me that, when she met him, he drew from his coat a little note--the last his Aunt Eleanor had written to him, and which he had carried in his pocket-book for over twenty years. What an eloquent tribute to the charm of the woman and the faith of the man.

The second daughter of Dr. Marx, Laura, was supposed to be the beauty of the family. When I met her her beauty had begun to wane, but she was still lovely and had charming manners. She was the wife of Paul Lafargue, a member of the French Chamber, and a member also of one of the oldest French families. They lived near Paris, and their late history is piteously tragic. The relentless years had stolen her youth and threatened his intellect. They had no children. Lonely old age, like a black shadow, hovered over them, shutting out the sunlight. Only their love remained. So one Sunday, at their villa at Draveil, by the aid of the same drug as had sent poor Eleanor to her long sleep, they faced the 'Tyrant, Death,' hand in hand. Unconquerable--or conquered?

The last time I saw Dr. Marx he lay in his coffin, his hands folded over his breast--a warrior who had fought valiantly until his weapons were taken from him by a force greater than his own. The serenity of his face was wonderful, wrinkles were smoothed out, old age had retreated, all traces of suffering were swept away. A tranquil and majestic power remained.

I was alone in the room with his daughter, and would have expressed my sympathy, but she stopped me imperiously. She said:

'I want no condolences. If he had lingered during a long illness, and I had seen his mind and body decaying before my eyes, I should have stood in need of consolation. But it was not so. He died, in harness, with intellect untouched. He has earned his rest. Let us be grateful for so much.

The impression of that farewell scene, the look in Eleanor's eyes, has never faded from my memory. Of the creed commonly associated with the name of Karl Marx it is not for me to speak, since this is not a political memoir. Undoubtedly, the actions of certain of his latter-day followers have branded it with infamy. But one may question whether any gospel is translated by its disciples exactly as its founder preached it. It gains, it loses, by the media through which it passes. Is even that most lovely and limpid stream that came from the Holy Mount as crystal clear as when it issued from the lips of the Master? Has it not often been deflected from its course by the fiery zeal of those who loved as well as those who hated it?

I know little of Karl Marx's books, I have not even read Das Kapital, but I think that in justice to his memory it should be borne in mind that he was no demagogue leader, fighting with one hand for the proletariat and with the other for himself. He was not a man who took toll or made money out of his faith. On the contrary, he had, for the sake of his convictions, surrendered the ordinary prizes that crown a brilliant university career, he endured exile and ill report and comparative poverty, and he worked hard to the end of his life.

He was a Jew and the son of a Jew--who had, however, been baptised, and held high office in Treves. May he not at least be credited with profound sympathy for those whom he deemed oppressed, with passionate resentment against the sweated labour of those earlier evil days, and with an ardent desire that the rights of humanity should be recognised and fulfilled?