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Committed Chronicler: Eleanor Marx’s Biographer

Ellen Leopold is the author of A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century (Beacon Press, 1999) and is coauthor, with Ben Fine, of The World of Consumption (Routledge, 1993). She was an economic policy advisor at the Greater London Council until it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.


Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: Memoirs (New York: Verso, 2003), 296 pages, cloth $25.00.

Yvonne Kapp is best known for her biography of Eleanor Marx (1855–1898). Published in two volumes in 1972 and 1976, it rescued the youngest daughter of Karl Marx from the obscure corner she occupied in biographies of her famous father and restored her to a position of prominence among the major players in the development of late nineteenth-century British socialism. In bringing her subject to life, Kapp manages at the same time to provide a panoramic view of the rise of the progressive movement, in all its variety and complexity. Upon its release, Eric Hobsbawm praised the work as “one of the few unquestionable masterpieces of twentieth century biography.” Verso has now reissued the books in one volume and has published this memoir of its author for the first time.

Readers of this new book may be surprised to discover that the woman they met as a biographer had taken up the scholarly pursuit of Eleanor Marx after a long career as an activist. One of the pleasures of this memoir is, in fact, the way the life of Eleanor Marx resonates through Kapp’s own (though Kapp draws no attention to this herself). Although she died a full century after Marx and achieved both the long life and the domestic contentment denied to her subject, there is nonetheless something similar in their determined responses to the political ferment of their day and in their high hopes for meaningful change. And for both, it was tough going; as women born less than fifty years apart, they both had to face Victorian prejudices against, on the one hand, the active participation of women in political struggle and, on the other, the liberation of women from bourgeois family expectations.

Central to this affinity between writer and subject was the fact that both were born in England to German Jewish parents. Inevitably, they grew up in families with a tolerance for complex loyalties. This liberated them from “Little England” parochialism. Their natural facility with languages made radical ideas from across the English Channel easily accessible to them and, as translators and editors, they helped bring the work of many European thinkers before English-speaking audiences. Firsthand experience of cross-border intellectual exchanges and solidarity movements must have enlarged and sustained their sense of the potential reach of radical social change; to the end of their lives, both women remained true internationalists and true believers.

The long arc of Kapp’s life (1903–1999) spanned the rise and fall of Communism as well as the twentieth century itself. She was herself converted to the Communist cause in 1935 through direct conversations with the man at the top, Harry Pollitt. Pollitt had been an engineering worker from the north of England who, in 1929, became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a position he would hold until 1956. Kapp crossed paths with him on a ship returning from a holiday visit to the Soviet Union. Until then, she had led a vagabond, bohemian life, eschewing formal education, moving from one short-lived job and one borrowed flat to another, in London, Rome, the Lake District in the north of England, and the south of France. Like so many of the well-known artists and writers she consorted with, all of whom had cut themselves off from conventional middle-class families, Kapp pursued an essentially impromptu, hand-to-mouth life. She had aspirations to be a novelist (and did actually publish a few), but she entertained no fixed ambitions and had no political awareness. At twenty, she married a difficult artist thirteen years her senior (Edmund Kapp) and had a daughter. Neither of these events had the customary stabilizing effect on her life—she remained as footloose as ever, if no longer fancy-free.

Kapp admits to no sudden epiphanies that awakened her political consciousness, just a slow process of pulling it all together in the mid-1930s and a retrospective shame at its having taken so long. Once she puts her failed marriage behind her and takes up leftist causes, her life story becomes a picaresque chronicle of progressive movement activities leavened by often amusing tales of encounters with colleagues, friends, and lovers. At one moment she is traipsing across town shouting “Arms for Spain.” The next she is marching to prevent Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (members of the British Union of Fascists that Mosley founded) from entering the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Whitechapel in London’s East End. Or she is organizing a fundraiser at the Royal Albert Hall where Paul Robeson comes to sing for refugees from the Spanish Civil War. But she is equally caught up with many of the Bloomsbury and international modernist set, out for a good time, gallivanting with, among others, the madcap and surely dangerous Nancy Cunard, the shipping heiress, whose support for the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys and affairs with African Americans scandalized mainstream America.

Just before the Second World War, Kapp works for Jewish refugee organizations helping to resettle German, Austrian, and Czech Jews in jobs and homes in England, but, as a Communist, she is barred from many jobs and fired from others. Finally, work in the Labour Party Research Department leads her, in 1941, to a stable position as the first woman Research Officer for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, a job she would hold for many years. After that, blacklisting would no longer be a factor in her job search and employment became more of a certainty.

Kapp’s retrospective portrayal of bohemian life, with its rejection of bourgeois values, class distinctions, and sexual orthodoxies, does not slight the hardships it sometimes inflicted on women. She reluctantly agreed to an illegal abortion when her husband “declared quite firmly that we ‘couldn’t afford’ another baby.” The eventual decline of this improvised lifestyle in England after the Second World War probably owes as much to the rise of home ownership as to any preemptive shift in consciousness. Until the First World War, about 90 percent of British households still paid rent to private landlords. The advent of owner occupation (facilitated by the availability of mortgage financing) imposed a new kind of discipline on many formerly freewheeling souls.

Kapp’s life embodied this shift. In 1956, the “year when I moved house for the last time,” she bought a home with the benefit of a mortgage supplied by her local council—and never left it. She had, in a word, settled down. By this time she had become the companion of Margaret Mynatt. The two would remain together in their house in north London until the latter’s death in 1977. Mynatt was another Anglo-German Communist, friend of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, who arrived as a half-Jewish refugee from Berlin in 1933. She eventually became editor-in-chief of the English editions of The Collected Works of Marx and Engels published by Lawrence & Wishart.

Kapp brackets her house purchase in 1956 with the significant political events of the same “traumatic year”—the Hungarian uprising, Suez, and Krushchev’s speech to the Communist Party Congress, concluding that “We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. ‘Never glad confident morning again.’” This is not a recantation but an adjustment.

Just a few years later, she conceived the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx while translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and the Lafargues, Laura and Paul (Laura was Eleanor’s sister and the translator of the Communist Manifesto into French; her husband Paul was a French socialist). Kapp saw Eleanor in the shadows of this correspondence, flitting in and out of the story in a way that she found tantalizing. She was now in a position to pursue her subject full time, to devote whatever resources were necessary to retrieve Marx from obscurity and give her a comprehensive rootedness in the political culture of her time. The project took Kapp ten years to complete and, she confesses, “drew in one way or another upon my whole accumulated experience.” We are profoundly the richer for this exhaustive effort.