Monday, February 20, 2017

"These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx


Eleanor Marx, about 1886

This story begins, as so many do, in a used bookstore. While browsing idly one lunch hour I came across a copy of the New Modern Library edition of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, published in 1927.

Opening the book to the title page I noted with surprise the name of the translator: Eleanor Marx Aveling. I knew only that Eleanor Marx was Karl Marx's daughter, and I had had no idea that she had done any literary translations. Intrigued, I bought the novel, began to re-read it, and started to investigate how she came to be its translator. The story was stranger and sadder than I realized.

Examination Paper

. . .

E1 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.
E2 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.

E1 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.
E2 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.

E1 imagined herself to be in financial difficulties.
E2 knew herself to be in financial difficulties.

E1 committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.
E2 committed suicide by swallowing arsenic.

E1 was Eleanor Marx.
E2 was Emma Bovary.

The first English translation of Madame Bovary to be published was by Eleanor Marx.

Discuss.
—Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot
There are actually multiple additional parallels between Eleanor Marx and Emma Bovary. Both loved the theater, for example, both took physically unappealing men as life partners, both were temperamentally incompatible with those partners, and both stayed with those partners until a final crisis led them to commit suicide.

Eleanor Marx, known as "Tussy" to her family and intimate friends, was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen. From her late teens onward she was a political organizer, orator, and writer. She also translated some of her father's work into English, as well as writings by other radicals. She frequented the Reading Room of the British Museum, where she met many of the political and literary figures of the day.

Enter Edward Aveling

One of them was Edward Aveling. Trained as a natural scientist, Aveling was an actor, a playwright, and a social activist. A political rival of Aveling's described him as possessing "a forbidding face—ugly and even repulsive." George Bernard Shaw said that he had "the face and eyes of a lizard, and no physical charm except a voice like a euphonium." Olive Schreiner wrote to Havelock Ellis, "To say I dislike him doesn’t express it at all, I have a fear, a horror of him when I am near." [1]


Edward Aveling in the mid-1880s

The revulsion that many felt in Aveling's presence wasn't misplaced: he was a habitual liar, a serial philanderer, and a man who felt no hesitation about exploiting friends, allies and political organizations for money. By the time he met Eleanor Marx he was more than £400 in debt—about US $50,000 in today's money. [2] It only got worse.

When Eleanor first became involved with him, shortly after her father's death in 1883, Aveling was married. He told Eleanor that he and his wife Bell were separated, but that she refused to grant him a divorce. Although Aveling was unable to marry her, in mid-1884 Eleanor announced to her friends that she and Aveling were moving in together, and she wanted to be referred to as "Mrs. Aveling."

It may be surprising that Eleanor, a political radical, should so readily adopt the trappings of conventional marriage. In 1886 she and Aveling published an essay entitled "The Woman Question," which stated that "marriage is based upon commercialism." Eleanor and Aveling understood marriage to be an institution that subjugated women in order to preserve the economic dominance of men. For Eleanor to actively embrace the status of "Mrs. Aveling" while holding this view of marriage seems contradictory. As she wrote to her sister Laura, "Is it not wonderful when you come to look at things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practise all the fine things we preach to others?" [3]

Throughout their relationship Eleanor was forced to confront Aveling's unscrupulousness about money and his continual attempts (frequently successful) to seduce other women. Eleanor's biographer Rachel Holmes writes that "Shaw, Havelock Ellis and many of her close friends thought Edward's hold over Tussy was predominantly sexual." Eleanor translated Henrik Ibsen's A Lady from the Sea, in which the heroine, in sexual thrall to a magnetic but unreliable lover and recognizing the "horrible, unfathomable power he has over my mind," manages to reject him in favor of a kind, devoted, but less exciting man. Eleanor, unfortunately, never found that strength. [4]


Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary

In 1885 Eleanor was asked to translate Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary for London publisher Henry Vizetelly. Vizetelly had begun publishing books by French authors considered transgressive in England, including Émile Zola (Nana and L'Assommoir) and Guy de Maupassant (A Woman's Life). A few years later he was twice put on trial for violating the Obscene Publications Act by publishing these authors, was convicted and imprisoned for three months.

Madame Bovary had been published in France for the first time as a serial nearly 30 years previously, in 1856. Although the most scandalous scenes were cut from the manuscript for the serial version, Flaubert and his publishers were put on trial for obscenity. They were acquitted, and when the novel was published in book form the cut material was restored. But the prosecution had a chilling effect: until Vizetelly, no British publisher had been willing to issue a translation.

Eleanor not only translated the work but provided an introduction in which she defended it against charges of immorality:
The story of Emma's life could be only a warning, never a temptation. Flaubert holds up a mirror. That some, recognizing their own image, should be shocked, is only natural. [5]
She writes of Emma,
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. [6]
Eleanor could have been writing about herself. She, too, sought an unattainable heaven, in the transformation not only of the political and economic relationships between classes, but of the intimate relationships between men and women; her dreams also ended in nothingness.

In "The Woman Question" she and Aveling wrote, ". . .in the Socialistic state. . .we believe that monogamy will gain the day. . .the highest ideal seems to be the complete, harmonious, lasting blending of two human lives. . .For ourselves, we believe that the cleaving of one man to one woman will be best for all, and that these will find each in the heart of the other, that which is in the eyes, their own image." Her own relationship with Aveling, of course, exhibited the "one-sided polygamy" of men's sexual freedom and women's sexual constraint that was common in bourgeois marriages. [7]

Eleanor's translation introduced Flaubert's masterpiece to English-language readers, and it remained the standard for many decades. It was the version that Vladimir Nabokov, that fastidious stylist, taught in his classes at Wellesley and Cornell. Nabokov, though, found fault with her choices on almost every page, including her use of the simple past ("her thoughts wandered") when Flaubert used the past imperfect ("her thoughts would wander").


The first page of Nabokov's teaching copy of Madame Bovary. [8]

Eleanor herself was aware of the unavoidable imperfections inherent in the task of translation. In her introduction to her translation she outlined three categories of translator: the genius, who "re-creates a work in his own language"; the hack, whose "work is too often a perversion, not a rendering"; and the "conscientious worker," in which category she placed herself:
Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, shortcomings, the failures of my work; but at least the translation is faithful. I have neither suppressed a line, nor added a word. That often I have not found the best possible word to express Flaubert's meaning I know; but those who have studied him will understand how impossible it must be for any one to give an exact reproduction of the inimitable style of the master. . .

My work, then, I know is faulty. It is pale and feeble by the side of the original. Yet, if it induces some readers to go to that original, if it helps to make known to those who cannot thus study this work of the greatest of French novelists after Balzac, I am content. . .I do not regret having done this work; it is the best I could do. [9]

The parallels between Madame Bovary and Eleanor's life are almost too painful to contemplate. The womanizing M. Bovary (Charles' father), the preening Rodolphe, the hypocritical Léon, resemble Aveling all too closely.
Once married, he lived for three or four years on his wife's fortune, dining well, rising late, smoking long porcelain pipes, not coming in at night until after the theatre, and haunting cafes. . .

His wife had adored him once on a time; she had bored him with a thousand servilities that had only estranged him the more. . .She had suffered so much without complaint at first, until she had seen him going after all the village drabs, and until a score of bad houses sent him back to her at night, weary, stinking drunk. Then her pride revolted. After that she was silent, burying her anger in a dumb stoicism that she maintained till her death. She was constantly going about looking after business matters. She called on the lawyers, the president, remembered when bills fell due, got them renewed, and at home ironed, sewed, washed, looked after the workmen, paid the accounts, while he, troubling himself about nothing, eternally besotted in sleepy sulkiness, whence he only roused himself to say disagreeable things to her, sat smoking by the fire and spitting into the cinders. [10]

The suicides

Emma Bovary's suicide is precipitated by several crises. She has secretly borrowed money that she and Charles can never repay. When the loans are called in and their belongings are to be publicly auctioned, Emma turns to her former lovers, only to discover the stark truth that their declarations of love were made only for their own gratification. Utterly disillusioned, facing financial ruin, social disgrace and a life without love, Emma tells the druggist's assistant that she needs some arsenic to kill rats. She then swallows it herself, dying in agony.

Eleanor's suicide was also precipitated by multiple crises. First was Aveling's continuing philandering, which often reached grotesque proportions. As Olive Schreiner wrote to a mutual friend,
. . .she has come to me nearly mad having found him in her own bedroom with two prostitutes. Just before I left England. . .a friend of mine a married woman with many children, came & told me how he had made love to her, & she had & her husband forbade him their house. [11]
In August 1897 Aveling had left Eleanor, taking all the cash (and everything convertible to cash) he could lay his hands on, and telling Eleanor she could only contact him through a friend. A week or so later, out of money again, he returned, and proposed that they pretend to their friends and the world that they were still together.

Why would Eleanor agree? Aveling may have blackmailed her by threatening to reveal the truth of the parentage of Freddy Demuth, the son of Karl and Jenny Marx's housekeeper Helen Demuth. Freddy had been supported throughout his life by Friedrich Engels, and the assumption had long been that Freddy was Engels' son. However, a few years previously Eleanor had learned that Freddy was in fact her half-brother; he was not Engels', but her father's son. Aveling had also learned the secret, and was probably using the threat of its exposure to extort more money from Eleanor. The day after Aveling returned Eleanor wrote to Freddy:
. . .I am face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin—everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful, even worse than I fancied it was. . .I am heartbroken. [12]
Aveling was also compelled by the legacy of £7000 that Eleanor had received from Engels a few years previously. He knew that he was the sole executor and chief beneficiary of her will, and may have been concerned that if he stayed away she would change its terms.

In order to protect his access to Eleanor's money Aveling harbored secrets of his own. Eleanor had recently discovered that his story about his wife Bell's reluctance to divorce him was untrue. Aveling had abandoned Bell after spending her dowry. She had been eager for a divorce; it was Aveling who had refused to divorce her so that on her death he would inherit what remained of her money.

His scheme worked. Bell had died in 1892, and Aveling had inherited more than £125, about three years' wages for an average laborer. He kept both the money and his wife's death hidden from Eleanor. When she finally found out by accident several years later, she clung to the hope that Aveling would finally marry her.

But her hope was in vain. Eleanor didn't know that as of June of 1897 Aveling was once again a married man. He had secretly married Eva Frye, a 22-year-old actress (at the time of the marriage Aveling was 47). While he continued to live with Eleanor, he was leading a second life as "Alec Nelson" (his stage name); his wife called herself Eva Nelson. It was Eleanor's money that, without her knowledge, was supporting the spendthrift "Nelsons."

Aveling became seriously ill in the fall and winter of 1897-98; he demanded that Eleanor pay for his treatments, but often would not allow her to accompany him on his expensive trips for recuperation or medical consultation (he was probably secretly meeting Eva). Eleanor wrote Freddy, "That is sheer cruelty, and there are things he does not want to tell me. . .I have nothing; and I see nothing worth living for." [13]

At the end of March 1898 Eleanor finally discovered the truth about Aveling's remarriage, perhaps from an anonymous letter. On the morning of March 31 she and Aveling had a bitter argument. A little before 10 am she asked her housekeeper to take a sealed envelope to a nearby pharmacy; inside was a note initialed by Aveling requesting chloroform and enough prussic acid (cyanide) to kill a dog. Neither Eleanor nor Aveling owned a dog. The housekeeper came back with the pharmacist's "poison book," which required a signature; the book was signed "EMA," initials Eleanor used in her journalism but not in letters or notes. When the housekeeper left to return the poison book Aveling was still in the house. He left shortly afterwards to attend a political meeting in London. On his arrival at the meeting he called attention to the time: 11:15 am.

When the housekeeper came back from the pharmacist's for the second time, Eleanor was no longer in the study. The housekeeper entered her bedroom and found her dead. She was lying on her bed, wearing a favorite summer dress of white muslin, her eyes open, hair loose; her skin had purple blotches from the effects of the poison. Utterly disillusioned, facing ruin and disgrace, and with the collusion of Aveling, she had swallowed a fatal dose of cyanide.

Among her final letters was a note written to Aveling:
DEAR. It will soon be all over now. My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years—love. [14]

The aftermath

After Emma's death, Charles Bovary declines rapidly. His small fortune is entirely consumed in trying to pay Emma's debts. Over a few short months he wastes away, and in the late summer he dies.

After Eleanor's death, Aveling seized control of what remained of her inheritance from Engels, which she had intended to go primarily to her deceased sister Jenny's children. Over the next four months Aveling and his new wife spent most of it, over £1000. But his ill health continued; he was wasting away, and in early August he died.

He is now all but forgotten. By contrast, millions of people have benefited from the radical proposals put forward by Eleanor and her compatriots: the 8-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, the right to organize, and women's right to economic independence, equal access to education, and sexual autonomy. And millions have experienced Flaubert's great novel through Eleanor's translation, which more than 125 years after its first publication is still in print.

Next time: "The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary



  1. "Ugly and even repulsive": Henry Hyndman quoted in William Greenslade, "Revisiting Edward Aveling," in John Stokes, ed., Eleanor Marx: Life, Work, Contacts, Ashgate, 2000, p. 41.
    "Face and eyes of a lizard": quoted in Fiona McCarthy, "A Tragic Heroine of the Reading Room," New York Review of Books, July 9, 2015.
    "Fear and horror": The Olive Schreiner Letters Online. Letter of 2 August 1884 to Havelock Ellis. https://www.oliveschreiner.org/vre?view=collections&colid=18&letterid=51
  2. Greenslade, footnote 2, p. 41.
  3. "Based on commercialism": Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question," in J. Muller and E. Schotte, eds., Thoughts on Women and Society, International Publishers, 1987, p. 18.
    "We preach to others": quoted in Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life, Bloomsbury Press, 2014, p. vii.
  4. "Predominantly sexual": Holmes, p. 335.
    "Horrible, unfathomable power": Quoted in Holmes, p. 335.
  5. Eleanor Marx Aveling, Introduction to Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners, W. W. Gibbings, 1901, p. xvii.
  6. Marx Aveling, Introduction, pp. xx-xxi.
  7. "Monogamy will gain the day": Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question," pp. 27-28.
    "Each in the heart of the other": Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question," p. 29.
  8. Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 129.
  9. Marx Aveling, Introduction, p. xxii.
  10. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, translated by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Modern Library, 1927, pp. 6-7.
  11. The Olive Schreiner Letters Online. Letter of June 1898 to Dollie Radford. https://www.oliveschreiner.org/vre?view=collections&colid=128&letterid=1
  12. Quoted in Holmes, p. 418.
  13. Quoted in Holmes, p. 427.
  14. Quoted in Kate Summerscale, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Financial Times, 4 May 2012. https://www.ft.com/content/24d99c36-92dc-11e1-b6e2-00144feab49a

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