‘Where are the women in this thesis?’
Picture the scene: late May or early June 2011, in my PhD supervisor’s office, in my mock viva discussing my thesis on the British publication and reception of Karl Marx’s Capital. I’d like to say that it was an obvious question and I easily rattled through an impressive answer. But I didn’t. I confess it was something I don’t think I had really thought about in a conscious way before that moment. I talked about masculinity in the thesis, I knew that, but women? British Marxism was overwhelmingly a male world and most of the working-class autobiographers I had mined for reading experiences were male. I started, falteringly, to offer an answer:
‘Erm, well, well they aren’t really in the sources …’
‘WRONG ANSWER! Start again.’
It was the wrong answer. He was right. And when a similar question inevitably came up in the real viva, I think I offered a better answer (something about women being an important part of the process as translators, editors, booksellers, etc. – the memory is blurry) but I still don’t think I answered it properly. It was of secondary importance to me, as I was more concerned with tracking the ‘real history’ of how the editing process had changed the presentation and understanding of Marxist theory. It has taken five years since that moment in my supervisor’s office to fully understand and appreciate the question, and I’m ready to answer it now, as I finally write the book manuscript this summer.
In the 1860s, Jenny Marx copied out the original German manuscript of Das Kapital, deciphering her husband’s handwriting (so awful that he was turned down for a job as a railway clerk) so that the typesetters had a reasonable chance of understanding it. She wrote letters explaining how the ‘fat book’ had taken over the lives of her family and damaged her husband’s health: ‘if only the leviathan were launched!’
In the mid 1880s, Eleanor Marx spent months in the British Museum Reading Room chasing up all of her father’s sources to replace his translations with the original quotations for the first authorised English translation of Capital, for which she did not receive credit on the title page, next to Friedrich Engels, Samuel Moore and her common-law husband Edward Aveling. In the British Museum Reading Room, she worked amongst a group of educated women who were jobbing translators and journalists– a sort of literary proletariat – who between them produced the first English translations of Flaubert, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy …
In the late 1920s, Cedar Paul took the bold step, with her husband Eden, of retranslating Capital for publisher George Allen and Unwin when it was realised that they had sold the copyright of the original translation. Communists themselves – although bohemian ones who also flirted with psychoanalysis and translated much of the non-Freudian literature available in the 1920s – they were heavily criticised by orthodox Marxists for daring to revise a translation that had the authority of having been overseen by the great Friedrich Engels himself.
In the 1930s, Dona Torr, founder member of the Communist Party Historians’ Group and officially my heroine, attempted to repair the damage, liaising between George Allen and Unwin and the Marxist theoreticians in Moscow to edit an edition of the ‘original translation’ that would be acceptable to committed Communists. In adding historical material about the production and reception of the book – as well as a facsimile of the 1887 title page – Torr turned the book into an historical object. Really, she claimed, the book was not only itself a history of England but the various editions of Capital a way in to think about the histories of working class movements in each of the countries in which they were produced. Hence, Torr made my work possible without me even being aware of it.
All of these women, and many more, were in the thesis. I just didn’t know it at the time. Wrong answer, start again:
‘Where are the women in this book?’