The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin


Review by Francesca Bratton

‘Translation is a mode’, writes Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’. ‘To comprehend it as a mode, one must go back to the original, for the laws governing the translation lie within the original’, Benjamin continues—or continues via his translator, Harry Zorn.  In her formidable second collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet, 2017), Tara Bergin dexterously examines ‘the role of the translator’ (as she explained in a recent interview) by insistently directing us ‘back to the original’.  These ‘originals’ include, of course, Eleanor Marx’s translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but extend to allusions to numerous other texts, including court documents, lectures, poems, biographies and fairy tales.

Born in 1855, Eleanor Marx was the youngest daughter of Karl and Jenny. Eleanor initially worked as her father’s assistant and translator, later becoming a political essayist, editor, teacher, actress and literary translator. Her political essays include the influential ‘The Woman Question (written with her partner, Richard Aveling), in which ‘the issue of translation’ and the ‘ambiguity’ caused by ‘bad translation’ is central to her discussion of ‘the position of Socialists in respect to the woman question’.  As a translator, Eleanor worked with German, Norwegian and French, producing English versions of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady of the Sea and her then-lover Henri Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871, and her father’s Value, Price and Profit, among others. The focus of Bergin’s collection, however, is Eleanor’s translation of Madame Bovary, ‘the first official’ English translation of the novel.

In Flaubert’s novel, Emma Bovary kills herself by swallowing ‘white powder’ in the wake of a doomed love affair and plunging herself and her husband, Charles, into debt.  As Bergin writes in the ‘Notes’ that conclude the collection, in March 1898, aged 43, Eleanor Marx ‘committed suicide in a manner similar to that of the novel’s title character’, taking ‘the same type’ of poison as Emma Bovary after she had discovered that her partner, Richard Aveling, had secretly married another woman called Eva Frye’.  Bergin deals with this difficult subject with an impressive delicacy that avoids becoming voyeuristic. The first stanza of ‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’ contains 43 syllables, a beautiful, subtle formal detail that is indicative of the care with which Bergin treats her subjects.

Bergin explained in a recent interview for the 2017 T.S. Eliot prize (for which this collection is shortlisted) that this strange event seemed to offer a ‘huge symbolic and real example’ of the translated text influencing the life of the translator. She does, though, concede that too close a suggestion of parallels might be fallacious, or even potentially self-serving; she writes at the end of ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’ that ‘Nearly all of this is true’, implying in the ‘Notes’ to the poem that clarifications might be found in Rachel Holmes’s Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014).

‘The title poem came’, Bergin explains, when she ‘started to slice together versions of the novel…imagining the point at which Eleanor Marx decided or it occurred to her to imitate this suicide, this death, so closely.’  These ‘sliced’ versions of Flaubert’s novel are collaged into poems: ‘The Giving Away of Eleanor Marx by Several hands’ is riddle-like (a common form here, signalled by the tautological opening poem), made up of ‘six English versions of one line of Madame Bovary’.  Through the ruminations created by the movement through the variations, Bergin highlights their subtle differences and, thus, the translators’ distinct decisions—effectively miniature critical readings. Once assembled, these lines convey varied levels of conviction (and callousness) for Rouault, Emma’s father. As he considers being ‘forced to sell twenty-two acres of “his property”’, he simultaneously muses on the possibility of Charles Bovary proposing to his daughter:

If he asks me for her, I’ll give him her.
If he asks me I shall say yes.

The ‘mode’ of translation and theories of the discipline as parasitic versus creative are central concerns, providing links between poems in the collection, with poem and translation treated analogously. If Bergin’s interest in translation seems academic as well as poetic, it is worth noting that her doctoral research was on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky. Bergin’s investigations of her own processes of assembly and concepts of authorship come together in poems such as ‘Ode to the Microphone’:

Violence is such a lovely word.
I think you’ll find I used it first—
I think you’ll find I heard it first.

The ‘violence’ of composition, of wrenching allusive fragments from their original texts, and of the impossibility of teasing out the network of ghostly allusions in a poet’s work, permeates the collection (and, perhaps, has its roots in the ‘beautiful imitation’, as Bergin coolly puts it, of Eleanor’s suicide).  The use of the deliberately disingenuously aphoristic- sounding epigraph from Marianne Moore’s ‘Armor’s Undermining Modesty’ frames the collection accordingly: ‘What’s more precise than precision? Illusion.’ Moore, the modernist poet, editor and translator, was notorious for her use of collage forms, insertion of quotations (her ‘Picking and Choosing’), and her severe editing of her own poetry— and that of her contributors while she was editing the literary journal The Dial.  This slippery quotation introduces Bergin’s own elusive riddles whilst suggesting a formal affinity with Moore’s poetic practices. Like Moore, Bergin is interested in arrangements (‘The Giving Away’), collages (quotations from the inquest report in ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’), and effacements (‘Nine Footnotes’, in which only the numbered notes remain, held together as a poem by the faintest of echoes, or ‘The Stenographer’, with truncated lines ending: ‘After the quotations will come the accusations […]’).

This preoccupation with allusion, and the tension between source-text and translation or poem, is brought to the fore by the ‘Notes’ which, naturally, beg the question of what the poet does and does not include. The ‘Notes’ appear with deliberately varied levels of comprehensiveness. Further light is shed on ‘Faithful Henry’, for instance, if Bergin’s citation of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is followed. The refrain of the poem; the ‘iron band breaking from around my heart’, is taken from the first story in Jack Zipes’s 2010 translation from the German to English, ‘The Frog King, or Iron Henry’. Henry, the ‘Faithful’ servant of the frog prince, ‘had been so distressed when he learned his master had been turned into a frog that he had ordered three iron bands to be wrapped around his heart’. After the spell is broken, they begin to crack as his heart swells with joy, the prince balks at the sound, and Henry replies: ‘No, my lord, it’s really nothing | but the band around my heart…’. Bergin turns this tale into a domestic tragedy. ‘Faithful Henry’ gazes at his reflection in the mirror, and asks ‘Do you have any faith in yourself, Henry?’. His wife asks, like the Prince, ‘what is that cracking sound’ as ‘another’, ‘another iron band’ breaks ‘from around his heart’. Henry replies that the sound is ‘Because I feel so happy’.  Henry is ‘faithless’, hopeless, and the melancholy of the poem is achieved though its ironic borrowings from ‘The Frog King’.

Elsewhere, this irony appears overused. This could be due to the amount of single, final lines Bergin uses (there are twelve, depending how we read the stanza shapes) which, characteristic of the collection, often work to undermine or trouble her often sincere and subtle preceding lines. For instance, ‘That’s just one example’ in ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’, or the disingenuous ‘Yes, I thought, this is very me’ in ‘Dying’. Whilst no doubt effective in some cases, the frequency of these late ironic turns eventually begins to feel gimmicky; in some cases, I longed for the poem to allow its sincerity to stand without that final interruption.

The figure of Eleanor Marx provides the axle around which other poems within the collection turn. While joined by their formal interests and self-conscious constructions, the details of Eleanor’s life prompt, or provide connections, between several thematic concerns. The Woman Question’ contains an early feminist consideration of women’s education, monogamy, violence against women and ‘barter marriages’. These ideas are examined within Bergin’s collection through a series of female personas, including Virginia Woolf and Gisèle Freund, the photographer. Bergin also gives voice to historically overlooked women, famous and otherwise, ranging from a contemporary hairdresser to Eleanor and her sisters, all of whom are, of course, dwarfed in fame by their father. Furthermore, as Emily Apter notes in her ‘Biography’ of the translation, Eleanor’s version of Madame Bovary is perhaps most well-known for its later negative appraisals, fuelled by Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘marked up’ copy of the text which he annotated (or defaced) with ‘Eleanor’s most egregious errors, many of them pertaining to descriptions of Emma’s appearance’.  The rehabilitative impulse of this collection seems, then, attuned to the later biography of the translation and its reception.

Most striking is a sequence of three poems at the centre of the collection: ‘Drama Lessons for Young Girls’, ‘Tamer and Hawk’, and ‘Talking to Anne-Marie after the American Election’. Bergin has noted that ‘the editorial process is really surprisingly, to me, physical’, and that, assembling the volume, she ‘physically lay [the poems] all out on the floor’, exposing ‘themes…that I didn’t even know that I was consciously writing.’  The arrangement ensures that these three poems are read against each other. The first, ‘Drama Lessons’, ‘conflates three experiences’: a ‘visit to an exhibition’, ‘listening to a news report on the failure of authorities in Oxfordshire to act on claims of sexual abuse of young girls’, and ‘attending a lecture given by playwright Margaret Wilkinson on how to read a script.’ Here, ‘hundreds of girls came bleeding to the door! | Their right hands outstretched’ and as ‘the grown-ups pulled the grille’ are deemed ‘naughty’, even provocative, as ‘Their lips were red and their eyes were wide’. The innocence of the ‘girls’ ‘cast’ in different roles in ‘Drama Lessons’ is transformed in the following poem into the allegory of ‘Tamer and Hawk’:

The bird is wired with little bells.
It won’t take fright:
it doesn’t want to hear the jingle-jangle,
does it?

The allegory is then shed in ‘Talking to Ann-Marie after the American Election’.  Here, the current U.S. President’s litany of abuses against women remains unspoken but haunts the poem, and the voice is sat, threateningly so if we think of Holofernes ‘with Judith under the laurel tree’ after ‘yesterday’s catastrophe’.

Bergin’s collection is ambitious in ideas and form. She juggles theoretical and formal concerns, slipping between jarring syntax and musical, lyrical phrases with an impressive ease that, at its best, mixes ironic detachment with authentic emotional response. This collection wrangles skilfully with allusion, fragmentary forms and the poet’s own processes of composition. With lines that, again recall Moore (here ‘Holes Bored in a Workbag by the Scissors’), Bergin writes:

And so it goes on.

My right hand grasps the scissors.
My left hand twists them loose.



Works Cited

Apter, Emily, ‘Biography of Translation: Madame Bovary between Eleanor Marx and Paul de Man’, Translation Studies, 1.1 (2008), pp. 73-89.

Bazin, Victoria, ‘Hysterical Virgins and Little Magazines: Marianne Moore’s Editorship of The Dial ’, The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, 4.1 (2013), pp. 55-75.

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Task of the Translator’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (Pimlico: London, 2009).

Bergin, Tara, This is Yarrow (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013).

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, trans. and ed. by Jack Zipes (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010), pp. 13-17.

Holmes, Rachel, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Moore, Marianne, The New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. by Heather Cass White (London: Faber and Faber, 2017).


Francesca Bratton recently completed her AHRC funded PhD on ‘Hart Crane and the Little Magazine’ at Durham University. Her poetry has appeared in Eborakon and The Oxonian Review and she was shortlisted for this year’s Jane Martin Prize.

Return to Issue 3