Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Enchanted Princess: Mrs. Karl Marx

Feb 21, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



     The Argentinean-Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guervara, remarked, “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”  Fellow zealot Karl Marx likewise was the possessor of passion; however, the woman he loved was obscured by the red shadow he cast over the world.  

    The founder of Communism exhorted the workers of the world to throw off their chains; but there was one who continued to carry these heavy links post-marriage: Marx’s long laboring wife.  Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen was born high on the royal hierarchy of Trier, Kingdom of Prussia; her father was Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, a descendant of Prussian nobles and the Scottish House of Argyll. The indulged heiress, renowned for beauty and brilliance, was always ensconced in silk, from clothes to pillows to sheets. The family’s parlor knew no shortage of eligible suitors, yet she rejected them when the ‘boy next door,’ (or rather the ruffian from the less affluent side- of- the- tracks of Trier) proffered his heart.  

This was, in fact, Karl Heinrich Marx’s first revolutionary act. It was nothing short of audacious for the young man to court Trier’s princess as his blood had no semblance of blue her family sought in a son-in-law. Karl was descended from a long line of rabbis, though his father, Hirschel, became Heinrich when he converted to Lutheranism (a baptism undertaken for expediency rather than religious conviction). Marx garnered his chutzpah because of his deep-seated belief class should not be an impediment to love--and life without Jenny would be unbearable. It may seem surprising that a twenty-two-year-old manor-born beauty should have fallen for a bourgeois boy four years her junior instead of a dashing officer in braided uniform and of private income. However, the Prussian Jenny subscribed her feelings to the French quote, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” The couple was secretly engaged in 1836 before Karl left to the University of Berlin to study law, followed by a stay in Cologne to edit a leftist newspaper. He returned seven years later, where Jenny, like the biblical Ruth, faithfully waited. By this time the Baron had passed away and Jenny’s mother, realizing her twenty-nine-year old daughter’s devotion, bestowed blessing and a dowry--both of which Jenny would desperately need in years to come.

The marriage banns were published announcing the imminent wedding of “Herr Karl Marx, doctor of philosophy, residing in Cologne, and of Fraulein Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen.” Karl was overjoyed his home-town beauty had chosen him-who a fellow student had described as “nearly the most unattractive man on whom the sun ever shone.” The bride well understood with her vows she was not only marrying a man but a cause, and willingly pledged herself to both.

The long delayed nuptial took place in the Protestant church at Kreuznacher Pauluskirche (the Kreuznach Church of St. Paul,) on June 19, 1843. It was a small affair, boycotted by the bride’s disapproving family except for her mother and brother Edgar. Marx’s radicalism  did not extend to his honeymoon which was a conventional trip to the Rhinepfalz, the German version of Niagara Falls. The Baroness had given Jenny sufficient cash to cover expenses, carefully secured in a double-handed strongbox. The honeymooners left the strongbox open for needy hotel workers to partake.

         Unfortunately, their first brief romantic interlude was to be their last. Jenny had hoped her brilliant husband would secure a niche as a philosophy professor; however, his voluble social advocacy made this impossible. He raged against a world where royals lived in splendor and the masses were duped into accepting their lot through the anesthetic of religion. He espoused his theories as a journalist for a Parisian newspaper in which milieu they became friends of Heinrich Heine, the famed poet who waxed eloquent on Jenny’s considerable charms.  

           Unfortunately, Karl never honored a deadline and was dismissed from his post. The Marx’s were confronted with abject poverty until they made the acquaintance of their “angel”, aptly name Engels, who used his extensive family wealth to aid the economist whose vision  mirrored his own. Karl and a pregnant Jenny fled when the King of Prussia, who did not appreciate the philosopher advocating the demise of his empire, ordered his arrest, and they were forced into a desperate odyssey across Europe: from Paris to Cologne to Brussels. The births of three children increased the pressure of their nomadic existence until they found refuge in England. Other women would have decried their lot- exile in a country where they had no relatives, and did not speak the language. However, Jenny stated, “In these hard times, you must be plucky and keep your head unbowed. The world belongs to the brave.”

     The Marx’s milieu was Dickensian; they lived in a three bedroom slum with their ever growing brood. The adjective that most aptly described their home would be ‘squalor’ based on one visitor’s description, “There is not one solid piece of furniture. The table is covered with an oil cloth, and on it lies manuscripts, books and newspapers as well as the children’s toys, his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, pipes, tobacco ash. To sit down becomes a thoroughly dangerous business. There is a chair with only three legs…”

Ironically,, despite being the world’s foremost economist, Marx was ignorant of capital when it came to household finances. Jenny’s home away from home became the pawnshop where she parted with the remnants of her dowry—including a silver dinner service bearing the crest of the Scottish House of Argyll--while Karl’s retreat when the family bedlam became overwhelming, was the reading room at the British Library. Still, despite working on his great tomes which he believed held the antidote to the sufferings of the proletariat, he took time to humor his children. When Marx was writing “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” he was harnessed to a chair, (supposedly one with four legs,) so his children could play horse and carriage while he served as horsey.

Despite the ever present specter of poverty, Jenny also found contentment, “The years I spent in his little study copying his scrawled articles are among the happiest of my life.” She had an unfailing belief in her husband’s brilliance and believed the world would ultimately embrace this truth. The family lore was Karl was the modern Prometheus, engaged in an epic struggle against bourgeoisie gods.

       Jenny accepted her Job-like torments with little complaint:,  flight across Europe, pregnant with toddlers in tow, abject poverty, alienation from family—and that in and of itself is remarkable. She was a fierce adherent of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘For better or worse.’  In 1850, Frau Marx, despite carrying her fourth baby, undertook a tour to raise money for the communist cause. (Karl could not do so as he was immersed in his manifesto, advocating the masses to revolution.) Jenny entrusted the care of her family to Helene DeMuth, nicknamed Lenchen, who had accompanied the family from Prague as the Marx maid, and received room and board in lieu of wages. During his wife’s absence Karl committed an Arnold Schwarzenegger- he impregnated the maid. Apparently Lenchen had interpreted too literally Jenny’s words to take over household duties while she was gone.

Marx was chagrined at Lenchen’s condition, not on moral scruples- but rather because he felt it might be construed as his having taken advantage of a proletariat. However, he could also have viewed his simultaneously pregnant wife and housekeeper with a variation of his adage: to each according to their means to each according to his needs. Thankfully for Marx, Comrade Friedrich Engels obligingly claimed paternity and the boy, christened Freddy DeMuth, was adopted by a working class family. He did this both to save the Marx’s marriage and because the news would have provided lethal ammunition to Karl’s enemies. When Jenny returned she commiserated with Lenchen and admonished Engels. Freddy’s true paternity was  buried for decades in the Marx mystique as Stalin desired to whitewash the unsavory tidbit and stuff it deep in the Soviet archives. Ironically, Freddy was the only one of Karl’s children to live to see the advent of the Russian Revolution of which his father had been architect. 

        The Marxs had further reason to berate the capitalist system: they blamed it for the deaths of four of their children as a result of illness born from malnutrition, lack of medical care and unsanitary living conditions. Their first loss was Charles Louis Henri Edgar, (Musch), who died of intestinal tuberculosis. Marx poured out his grief in a letter to Engels, who stood by him,  helped with his writing and provided financial support. His son’s demise plunged him into a two year depression. Charles Louis’ passing was followed by the deaths of Henry Edward Guy, (Guido;) Jenny Eveline Frances, (Franziska,) and an unnamed final child. Of the latter Karl had first bemoaned he could not afford a cradle, and then he could not afford a coffin.

The tragedies drew husband and wife yet closer, united by shared grief and commitment to their daughters Jenny Caroline, Jenny Laura and Jenny Eleanor. In fact, despite all its pitfalls, the marriage of the father and mother of communism remained rich with love (though devoid of capital). On a trip to their Prussian hometown to discover the contents of his mother’s will, Karl wrote to his wife, “Dear sweet darling Jenny, Every day and on every side I am asked about the ‘most beautiful girl in Trier’ and the ‘queen of the ball.’ It’s damned pleasant for a man, when his wife lives on like this as an ‘enchanted princess’ in the imagination of a whole town.”

     But even such intense love could not buoy Jenny forever. She had been experiencing intense internal pain, and in 1881, was diagnosed with liver cancer and passed away at age sixty-seven on December 2 of that year. Karl was inconsolable-life without Jenny was unbearable. While fate had not spared Fru Marx much, her death did spare her bearing witness to the tragedies which befell her girls. Two years later bladder cancer claimed her firstborn, Jenny Caroline, which proved a second and lethal punch to the man who had recently become a widower. Weakened by despair and his health compromised by years of drinking and smoking, in 1883 Karl Marx joined his spouse and child in Highgate Cemetery.

The next two daughters shared their mother’s questionable taste in men. Jenny Laura died in a cyanide induced suicide pact, with her husband Paul Lafargue. His suicide note proclaimed, “Long live Communism!” The youngest, Jenny Eleanor, also ended her life with cyanide when she discovered her common-law spouse, Edward Aveling, had embezzled her funds and legally married a young actress.

        Fate was, at last, merciful to Jenny by sparing her having to witness  the horror which befell her family after she died, one which bore a marked resemblance to a Greek tragedy. However, Jenny also never lived to see her husband’s vision turn into a tidal wave of a political movement that changed the history of the world and made his name immortal, though quickly snubbing her part in the process. But she would not have raged against his place in history even though her own legacy was lost. It would have been enough for her that she was the Mother of what she had always prayed would be an egalitarian brotherhood. Although the Baron’s daughter had more than her fair share from the quiver of the arrows of misfortune, she at least lived her life with the husband who, to the last, always saw her as Trier’s, and his, enchanted princess.