Originally a twitter thread, 28 August 2021
People who dismiss what the von Westphalen & Marx families did to Helene Demuth just prove to me they have no concept of what working women experienced in the 19th century. More importantly, they don’t value working women, and never have.
Helene went to work as a maid when she was 20, in 1840, in the von Westphalen household. The Westphalens were minor nobility (as the von indicates). She worked there about a year, then her sister got pregnant and they were sent away. As usually happened when a maid got pregnant.
About two years later, the daughter of the house, Jenny, married Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx), and Jenny’s mom decided that Jenny needed a servant. So Jenny’s mom hired Helene to work for Jenny. But Jenny’s mom didn’t make sure Helene got paid. (Not that Maid-ing was lucrative…)
In a big house, the head housemaid could expect clothes, food, shelter and 19 pounds a year, paid quarterly. A big house housemaid had better hours than other housemaids: usually from before dawn until supper, so 12 hour days, with a half-day off once a week.
(And theoretically light duty on Sunday, but someone still has to light the fires and carry the water. It’s really not surprising that London housemaids often died unmarried, before age 35. They were worked to death, plus exposed to every pathogen.)
But Helene was not a housemaid in a big house. She was the only servant in a small, poor household that was almost always in debt. Jenny von Westphalen Marx spent most of her adult life getting her parents/brother to send her money, or pawning her stuff.
Karl was terrible with money — spent what he didn’t have, spent other people’s money, did not support the household. Jenny did her best to be the responsible one, but a spendthrift spouse, small children, and no independent access to income? Kinda doomed.
And sadly? Not even remotely uncommon then. Women had no right to deny their husband anything he wanted. No matter what it cost her or their children. At the time? A married woman wasn’t even a separate legal entity.
Now: the 19th century had servants the way we have appliances & infrastructure. To keep a household warm, fed, clothed, and clean was significantly more work than one person could manage. Being the only servant in a household is something like homesteading in terms of work…
But without Instagram, ownership, refrigeration, modern soap, transport, even the most primitive washing machine, or running water. Since coal was the major fuel, everything was dirty, all the time. The streets were literally full of shit — human, dog, horse, pig.
And let’s do the equivalent money real quick: it’s hard to get a straight conversion, but in 1850, a farthing (1/4 of an old penny) bought a 1 pound loaf of bread, a cup of tea with sugar, a sausage roll, a cheap newspaper, an apple in season, some rags. It’s not unreasonable for 1 farthing = $1.
Which means 1 pound would be worth about $960 2021 USD, so a large household’s maid would be making about $18K a year, plus room & board.
But… in the Marx household? Let’s not lie ourselves and think they paid her on time and in full. (Or maybe they paid her, then immediately “borrowed” it back.)
And Helene… was a German peasant woman without much education. In a country & city where labor was cheap and plentiful, and hardly anyone got hired anywhere without significant letters of recommendation. Which Helene wouldn’t get from Jenny. And which nobody was likely to accept anyway, because Karl Marx was not a favorite of most people who had the money to hire servants.
If Helene tried to leave, Jenny would be alone, without any help, and probably unable to hire anyone. So Jenny was not letting that happen. Helene wasn’t a fluent English speaker, had no money to go home, and no way to support herself in the community around the Marxes.
That social circle was all Helene knew. She was trapped. (Jenny was, too.)
Helene died with 95 pounds to her name, which is low, even for a 19th century servant. And most of that seems to have come after Karl died, when she went to work for Engels.
The years 1850-1851 are the critical ones. We know that Frederich Engels was in Manchester for most of those 2 years. We don’t know exactly where, but he was evading the Manchester police (who wanted to deport him). It’s highly unlikely he was getting on the train to London very often.
Jenny got pregnant in June of 1850 and seems to have gone abroad in the early part of her pregnancy. She was back by November, when her 13 month old son died in London. (Note: Karl had baby rabies for SONS. Was pissy in his letters whenever they had a girl.)
Sometime that late summer/early autumn of 1850, Helene also got pregnant with her only child. Now… given a maid’s duties, access to money, and free time? That’s a miracle if it was voluntary. My bet is it wasn’t. Because maids getting sexually assaulted by employers was so common it was a stock trope.
Wait, Jenny didn’t take her maid?
It doesn’t look like it. Looks like Helene stayed in London to tend to the older girls and the toddler son, and to Karl himself.
(Seriously, not a guy you want small children dependent upon if you want them fed and clean. He was not suited.)
Jenny had her girl baby in late March of 1851; Helene had her son in late June of the same year. The Marxes sent the baby girl out for fostering/boarding; she died when she was 13 months old. Helene also sent her son for fostering; he lived, and grew up as a foster child.
Helene seems to have been somewhat involved in his life (and it’s likely that’s where any money she managed to be paid from 1851 forward went to his care). She seems to have picked a better foster family. But… fostering in the 1850s was not a good life for a child.
Karl’s older daughters seemed to treat Helene’s son as a brother. They felt guilty about their parents’ treatment of him for most of their adult lives. They were 5 and 6 that year. That’s old enough to be aware of the currents in a household.
Helene named her son Fred, so people try to pin it on Engels, but he was in a committed relationship, in Manchester. It’s far enough away that it’s unlikely.
Communists like to pretend they have magic dick, but it’s not THAT magic.
Karl is the likely candidate.
In the Victorian, when an unmarried maid got pregnant, she got fired. For the Marxes especially, they needed to avoid the “free love” label they’d get if they kept a servant with an illegitimate baby. (“Free Love” would have blown the movement & destroyed his writing career.)
But they didn’t.
So that Helene kept working for them… says a lot.
Helene did stay on for the rest of the Marxes’ lives.
She left no writing of her own.
We can’t know how she felt about what happened in August-September of 1850.
Or how she felt about the household.
But… no sex is consensual when one person has power over the other. Karl had economic, social and emotional power over Helene — she clearly loved the Marx girls (and they loved her); she seems to have been fond of Jenny and been loved in return. And she had nowhere else to go.
People have been sunk-costing themselves for as long as humans have been able to scam each other. We’ve been convincing ourselves that this awful situation is really love, and we’re part of something big and beautiful, when really, we’re just being exploited. We brainwash ourselves very well.
But what we do know is that she was an involuntary immigrant, being paid very poorly, with no real access to anyone outside her employer’s social network, who was expected to work incredibly hard for most hours of the week, who was not fluent in the local language.
Transplant them to the 21st century US, and that’s a slavery case. (Go read Alex Tizon’s article about Lola in The Atlantic from 2017.)
If we’re talking working class… Helene Demuth should be a primary example.
It’s not okay just because it was a long time ago.