Helen McFarlane - the radical feminist admired by Karl Marx
- 25 November 2012
- From the section Scotland
Helen Mcfarlane was a radical journalist, admired by Karl Marx, who was the first translator of the Communist Manifesto into English. But why did she vanish from history?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a period drama must be in want of a feisty heroine who finds love at last.
But our heroine, Helen Macfarlane was no fictional character and her life would have shocked Jane Austen's smocks off.
Helen was the very first translator of the Communist Manifesto. Not the one we know today, but a version that carries her own unique voice.
Her version begins: "A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism..."
She was moonlighting as a revolutionary journalist, writing under the male pen-name 'Howard Morton' in the fiery pages of 'The Red Republican', one of the very earliest Socialist newspapers.
And the things she wrote - in a world where even in radical circles 'votes for women' was considered an embarrassing step too far, Helen was a full-blown feminist who dreamed of a world without slaves.
"A republic without poor; without classes... a society, such indeed as the world has never yet seen, not only of free men, but of free women," she wrote.
No wonder Karl Marx called her a 'rara avis', a rare bird, and praised her original ideas.
But Helen vanished from history after a radical junket that went badly wrong.
A gossipy letter from Marx revealed that in true Victorian novel style, she was unforgivably snubbed by her editor's jealous wife.
This was her fellow radical Scot, Mary Harney, who 'declined her acquaintance'.
Helen walked out. Historians were left stumped. Nobody knew where Helen came from and nobody knew where she went.
Along with historian David Black, I decided to find out.
Helen had red roots alright - her family came from Scotland's lucrative Turkey red dyeing industry but they were not oppressed members to the proletariat.
They were the mill owners.
Miss Macfarlane was born in 1818 in Crossmill in Barrhead to a well-to-do family who were not afraid to break strikes by using the army.
She lived in a world of fashionable townhouses in Glasgow's Royal Crescent, and smelly but vibrantly radical printworks in Campsie and Crossmill.
She learnt German because her family studied their dyes with world-leading scientists in Giessen.
But on St Andrew's Day 1842, two weeks after the death of her father, Helen's life turns another sensational page.
The business went bust. She and her brothers and sisters had to sign away their inheritance.
Miss Macfarlane had to go into service as a governess.
All hopes of a dazzling Jane Austen-style marriage were dashed.
Teaching abroad, she witnessed the 1848 revolution in Vienna and turned to revolution herself. 'Howard Morton' was born.
But where did she go after the flounce?
South African historian Shelagh Spencer had the answer.
Helen had found love. She married a refugee from the 1848 revolutions, Francis Proust and had a baby named like a feminist manifesto of the day - Consuela Pauline Roland Proust.
They went to join her aspiring Scots emigrant family who had just gone to Natal in South Africa.
But tragedy struck again - another page in the novel.
Helen's ailing husband was taken off the emigrant ship before it left British waters and after the harrowing voyage, her eight-month-old baby died only days after she landed in South Africa.
Bereft, Helen returned home. But by now her husband had died, and then another surprise.
Reader, she married a vicar.
In the tiny leafy Cheshire parish of Baddiley, under a towering holly tree, you will find the grave of Helen Edwards, wife of the Reverend John Wilkinson Edwards, rector of the parish.
She was only 41 when she died in 1860, leaving her own two little toddlers Herbert and Walter behind her.
But had she given up on the Revolution?
It's possible that she did - but there's one further twist.
Helen's Communism was steeped in a radical Christianity fresh from Germany.
Jesus was the 'first martyr' of the revolution, the 'Galilean proletarian' who preached to working people.
Her revolutionary writing dripped in the Bible.
Everyone was equal across race, class, and sex because God dwelt in everyone.
It was not just immoral to use up your fellow human being for profit - it was blasphemy.
Helen's Hobgoblin was the spirit of Marxist history and class struggle that would inevitably bring on the great day of revolution, but it was a very close cousin to her husband's Holy Spirit and his belief in the great day - the second coming of Jesus.
Even if Helen dialled back her outward radicalism so as not to frighten the horses of the Cheshire Hunt, it is unlikely that her radical thirst for justice ever went away.