Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What became of Helen Macfarlane? A Victorian mystery solved at last

Few knew her identity at the time, and fewer still remembered her in the years that followed, but Helen Macfarlane was probably the most influential woman in the Chartist movement.

Writing under the name Howard Morton, Macfarlane made the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto, which appeared in George Julian Harney’s Red Republican in 1850, and was described by Karl Marx as “the only collaborator on his spouting rag who had original ideas”.

Macfarlane disappeared from politics after breaking with Harney in 1851 and was forgotten until her identity was revealed by Harney’s biographer A.R. Schoyen in 1958. But even then and ever since, her early life and what happened to her subsequently have been a mystery.

Then, in late 2012, the mystery was solved by her biographer David Black and BBC Radio Scotland researcher and broadcaster  Louis Yeoman. Their findings were broadcast in BBC Radio Scotland’s Women With a Past series.

The story is truly fascinating, and it is now possible both to listen to the broadcast online or read the story of Macfarlane’s life in an excellent Wikipedia article.

The daughter of the owner of a calico-printing works, she found herself all but destitute when mechanisation forced the family business to the wall. In the year of revolutions of 1848 she witnessed the Vienna uprising against the Hapsburg monarchy, before returning to Britain where she began to contribute articles for Harney and came to know Marx and Friedrich Engels.

But it is what became of Macfarlane after her break with Harney which is truly both fascinating and sad. Twice married, with further adventures and family bereavements behind her, she eventually settled down as the wife of a Church of England vicar, dying aged 41 in 1860.

By Mark Crail

No comments: