Longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea enlivens a piece of history that few are aware of, looking at the relationship between Frederick Engels and a poor worker from the Irish slums by the name of Lizzie Burns.
A historical novel that deals with not only love but also questions political ideologies and often the hypocrisy that resides within parties and key political figures, Mrs Engels is an insightful gem that has character at it’s core and entertains with the likes of Lizzie, Jenny, Marx and Engels, whilst at the same time illuminating a key part of history.
There is so much that is left in question in regards to the history and biography of Lizzie Burns and her sister Mary but McCrea’s novel provides an intrigue and interest to find out more about such. A debut novel for McCrea, there is much about it that seems experienced, particularly his confidence in setting it within the circles of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Written in first person, McCrea’s narrator is Lizzie, who was born in 1827. According to Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Lizzie “was illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet”. Lizzie worked in a cotton mill in Manchester prior to meeting Engels who she thought would convalesce her life. She remained illiterate whilst even within those social circles. Her relationship with Frederick Engels lasted the remainder of her lifetime, until she died at forty.
This knowledge that Lizzie had for an impoverished life over the more well-to-do Engels rendered her useful for those circles and at points in the novel it seems that she is very much the token working class “helpmeet”. The book jumps back and forth in time as do her thoughts regarding this connection with Engels, and the contradictions of her life. Painting Marx in a light of hypocrisy this is an interesting text that tells someone else’s story within their lifetime, a different perspective. Her wit is brutal throughout, her character strong and it is almost impossible to dislike her.
Mrs Engels was published on 1st May 2015 by Scribe UK.