As a fan of historical fiction, I was intrigued by the subject matter of Gavin McCrea’s debut novel Mrs Engels. This fascinating debut, longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, tells the story of Lizzie and Mary Burns, two women whose lives are not well documented yet play an important role in history.
‘I’m no great lady and I don’t know the fashion of the months, but I’m aware of my new position, in the middle class of life, and I don’t think I’m faring so shabby.’
The novel is narrated by Lizzie Burns – a poor, working Irishwoman who is travelling to London from Manchester, a journey that will change her life forever. By her side is Frederick Engels, her lover and a wealthy cotton mill owner. Their remarkable story is a fictionalised account of Freidrich Engels, a communist who alongside Karl Marx founded ‘Marxism’ – the ideology of the communist movement. In this novel however, the focus is on those women who shaped Engels’ life and work. The women whose illiteracy had resulted in their stories remaining largely untold. Through Mrs Engels, McCrea has brought these little known women to life, and highlighted just how significant they were in inspiring Engels, and subsequently the communist movement.
‘Nothing what happens in the world is peculiar, Miss Burns. It is simply what happens.’
Whilst Engels and Marx theories are key to the story this novel is largely devoted to the Engels’ domestic situation with Lizzie Burns living as Engels’ common law wife. Given the social attitudes of the time it is an unusual arrangement with marriage being considered the norm. With her new life in London ahead of her, Lizzie visualizes a comfortable life with the love and security that Frederick can provide. However, all is not as simple as it may seem. Their relationship is not a conventional one and there are many trials and complications that face Lizzie. This includes the matter of Frederick’s bond with her older sister Mary, which creates a tangled web of emotions. As the story unfolds we get a glimpse into her life and relationships and the Victorian setting is wonderfully detailed, perfectly capturing the way of life and the attitudes of the time.
‘…sometimes in life we don’t get a vote. We have to do what’s in our hearts to do.’
I had very little knowledge before reading this book about Engels and Marx so found this to be an informative, interesting read. The biggest triumph of the novel however, is Lizzie Burns herself. From the very first page I was eager to find out more about her, drawn in by her unique voice. She is certainly a distinctive character, fierce and witty and wiser than some may give her credit. She is an honest, working class woman who has many layers to her. She’s feisty but there is a vulnerability there too that makes her endearing. Her association with Engels makes for a remarkable story. Ultimately, it is a tale of two very different people who once drawn together form an incredible bond, and a need for one and other. As Lizzie craves the security Frederick’s wealth and status can bring, she opens his eyes to the lives of the working class, something which proved significant to his work which will not be forgotten through time.
‘I am as you see me. A pauper woman on an expensive couch. I don’t pretend to be something more.’
I enjoyed reading Mrs Engels, an accomplished debut which has introduced me to a story I had not read or heard of before. It is a story about communism, society, love and most importantly, one unforgettable woman.
Mrs Engels was published in paperback on the 11th February 2016 by Scribe. Many thanks to Scribe for providing a copy for review.