My review of Gavin McCrea’s first novel, Mrs Engels: the second in a series of occasional book reviews.
Mrs Engels strikes a very different tone to Natasha Walter’s A Quiet Life, with her cool, sophisticated protagonist. It is also based on the life of a real woman: Lizzie Burns, the Manchester-Irish mill worker from the slums who became the lover of Friedrich Engels, and moved to London with him in 1870. Engels is famous as the co-founder of Marxist theory, but very little is known about his life partner. Lizzie was illiterate, so left no letters or diaries, and Gavin McCrea’s novel tells her story by imagining her language and unique point of view.
And what a voice! Lizzie, in McCrea’s fictional version of her, has a turn of phrase that is hilarious – poetic, hair-raising and heart-breaking – and she holds firm, take-no-prisoners views on life and love. At the beginning of the book she advises all unmarried women not to be fooled by romantic ideas when it comes to choosing a husband:
What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping – is the mint that jingles in his pockets. In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.
Lizzie is a born survivor. Her working class background has given her a searing contempt for the foibles and hypocrisies of the political men and women around her, but to the outward eye she is discreet as she moves through the intellectual drawing rooms of London. She is good at keeping secrets, and the women around her (including Marx’s put-upon wife Jenny, his mistress Nim and renegade daughter Tussy) insist on confiding in her, even when she does not want them to. But Lizzie is fundamentally kind, and a good listener: ‘My memory is in my ears’ she says. It is a survival mechanism that conceals her hidden illiteracy.
She has other secrets too, both personal and political. As readers, we are the only ones who know what is really going on in her mind as she struggles with the contradictions in her life. Her memories of her sister Mary (Engels’ former mistress) dominate her thoughts, and their shared story is threaded through the main narrative. For all her fierce humour and insistence on money being the only thing that matters, we know that Lizzie seeks a legitimacy of her own and gradually finds it through a growing self-awareness.
Both Natasha Walter (see previous post) and Gavin McCrea use fiction to explore the essential truth, as they see it, about real-life central female characters. When I read letters in the archive I sometimes feel as if I am spying on women’s secret lives, but my excuse is that their stories deserve to be told.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 15 June 2019
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe, 2016). This is an edited version of my review first published on the Shiny New Books blog.