It astounds me when an author can create such a convincing voice for a character based on a real historical figure from an entirely different era - one which pays tribute to the real person, intellectually engages with the social politics of the day and makes that voice so compelling you want to hang upon every word she says. Debut author Gavin McCrea has done that with Lizzie Burns, a working-class woman of Irish descent who moved to London in 1870 with celebrated theorist Friedrich Engels. This was a time when Engels and Marx were engaged with founding a political philosophy which would change the world. McCrea is more concerned with the domestic side of this story. I don’t just mean the household duties and complex emotional bond between Lizzie and Friedrich – although the novel does deal meaningfully with these intricacies. What he’s created is a challenge to how the overarching ideals of this communist movement hold up when viewed through the lens of a woman with little means, bad lungs and a ferocious heart.
Lizzie has quite a complex attitude towards love and relationships. Part of her is highly conscious of the financial ramifications partnerships create. At the beginning of the novel she is vociferous on this point about practicality superseding love. Later she affirms that “I’ve seen enough of this world to know that most of us have to accept men we don’t feel for, and I’m not sure it’s for the worst in the end. A marriage of emotions can’t be lasting. It wouldn’t be healthful if it was.” Lizzie and Friedrich’s relationship is built largely upon an arrangement not entirely based on love. Friedrich is a wealthy heir to an industrial business. Lizzie keeps the house, manages the servants and runs errands for Friedrich. For Lizzie relationships are an exchange: financial and sexual. She states “A love with no interest does not exist. We always expect something for what we give.” Yet, as the novel goes on, her hardness of feeling yields to more intricately-shaded emotions and the desires she holds at bay come forth.
McCrea skilfully brings Lizzie to life through a sympathetic portrayal of her tightly-contained emotions and also through her physicality. Although feisty, she is not all hardness. She contemplates “I sometimes think that because my shoulders are wide and my waist doesn’t go in, that because my speaking holds its share of Irish, I’m taken for solid, when it’s tender I really am in broad light and with sober senses.” She is emotional and sensual. As well as enjoying pleasure with Friedrich, she also longs for other men. She has a glancing but powerful sexual attraction for a black musician she sees performing during an enforced retreat in Ramsgate. There is also a former lover that she shares a tumultuous past with and whose presence in her mind threatens to undo the order of her current arrangement. It’s with a jaded heart that she observes “Love buys cheap and seeks to sell at a higher price; our greed is for gain that lies outside our reach. We desire those who don’t desire us in return.” It’s tremendously moving the way Lizzie pays tribute to those desires which stir her the most while remaining loyal to the household she’s made.
There is a terrible insecurity overshadowing Lizzie’s relationship with Friedrich. The novel moves back and forth between their time in London and their past life in Manchester where Friedrich had a long relationship with Mary, a woman very close to both of them. Lizzie also suspects Friedrich of being a philanderer. With her wry awareness of the ways of men she accepts this but melancholically notes when she suspects him of keeping secrets “Is there a loneliness more lonely than mistrust?” Surely this is a sentiment anyone who mulls over their own suspicions while in a relationship can relate to. As the story shows, sometimes it’s these stormy thoughts which can be binding as well as damaging. McCrea presents the complicated motivations and variances of desire astonishingly well in this rich, engrossing story.
What I appreciated most in this novel are the astute observations about our human compulsion to envision multiple paths in life. Journeying into an established life in London with Friedrich at the novel’s beginning, Lizzie states “My heart feels faint, which can happen when you make the acquaintance of a real future to replace the what-might-be.” In this statement you can feel what alternatives in life Lizzie has sacrificed having taken decisive action and stuck with Friedrich. Yet she also acknowledges the element of chance in coming to certain places in life: “An animal, that’s what chance makes of me.” Although she lives in a highly civilized way, it gradually becomes clear how emotionally debased she feels because of the way fate has closed around her. As the novel progresses you learn how very different things might have been for her and Friedrich in Manchester if the wheel had spun another way.
Friedrich Engels looms large in the history books as a thinker whose ideas went on to reshape much of our civilization in ways very different from how he and Karl Marx intended. This novel considers him from another angle because as Lizzie states “They call him a genius… Me, I can only know what I know, and that’s the man, the meat and bones of him.” In fact, we’re informed quite a lot about this man’s meat! There are also some stupendous descriptions of Marx: “whiskers like bramble on my face, his lips like dried-out sausage.” It’s in the flesh we’re made to really feel these men’s devotion to a cause which supersedes their own circumstances whilst being aware that these are men with faults and foibles which are all too human. In addition, we find out that Friedrich is someone that Lizzie underestimates in some crucial ways. Eleanor Marx, nicknamed Tussy, is also fascinatingly portrayed as an emotionally-fraught teenager – a somewhat sad foreshadowing of the tumultuous route her life would eventually take.
Before I started this novel I was entirely unaware of who Lizzie Burns was and after reading a few chapters I couldn’t resist looking on Wikipedia to get the outline of her life. In a way this spoiled part of the plot as McCrea is naturally faithful to following the thread of her real life. Several realizations are made as Lizzie’s past is gradually recounted. It obviously didn’t spoil the experience, but part of me wishes I had experienced it all knowing nothing and then read up more afterwards. This is just a small caution to any readers saying you might want to resist this impulse.
‘Mrs Engels’ is an absolutely engrossing read which has left a lasting impression with me. Taking a punt on new authors is a risky business, but Gavin McCrea’s story is so confidently told with humour and sympathy he’s clearly a masterful storyteller. I hope everyone reads this new author who has unearthed and given a voice to a fascinating woman from history.