As the old adage goes, “behind every great man is an even better woman,” and this is the story that first-time novelist, Gavin McCrea tells us in Mrs. Engels. Very little is known about Lizzie Burns, the illiterate Irishwoman and longtime lover of Frederick Engels, coauthor of The Communist Manifesto.
The daughter of Communist Manifesto co-author Karl Marx, said that Lizzie “could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet,” others speculate that her influence on Frederick was the basis for The Condition of the English Working Class, since she herself came from an incredibly poor background and continued to work in a factory for the duration of their relationship.
The greatness of this story lies not in what it reveals about this little known historical figure, but in the way that it paints Marx and Engels. Lizzie moves with them to Primrose Hill, a posh neighbourhood, and is immediately struck by the hypocrisy that both men display. While they fiercely chomp against the exploitation of the working class, they are kept afloat by family money– some of the first trust fund kids. She constantly wrestles with these contractions in a voice created perfectly by McCrea.
The Guardian’s Helen Dunmore wrote, “[Lizzie] tells her own story with a fierce wit and trenchancy, shot through with poetry,” and that McCrea’s fictional speculation makes a fine symphony out of the silence that surrounds Lizzie Burns.”
Although it takes readers on a whirlwind ride through the who’s who of mid-ninteenth century London, Mrs. Engels is at its heart a love story. Despite or because of their profound differences, Lizzie and Frederick remain drawn to each other in this complex, high-spirited story “rife with full-bodied, humanizing portraits of historical icons, and told in striking prose” (Booklist). The perfect read for the historical fiction nut, Mrs. Engels is a book to be savoured.
Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea