“NO-ONE understands men better than the women they don’t marry,” declares Lizzie Burns, the eponymous narrator of Gavin McCrea’s debut novel Mrs Engels.
And — the title notwithstanding — the unmarried long-term lover of Frederick Engels, who co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx.
A marginalised figure in the history books, the fictional Lizzie Burns is a marvellous creation: an illiterate Irish daughter of the Manchester slums whose withering deprecations cut a swathe through the self-delusions and hypocrisies of the founding fathers of Communism.
The novel opens in 1870, as the expected Revolution draws near and Frederick and Lizzie move to London from Manchester to be closer to Karl and Jenny Marx.
They move into a grand house in Primrose Hill, where the addition of a couple of servants proves vexing to Lizzie, who finds herself working harder to keep tabs on her girls than she ever did when she kept her own home.
Such paradoxes are rife in Mrs Engels: Frederick, when Lizzie first meets him, is often vilified by the comrades as a ‘capitalist and millocrat’, a well-heeled German immigrant accustomed to moving in the best social circles.
“It’s not uncommon that [Frederick] has to answer to this charge,” Lizzie observes, “not uncommon even though the world knows he worked in that mill to keep Karl and the Movement afloat. And knock me acock if I ever see Karl having to defend himself in this way.”
Gavin McCrea has crafted a beautifully detailed historical fiction in Mrs Engels, and the political backdrop is indeed a compelling one as he describes the revolutionary frustrations of Engels and Marx, the fallout to the Franco-Prussian war and the consequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune, and the rise of militant Irish nationalism in Britain.
Lizzie’s drawing room hosts agitators, revolutionaries and activists of all hues, but there’s none so fascinating as Lizzie herself, toasted at one point by Engels as a “Proletarian, Irish rebel and model Communist”.
In truth, Lizzie is far more difficult to label that her lover realises. From the very beginning Lizzie tells us that she’s a pragmatic woman whose loyalty is only her own survival: “Establish yourself in a decent situation,” is her advice to all young women, “and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.”
It’s a pragmatism born of surviving the worst of Manchester’s Victorian slums, and in overcoming the personal tragedy that brought Lizzie and Frederick together but which haunts them for the rest of their lives.
Through it all Lizzie retains her robust sense of humour and her irreverent refusal to kow-tow to those who consider Frederick and Karl geniuses (“As for Karl, the state he was in, he was unable to mastermind the evacuation of his own bowels”).
Bawdy and uncouth, very much a woman who lives life on her own terms despite her economic dependence, Lizzie Burns is one of the most charming fictional comic creations of recent times.
If that were all Gavin McCrea had achieved with Mrs Engels, it would have been plenty; but Lizzie Burns is also a heartbreakingly poignant heroine, a woman fully aware of her status as “a pauper woman on an expensive couch” who has to endure society’s jibes about “my hike to the higher caste”, and a woman who above all craves the love of a complex man hugely conflicted about his entitlement to love her.
Laugh-out-loud funny, touching and tender, and almost Dickensian in its physical descriptions of the Industrial Revolution’s worst excesses, Mrs Engels is a stunningly accomplished debut novel.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved