Gavin McCrea. Mrs Engels. Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe Publications. RRP: $29.99, 352 pp, ISBN: 9781925106688
Most devoted readers can point to one book, typically read in adolescence, that started them on their path to serious reading. For this reader, it was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, given to me to read by my English teacher in my second year of high school. Captivated by the perspicacity and artistry of the writing in that iconic novel, I have gravitated, since that long ago time, to similar reading experiences in more contemporary fiction. For its wit, style and voice, UK writer Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs Engels, deserves to be considered a modern classic.
McCrea’s inspired imagining of the life of Friedrich (Frederick, in the novel) Engels’ Irish working class helpmeet, Lizzie Burns, is set between the years 1870 and 1878 with the present action focusing on Lizzie and Frederick’s move to London to be closer to Frederick’s comrade and writing partner, Karl Marx. Interspersed with frequently humorous descriptions of the illiterate but determined Lizzie’s efforts to set up her household, deal with her recalcitrant maidservants and navigate her new social standing, are flashbacks to an earlier time when she and her sister, Mary, first encounter Frederick, come from Germany to oversee his father’s Manchester mill.
It is impulsive, naïve Mary with whom Frederick first falls in love and sets up house, providing a comfortable lifestyle for both her and Lizzie. Mary’s good fortune, however, is not to last. Following her sister’s untimely death, Lizzie, alone, afraid and increasingly accustomed to her new privilege, decides to stay with Frederick despite his refusal to legitimise their relationship through marriage. In truth, her choices are few.
Practical-minded Lizzie understands very well the vulnerable position she is in as a single, unmarried woman of the time period, and declares her views on love and sentiment at the outset of the novel as she makes her way to London with Frederick: ‘Love is a bygone idea; centuries worn. There’s things we can go without, and love is among them, bread and a warm hearth are not’ (6).
Lizzie’s lack of sentimentality and mercenary approach to her living arrangements result from the harsh circumstances of her younger life and her need for security, but she is not without the desire for love, nor, she discovers, is she happy to simply resign herself to a life of banal and unsatisfying household management. She longs to be useful, and as the political climate heats up with the advent of the Franco-Prussian War, the collapse of the Paris Commune and the growing backlash against Frederick and Karl’s ideas and leadership, she asks Frederick to give her something to do:
I’ll say the house is a problem I want no more business with. Give me a job, I’ll say. A proper purpose. I can no longer be happy living in a wife’s constraints. Put me to good use, send me out to do what I’m fit for. No matter how mean the task, I’ll perform it, as long as it brings me a distance from this place (151).
It is this conflict at the root of Lizzie’s character—the fear-based need for comfort and security at home challenged by the independent drive to be out in the world, contributing alongside the men to their political cause—that makes McCrea’s heroine fascinating, believable and wonderfully human.
On her deathbed, Lizzie receives a final gift from Frederick, and her conclusion about the man she has been living with is one we might reach about all characters, fictional and real:
You think if you ask enough questions you’ll get to know what they’re like, but you won’t. You think there’s something there, something to find. The truth is, there’s naught but what you have in your mind about them (343-344).
While license with history is taken in Mrs Engels, McCrea has effectively woven certain factual details of the Marx and Engels partnership into the story, effectively embedding the narrative in a historical context while imagining the more personal attributes and flaws of the two famous men. Nevertheless, this remarkable tale belongs to the little-known women behind the political giants, and to one woman in particular who could not ask for a more lively and favourable tribute.
Dana Hansen is a writer, critic and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Canada. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, Quill & Quire, The Winnipeg Review, The Toronto Review of Books, France’s Books magazine and elsewhere. She is also the editor-in-chief of the literary journal, The Humber Literary Review.