This is another book read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another one that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think I had even heard of it until it appeared on the shortlist for this year’s prize and I’m pleased that it did because otherwise I would probably never have read it and would never have had the opportunity to get to know Lizzie Burns – the Mrs Engels of the title.
The novel is narrated by Lizzie herself, a working-class Irish woman who becomes the lover and common-law wife of the German philosopher Friedrich Engels. In 1870, when we first meet Lizzie, she and Engels are boarding a train which will take them from Manchester to London, where they will be moving into a house in Primrose Hill close to Friedrich’s friend, Karl Marx. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time, so that as well as watching the couple settle into their new home, we also learn something of Lizzie’s early life in Manchester, where she and her sister, Mary, grew up in poverty before starting work at Ermen & Engels cotton mill – something which will bring them into contact with the man who is to become such an important part of both of their lives.
I came to this book knowing almost nothing about Friedrich Engels and his work (other than that he co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx) and I wondered whether that would be a problem. I needn’t have worried, though, because the focus of this novel is very much on the details of his personal life and his relationships with the Burns sisters, first Mary, his partner of many years, and then – after her death – Lizzie. It seems that little is known about the real Lizzie and Mary, so I kept in mind while reading that not everything that happens in the novel is historically accurate and that a lot of it is the product of the author’s imagination.
One thing we do know about Lizzie Burns is that Marx’s daughter Eleanor said she was “illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet”. I think Gavin McCrea does a great job in Mrs Engels of displaying these different facets of Lizzie’s character. On the surface she’s strong, outspoken and tough – she has to be, to cope with everything life throws at her – but underneath there’s an intelligence, a sensitivity and a sharp wit. Through his choice of words and spellings, McCrea also manages to convey the fact that she is illiterate and poorly educated. The result is a narrative voice which is unusual, memorable and perfectly suited to Lizzie’s character.
Mrs Engels is not a perfect novel – the transitions between time periods are not always clear and the characters, with the exception of Lizzie, feel thinly drawn and difficult to like. However, I found it interesting to read the descriptions of the living and working conditions experienced by mill workers in Victorian Manchester and the challenges faced by a working-class woman who suddenly finds herself moving up the social ladder and trying to manage a London household. It’s a fascinating read – and I loved the fact that a woman who was unable to tell her own story has finally been given a voice.