Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2015

Mrs Engels, by Gavin McCrae

Mrs Engels I have been so lucky with my reading lately!  I’m reading a few things at once (as usual):

  • over breakfast it’s Karen Lamb’s brilliant biography,  Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather;
  • Humphrey Bower has been reading Malla Nunn’s Let the Dead Lie to me while I *sigh* sort out the annual tax return;
  • I have succumbed to the Kindle for The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox for when I’m out and about; and
  • for Stu’s Spanish Lit Month I’m reading In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina.   

But good as they are, none of these are bedtime reading.  For the idle hours before I turn out the light, I’ve been reading Mrs Engels, a debut novel from Irish author Gavin McCrae…

The novel is a fictionalisation of the life of Lizzie Burns, helpmeet to Friedrich Engels, who along with Karl Marx developed Marxist theory and communism.  For most of us, these are just names of political theorists, to be admired or despised depending on your political inclinations.  But McCrae has used the skeleton facts of Lizzie’s life,  (that is, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), to create an engaging distinctive voice to bring these people to life in a domestic setting and to show us the human flaws of men whose ideas changed the course of history.

When the story opens, Lizzie is moving to Primrose Hill in London as Engels’ partner after her sister has died.  As the narrative moves back and forwards in time,  we learn that Lizzie and her sister Mary were born into poverty in Manchester and were working in the mill that the Engels family owned when Engels comes into their lives.  He was sent by his father to learn the family business, but what Engels learned instead was that life in the slums of Manchester was hell on earth.  This was a time when, as Lizzie tells us, working-class men did the sewing and the darning because they were at home while their women went out to work, employable only because their wages were lower than a male wage.  Amongst the poor were the Irish who’d fled the potato famine but found themselves living in dank, filthy slums, riddled with TB and typhus, and with no clean water supply.  (We know this because in 1844 Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England). 

Anyway, Lizzie has her doubts about Engels when her sister Mary fancies him.  There are only two alternatives to working in the mill, marriage or domestic service, and Lizzie doesn’t think much of Mary’s chances of marriage with Engels because of the social gulf between them.  Engels is an educated middle-class man, apparently Protestant, and the girls are illiterate factory workers of Irish Catholic descent. As far as Lizzie is concerned, no one understands men better than the women they don’t marry and there’s not much difference between them.  What matters is the mint that jingles in his pockets and it’s foolish to pass up a good offer for the sake of love.

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. Is it any wonder there’s heaps of ladies, real ladies, biding to marry the first decent man who offers them five hundred a year?  Aye, young flowers, don’t be being left behind on the used-up shelf.  If you must yearn for things, let those things be feelings, and let your yearnings be done in a first-class carriage like this one rather than in one of those reeking compartments down back, where you’ll be on your feet all day and exposed to winds and forever stunned by the difficulty of your life.  Establish yourself in a decent situation and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.  Take it and be content, then you’ll journey well.

Lizzie is a pragmatic soul indeed, but few readers will pass judgement on her for it…

Engels, to Lizzie’s surprise,  has a social conscience and is keenly interested in the squalid lives of working-class people.  In the novel as in real life he did indeed set up house with Mary and although they did not marry (because Engels was opposed to the institution of marriage on political grounds) they lived together as a family until her early death.  Against her better judgement Lizzie lives with them, squabbling with her sister and worrying about the extent to which the Engels money was propping up the household of Karl Marx and his wife Jenny.  She’s also troubled by her Catholic conscience: she agrees with Engels in theory, and the realities of her life make her scornful about the pulpit, but her faith lingers.  And she would, really, prefer to be married…

Great events permeate the novel without being heavy-handed.  Lizzie is tempted by a romance with a Fenian called Moss, and the whole household comes to the notice of both the authorities and the gossip-mongers when they provide refuge for members of the Paris Commune who’ve fled to England.  Engels disapproves of both movements because while he shares their ambitions he thinks they’re badly organised and have no hope of success.  For Lizzie, not understanding a word of French in the hubbub, and wryly observing the Frenchmen drink the cellar dry, they’re a housekeeping problem.  The irony of the Great Struggle for Equality going on in her household is that women’s rights aren’t considered at all…

Mrs Engels really is a remarkable debut, and Lizzie is an unforgettable character.  There’s something very pleasing about this woman coming out from the historical shadows into Gavin McCrae’s light-of-day.

One thing baffled me: the cover. I don’t understand the allusion to a zebra. Can anyone enlighten me?

Update (the next day)

O the wonders of the internet!  I am indebted to my Facebook friend Karen and to a review by Erik Karl Anderson who blogs at The Lonesome Reader, for an explanation of the cover art.  (Which is by Scribe, there’s no attribution to any specific artist or designer).

In the novel Lizzie sees a quagga at the London Zoo (p.102).  Now extinct,  the quagga was a  sub-species of zebra found in South Africa, which by the time Lizzie made her visit to the zoo, had been hunted almost to extinction.  It’s on display in a bizarre Christmas exhibit known as a moving crib created in a stable filled with exotic animals [… with] real people playing the holy family.  Lizzie is the only one who sees the irony of this, and finds the collection of impossible animals very sad.  Saddest and loneliest of them all is an animal half-zebra and half donkey standing on three legs in the corner of the stall. 

As you can see from the image on Erik’s site, a quagga did indeed look like an animal half-zebra and half donkey but what Lizzie saw was probably a hybrid from a forlorn attempt at a doomed captive breeding program.  The ‘quagga’ would have been sterile as animals bred from two different species are, and confined alone in a zoo instead of being free to roam in a herd across the African plains, its life would have been a misery.  Erik has made the connection that like this animal, Lizzie is two halves of different things. Like the quagga she does not belong where she is, she is caught between the contradictions of her life and her instincts, she is sterile, and she has no future.

So this cover art reinforces the irony of the title.  Mrs Engels is who Lizzie longed to be, instead of Lizzie Burns, but Engels only married her on her deathbed – out of a kindly token of respect for the remnants of her faith.

Author: Gavin McCrae
Title: Mrs Engels
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106688
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing


Fishpond: Mrs Engels


  1. I have been noticing that this book has been receiving a lot of positive attention, but that cover is very odd and has put me off (I know, not the way to judge). So I checked for availability in North America and it will be out in October with a very different cover, a rather playful illustration of a Victorian street scene. Better perhaps, but if I read it, it will be blog reviews that sway me. Thanks for this one.


    • It’s odd because it seems that some thought has gone into it. The end papers are a textured map of Reynold’s Map of London and Visitors Guide from 1862, printed in red; and that’s lovely. They open out, too, so that you can use them as bookmarks. But Mrs E and the zebra… it makes no sense to me…


  2. I’m really keen to read this one, it sounds great and inspired by true events and an interesting woman, all the more so. I was interested to read that Gavin McCrea is working on the second of a planned trilogy,

    “his second book is set at the height of 20th-century socialism in practice.
    It’s about a theatre family from London whose fate becomes intertwined with that of Jian Qing — “Madame Mao.”
    The third, only at the sketchiest stage, will be located in the economic rubble of eastern Europe after the counter-revolutions of the early 1990s.”

    So watch this space for more well researched historical stories from him.


    • Hello Claire, thanks for stopping by:)
      I reckon the second one is *really* ambitious… the strength of this one is Lizzie’s voice … but how will he do an authentic-sounding Chinese voice without it sounding like a caricature?


  3. Another thoughtful review and a novel I now cannot resist so thank you in anticipation of another excellent read.
    I live in the road Engels lived in so this book is even more irresistible
    PS Lonesome Reader reviews are seriously good too.


    • Thank you, Carol, your words are much appreciated:)
      And you live in Engels’ very road! Is there a blue plaque?


      • Yes, there is.


        • I wish we had those here in Melbourne. There are a few in the CBD, but very little elsewhere *sigh*


  4. Hi Lisa, The cover is a reference to Lizzie’s trip to the zoo at a certain point in the novel where she sees an animal which is a cross between a zebra and a donkey.



    • Hello Alan, it’s a clever allusion, I think, but maybe just a bit obscure for some of us!


  5. […] Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe UK) (see my review) […]


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