Monday, 7 September 2015

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

 review by Maryom

"In September 1870 a train leaves Manchester bound for London. On board is Lizzie Burns, a poor worker from the Irish slums, who is embarking on the journey that will change her forever. Sitting in the first-class carriage beside her lover, the wealthy mill-owner Frederick Engels, the vision of a life of peace and comfort takes shape before her eyes: finally, at nearly fifty, she is to be the lady of a house and the wife to a man. Perhaps now she can put the difficulties of the past behind her, and be happy?"

Gavin McCrea's debut novel gives the reader a fascinating, behind-the-scenes, glimpse into the lives of the fathers of socialism, Marx and Engels, through the eyes of Engels' common-law wife, Lizzie Burns.

Beginning life as an impoverished mill-hand in one of the Engels family's factories, Lizzie is down to earth, pragmatic, and not one to stand for any nonsense. She first met Engels many years before, when, attracted by her seeming simplicity and honesty, he became the lover of Lizzie's sister Mary. Lizzie never quite saw her sister's actions in the same favourable light though, believing a strong current of greed and manipulation ran through them. Her own earlier romantic dreams foundered, and now Lizzie has settled for comfort and security, but still yearns for her former lover, and seems uncertain whether she's made the right choice.
 Starting from the time when Engels and Lizzie moved to London, and moving backwards to their past history in Manchester, and forwards as they rub shoulders, and tempers, with the Marxes, McCrea weaves a compelling story that should appeal to a wide range of readers, not merely those with an interest in history or the people concerned. It certainly sheds an interesting light on the private lives and habits of Marx and Engels, showing them to be as human and flawed as anyone. From school history I'd always imagined them as rather dull, studious fellows, fonder of deep, meaningful, angst-filled debate than a party, but this novel puts that idea to flight; according to Lizze, the state of the 'comrades' the morning after a political gathering is on a par with any hungover binge drinkers!
I wasn't sure about this book at first - probably because I expected it to be full of rhetoric and political discussion - but it grew on me, as these great men of history are brought down to size, with humour and wit, by a woman who sees behind their public face.

 Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Scribe

Genre - adult, historical fiction, fictionalised biography

longlisted for Guardian First Book Award

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