“Mrs. Engels”, a first novel by Gavin McCrea, is a fictional account of a three year period (1870-1873)(as well as some flashbacks) in the lives of the authors of the Communist Manifesto (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels), told from the perspective of Friedrich Engels’ wife, Lizzie Burns.
Lizzie and her sister, Mary, Irish by birth, are alone and struggling to survive in 1842, when they both attain jobs at a mill in Manchester that happens to be owned by Friedrich’s wealthy German family. Friedrich befriends Mary and Lizzie and the book alternates between Lizzie’s recollections of that developing relationship and Lizzie’s life with Friedrich in London, where they move to be closer to Karl Marx.
Throughout the story we meet and get to know Karl Marx, his wife, Jenny, and their daughters, Tussey and Janey, all through Lizzie’s unique, no holds barred perspective. Interestingly, while theorizing about class struggle, and advocating for a worker revolution, Marx and Engels employ domestic workers in their households who are not in any way treated as equals. In addition, they live rather extravagant lives and are constantly in need of and spending large amounts of money, mostly supplied by Friedrich’s wealth. Money and relationships between men and women are significant themes in this book, summed up by Lizzie’s observation that “What matters over and above the contents of his character–what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life in his keeping–is the mint that jingles in his pockets. In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.”
When the French Commune in Paris falls in 1871 and tens of thousands are killed, many of the French communists find their way to London and to the homes of Karl and Friedrich. The French men challenge Friedrich and Karl as being only theoretical and taking no direct action toward a communist revolution. Lizzie delights in the attacks on Karl.
Friedrich is constantly having to answer for his and his family’s wealth, and yet Karl, although completely dependent on that wealth, always seems immune to this inquiry. After a specific exchange with one of the French survivors from Paris where Friedrich is criticized for his wealth, Lizzie observes that “It’s not uncommon that he has to answer to this charge, 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.” Throughout the story we see Karl and his family through Lizzie’s observant and not particularly flattering perspective.
Lizzie is a strong independent woman, who engages in unusual activities and interactions for women in the 1870s. For example, Lizzie reconnects with an old lover, Moss, who is involved in the Irish resistance against England. She hides him after a violent encounter and provides him with money for his movement. She goes to bars and drinks alone. She is seen traveling to parts of the city where a single woman should not go. No one really approves of Lizzie’s activities but she is difficult to stop. When some London neighbor women stop by uninvited to snoop into Lizzie’s life and express thinly veiled disapproval, Lizzie observes that one of the women “has drawn back her lips and is thirsty for the truth. For that’s how they bite you: smiling.”
The book provides an interesting perspective into Marx and Engels, as well as class, political and gender related issues in London at that time. The book has its own rhythm and it takes a while to get a feel for it, but once you get into the rhythm it is an enjoyable read. There are some really interesting twists, turns and surprises, disclosures of which would be total spoilers–which is a shame, because I really want to tell you about them! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11182974__Smrs%20engels__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.