Some people in the northwest might be a bit unhappy with a novel about the lives of local hero and heroines Fred Engels and Mary and Lizzie Burns. But in his first novel, Mrs Engels, Gavin McCrea has at least for me given a realistic portrayal of the Engels/Burns relationship.
Not much is known about the Burns sisters and that is what makes the novel so intriguing. We do know that they were probably born in Manchester of Irish parents and identified as such,part of a large radical Irish community in the northwest at that time.
Engels came to Manchester at the age of 22 to work in the family firm Ermen and Engels, which was based in Weaste in Salford. He may have met the Burns sisters there but there is no proof. Engels was a political activist and writer and, after meeting Karl Marx in the early 1840s, cemented a relationship that would last all their lives, both a personal and political one.
Engels used Manchester and Salford as evidence for his classic Conditions of the Working Class in England. It is unlikely he could have done this by himself as a well-off foreigner and most historians believe that it was the Burns sisters who made it possible that he could gain an insight into the dreadful lives of the poor in the 1840s.
“Mrs Engels” is Lizzie Burns, the younger Burns sister who leaves Manchester with Engels. Her sister, Mary, is now dead and she is 50 years of age and faces the challenge of a new life as the wife of Fred Engels, a major player in the world of socialist politics.
Perhaps because McCrea is also Irish the banter between Lizzie and Fred crackles along throughout the novel. Lizzie says about Fred; “As foreigners go, he’s unusual fast at picking things up. His problem -the big noke- is letting things go when a thing is long done and over.” Fred says jokingly about her; “The Queen was right. That you are an abominable people, none in the world better at causing distress.”
But now they are in London the lives of Lizzie and Fred are closely intertwined with the Marx family. McCrea uses this closeness to create tension between Lizzie and Jenny, the wife of Karl Marx, to illustrate the massive differences between the two women. Jenny abandoned her aristocratic family and lived a life bordering on poverty when she decided to marry Karl, while Lizzie and Mary, although poor, were independent women who fascinated upper class men such as Fred and Karl.
Although much of the book is fiction McCrea does include some comments that Engels made in real life about the working classes of Manchester and Salford ; “I discovered poverty and degradation among the working people worse than in any civilised place on earth. But I also discovered a proletarian culture of significant intellectual elevation.”
But it is the Burns sisters who provide the core to this book: the banter between the sisters as they carve out a life for themselves outside the factory; their support for the Fenian movement; the sadness as Mary loses her child and Lizzie’s attempts to make her mark as the mistress of the Engels’ household in London. All set against one of the most dynamic periods of history in this country.
Mrs Engels is only a novel but if it encourages people to find out more about the Burns sisters and their significance to the bigger story of Marx and Engels then Gavin McCrea has written a significant book.
Find out more about the Burns sisters visit the WCML in Salford
Published by Scribe Publications