Not much is known about Lizzie Burns, the working class Irish woman who was also the partner of Friedrich Engels. Mrs Engels, Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, tries to fill in some gaps.
McCrea has clearly put heaps of research into bringing to life the places and people that Lizzie Burns encountered, and it is refreshing given when it is set for the book to have an Irish woman — some of the most vilified at the time — at its centre.
The story switches between Manchester — the city where Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England and first met Mary Burns, his partner of 20 years and Lizzie’s elder sister — and London, where he and Lizzie came to live in their middle age.
The descriptions of these places and their people are particularly impressive. From the dressmakers’ shops of Camden to the back streets of Manchester the scenes are often brimming with conversation and conviviality.
Lizzie Burns talks to other working class people in Manchester. There is Sully, the Irishman who takes her mudlarking in the river Medlock, and Mr Beloff, the Jewish tailor who gives her insight into the discrimination he faces.
In London, Burns is presented as someone who — while dealing with the difficulties of settling into a new life — manages to build important relationships. Eleanor Marx, the youngest Marx daughter, described Lizzie Burns as “true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet”.
The Marx family and their relationships with Burns and Engels are an important feature of the story. As well as being Marx’s close collaborator and friend, Engels bankrolled the Marxes for many years — and this is a fact that causes some tension between Lizzie and Friedrich in the story.
Despite evidence of a huge amount of research into the times Burns lived through, it seems that McCrea has fallen for many of the misconceptions surrounding Marx and Engels. He often presents their activity as theoretical rather than that of active revolutionaries.
Where the writing moves from the lifestyles of Burns, Engels and Marx to something more substantial, the book makes for good reading. For example, when Eleanor Marx and her sister visit France following the Paris Commune, Lizzie is given a voice to express her opinions on international politics.
What comes through often is the difficulty of shaking off the burden of women’s oppression, even for political women like Burns and her friends.
Burns wanted to marry Engels. In the end they married, just hours before she died. This desire was particularly pronounced for a working class woman like her, given that society insisted that she would be destined for the workhouse or a pauper’s grave should she not become someone’s wife.
McCrea gives expression to Burns when he writes of marriage that “the unmarried ones, like myself, want it kept safe, in case one day we might need it”. That is a good representation of the ideas that women had about their position in society and the conflict that many people still often feel.
McCrea’s book gives some voice to a woman often hidden from history, but I’m sure there is plenty more to Lizzie Burns that should be uncovered.
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