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Cover image for Mrs. Engels
Mrs. Engels
New York : Catapult, [2015]
Physical Description:
389 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
"First published in Australia and the UK by Scribe Publications."--Title page verso.
A tale inspired by the enigmatic Irish lover, Lizzie Burns, of Communist Manifesto co-author Frederick Engels traces the experiences of an impoverished factory employee who navigates complex landscapes of Victorian society.

The enigmatic Irish lover of Communist Manifesto co-author Frederick Engels, Lizzie Burns is a poor worker in the Manchester, England, mill that Engels owns. They are drawn together despite their profound difference. When they move to London to be closer to Karl Marx and family, Lizzie must learn to navigate the complex landscapes of Victorian society.
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"The illiterate lover and eventual wife of a coauthor of The Communist Manifesto is the star of this enthralling work of historical fiction." -- O: The Oprah Magazine

"Lizzie has been brought to life with exuberant force." -- The New York Times

"Impressive. . . . A memorable portrait of a woman looking for a cause of her own, distinct from the one made famous by her husband." -- The Wall Street Journal

"Lizzie is as spirited a narrator as a reader could hope to encounter." -- The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Very little is known about Lizzie Burns, the illiterate Irishwoman and longtime lover of Frederick Engels, coauthor of The Communist Manifesto. In Gavin McCrea's debut novel, Lizzie is finally given a voice that won't be forgotten.

Lizzie is a poor worker in the Manchester, England, mill that Frederick owns. When they move to London to be closer to Karl Marx and family, she must learn to navigate the complex landscapes of Victorian society. We are privy to Lizzie's intimate, wry views on Marx and Engels's mission to spur revolution among the working classes, and to her ambivalence toward her newly circumstances.

Yet despite their profound differences, Lizzie and Frederick are drawn together in this high-spirited love story.

Author Notes

Gavin McCrea was born in Dublin in 1978. He holds a BA and an MA from University College Dublin, and an MA and a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He has travelled widely, and currently divides his time between the UK and Spain. His debut novel is entitled Mrs. Engels.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

McCrea's richly imagined debut novel is narrated by Irishwoman Lizzie Burns, the longtime lover of The Communist Manifesto coauthor Frederick Engels. In 1870, the couple leaves Manchester (where the wealthy Engels family once employed Lizzie at their cotton mill) to reside in London. Lizzie's new life is opulent but empty: she is uncomfortable with upper-class society and excluded from most of Frederick's activities, including his cerebral efforts to liberate her own class. Struggling to find a purpose, Lizzie seeks out her old flame, the Irish radical Moss O'Malley, whose cause always needs funds. She attempts to help the illegitimate son that Frederick had two decades before and seems to have forgotten. Even as she fights for others, Lizzie nurses wounds of her own: she longs to be married, despite Frederick's disdain for such conventions, and she fears that he will never forget her deceased sister Mary, who was his former lover. McCrae gives the illiterate Lizzie a vivid, convincing voice, sparkling with energy and not untouched by pathos. Her sharp, pragmatic observations offer a human perspective on historical icons (Marx has boils, while Engels is overwhelmed by letters from his mother). But the heart of the novel is the beautifully realized romance between Lizzie and Frederick: a mismatch of values and temperaments, yet also a tender and complex bond. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

Irish-born McCrea's stellar debut imagines the lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, not men usually associated with romance, through the eyes of Engels' illiterate common-law wife, Lizzie Burns. Lizzie's voiceearthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheminggrabs the reader from the first sentence and doesn't let go. As the novel opens in 1870, Lizzie is moving with Frederick to London as his live-in lover. He wants to be closer to Marx, whom he has long supported financially. Lizzie is excited to move into a grand house but has mixed feelings about Karl's wife, Jenny, herself a fascinating combination of bourgeois sensibilities, love of family, and survival instincts. In the past, Jenny was not kind to Lizzie's older sister, Mary, the first Burns sister with whom Frederick was involved. Growing up in Manchester, the Burns girls worked at Ermen Engels, the mill that German-born Frederick came to manage for his family in 1842. Mary quickly fell into a serious love affair with Frederick. Although he left Manchester for eight years, "writing his books and chasing the great revolutions around Europe," Mary eventually quit the mill and lived openly with him. When Lizzie's own romantic involvement with Moss, an alcoholic Fenian, soured, she moved in with Mary to keep house. She witnessed Mary's relationship with Frederick turn turbulent after he apparently fathered an illegitimate baby with the Marxes' maid, Nim. Shortly after Mary's death, Lizzie's own sexual liaison with Frederick began. By 1870 their relationship has enduredeven thrivedfor years, providing for Lizzie attraction, affection, and practical financial security. Forget Marx and Engels as authors of The Communist Manifesto. For Lizzie (and McCrea), social mores trump politics, while individual loyalties and needs are what ultimately matter. Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun? Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Illiterate Irishwoman Lizzie Burns is the lover of Frederick Engels, coauthor of The Communist Manifesto. But unlike Engels and his comrade Karl Marx, she does not romanticize poverty, having been raised in mean circumstances, and is grateful for her much-improved station. Engels funds Marx's great cause with the profits from his cotton mill in working-class Manchester, and in 1870, he and Lizzie move to a grand house in London to be nearer to the Marxes. Her discomfort with the servants and exclusion from Engels' social circle and from his activism only serve to make her feel more deeply her impoverished background. Lizzie, pragmatic and opinionated, takes note of Marx's carbuncles and his wife Jenny's propensity to act the drama queen, but beneath her stinging appraisals, she is tenderhearted, grieving the death of her sister, Engels' previous lover, and pining for her lost love, Irish rebel Moss O'Malley. First-novelist McCrea well captures Lizzie's fiery temperament, vivid voice, and complicated relationship with Engels, whom she both longs to marry and longs to be free of. Moving, finely detailed, rife with full-bodied, humanizing portraits of historical icons, and told in striking prose, this is a novel to be savored.--Wilkinson, Joanne Copyright 2015 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

She slept with Friedrich Engels, but never read a word of his writings. (She couldn't. She was illiterate.) She doted on Karl Marx's daughters (who called her Aunt Lizzie) but was abashed at the highfalutin London lifestyle Marx and his wife constructed for the girls' social advancement. So goes the speculative life McCrea has embroidered around his powerhouse protagonist, Lizzie Burns, an up-from-poverty Irishwoman who meets the well-to-do, marriage-phobic Engels as an employee of his father's Manchester cotton mill and eventually succeeds her sister as his housemate and paramour. In her ambivalent role as fly on the wall to momentous rebellions like the Paris Commune, Burns is as improbable a subject for historical fiction as she is irresistible. Invoking the prickly lyricism of an Irish prole who may have missed her literary calling ("weeping" becomes "laying on liberal with the sniff and blubber"), McCrea portrays Lizzie as a deceptively hard-boiled pragmatist with an arriviste's sensitivity to the uses of money. She counters Engels's prodigal subsidizing of political allies by quietly channeling her personal allowance back to his family. And when the need requires, she can drown kittens and deep-six society doyennes with commensurate dispatch. Welcomed into her lover's inner circle as "a true proletarian," she's also alert to being patronized. "You have always had a too high opinion of our minds," she tells her companion, with typical astringency. "We're far more ignorant than you give us credit for. Far far more." JAN STUART is the author of "The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece."

Library Journal Review

Former Manchester mill worker Lizzie Burns has moved into a London townhouse with her lover, political theorist Frederick Engels, as he continues his job of organizing the working classes with Karl Marx. This is Lizzie's first experience running a "proper" household-managing servants, placating the Marxes, and entertaining dissidents from around Europe. All the while, she remains Engels's most loyal helpmate, even as she outlines his past romantic relationship with her late sister, Mary, and her own former love, an Irish nationalist. Through Lizzie's singular perspective, peppered with her wry observations, readers are treated to a backstage look at the domestic lives of the most public 19th-century revolutionaries and their families. While Lizzie's story exists only marginally in the historical record, first-time novelist McCrea brings her to life in this soulful work. -VERDICT Lizzie's distinctive working-class Irish spin on the foibles of upper-crust London society is at once biting and humorous, and Dublin-born world traveler -McCrea is a new author to follow for those who enjoy potential Man Booker Prize longlisters. It is a pity that the full biography of the Burns sisters may never be told in nonfiction, yet readers will feel that McCrea has done them justice here.-Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston -Community Coll. Northeast © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.