Lizzie Burns, 1865
Sunday, 21 January 2018 05:04

Book review: Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea

Published in Fiction

Gavin McCrea was inspired to write this fictionalised account of Lizzie Burns by the fleeting references to her in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. Obviously, had he read the superior description of the latter’s life by John Green, he would have learnt a little more about her. Nonetheless, the relative lack of information about both Lizzie and her sister Mary, an earlier lover of Engels, provides the spaces within which McCrea has been able to imagine her voice, her body and her character in this exceptionally absorbing and satisfying novel. And in so doing, McCrea gives flesh and feeling back to not only Engels, but also Karl Marx, his family and a host of others associated with the birth of scientific socialism. These are the poster boys of our movement taken down from the banners we carry and placed firmly in the midst of their own challenges and triumphs.

The action alternates between London in 1870/1 and Manchester in the 1860s. In the former, Lizzie and Engels are establishing themselves, with varying degrees of success, in Primrose Hill so as to be nearer to the Marx family and the centre of the nascent International during the tumultuous times around the rise and destruction of the Paris Commune.

The mood progressively darkens, not only because the Engels’ household becomes the target of state agents and brick-wielding thugs, but also due to Lizzie’s declining health. In the earlier period, there is an equal sense of tension, but in this case largely confined within the domestic sphere as Lizzie’s ambiguous and at times downright suspicious attitude to Engels and his treatment of Mary is played out. Engels comes across as being genuinely concerned with both of them, but all too frequently distracted by his wider work and relationship with Marx.
The Lizzie created, or maybe more accurately re-created, by McCrea is an expression of her class and nationality’s growing sense of their own subservient situation.

‘Mrs’ Engels emerges as a no-nonsense Sancho Panza to her partner’s Quixote. She is better by far in dealing with the nuances and stresses of straddling two quite distinct social worlds, although this didn’t extend to building a mutually respectful relationship with her domestic workers – wonderful Moliere characters both better with the back chat than with the breakfast. Whilst only tangentially interested in the fate of continental revolutionaries, Lizzie maintains her old Irish contacts and involves herself in providing a safe house for those involved in the daring but ultimately failed attempt to rescue two Fenian freedom fighters, Kelly and Deasy, from their fate at the hands of British justice.

Purists might dislike and recoil from descriptions of Engels’ penis or Marx’s carbuncles, but McCrea re-creates such a detailed sense of turbulent times and turbulent people that the reader is engaged and enthralled by both the personal and revolutionary worlds colonised by his characters no matter what. Lizzie Burns emerges from it all as a working class woman to be admired and loved, not only because of her loves and friendships, but because of her unsentimental courage and determination to build a better world.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.

The lost dreams of Republican Spain
Sunday, 21 January 2018 05:04

Book review: Drought, by Ronald Fraser

Published in Fiction

This is probably the most obviously autobiographical novel by the late Ronald Fraser.

The founder of New Left Books, which includes the Verso imprint, was a renowned and sympathetic writer on Spain and in particular the Spanish Civil War. Drought is set in a remote hillside village a couple of decades after the defeat of the Republican government and its replacement by Franco’s smothering tyranny. Through the eyes of John Black, a very Fraser-esque character, it tells of the unforeseen impact of efforts to build a new dam, the pet project of a thrusting, monomaniac ex-pat Englishman.

In its closely and minutely observed accounts of the sufferings and indignities of the largely impoverished community of sharecroppers, especially the seemingly impenetrable Miguel, which is mirrored in the worsening lack of water, there are echoes of both Hemingway and Laurence Durrell. Yet the closest literary equivalent is probably that of Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw. Whilst Drought is certainly the very particular story of Miguel who commits suicide in despair at the thwarting of his hopes for respectability through both the acquisition of land and a wife, it is also an extended metaphor for a Spain in the midst of an uneasy and unstable transition.

The drought of the arid, cruel and repressive clericalism and landlordism of Francoist social structures are beginning to crack and fissure in the face of an increasingly globalised capitalism that is threatening many whilst also offering opportunities of enrichment for the few. John himself, by dint of his mere presence in the village, is a confusing and confused harbinger of change and indeed destruction impacting upon the lives of Miguel, his sister Ana, and Juana his novia or betrothed.

The latter third of the book is John’s literary re-imagining of Miguel’s life from his youth in the Civil War where he sees the family split between the idealistic brother and the conservative, calculating father. His later experiences of being a shepherd in the hills and encountering bandits – many of whom are ex-Republican soldiers – confirms in Miguel’s mind the need for personal economic independence. But having to give half of his yearly crop to the ghastly ultra-montane Maria Burgos, who refuses to allow a watercourse from the dam to cross her land and irrigate his dying crops, showing that his aspirations are unachievable, either under Francoism or capitalism.
As a minor character observes drily “Casa Colorada would never be his”.

The cataclysmic ending suggests that it is not only Miguel but many others who will continue to mourn the lost dreams of the 1936-39 Republic and suffering the depredations of the ruling classes.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.