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.