“No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry…” is what Lizzie Burns (no relation) is thinking on the train to London at the beginning of Mrs Engels as she’s escaping the life and hardships of an Irish mill worker in 1870 Manchester.
Lizzie is a strong celtic woman primarily defined by her relationship to a powerful foreign man, in this case Frederick Engels. Think Ygritte from Game of Thrones. “You know nothing Jon Snow.”
The hidden woman of a powerful man is a common plot device these days but too often those women are used as a way to tell you something about the powerful man they’re associated with, not so with Lizzie Burns. This book is about her – or about her as vividly imagined by McCrea since there is little historical record of her life.
We know that Engels first had a relationship with her sister who died and that Lizzie moved to London and lived in a house in Primrose hill with him. McCrea gives us a rich backstory to Lizzie’s time with her sister in Manchester that leads to her life, and decisions about her own wants and needs, in London. McCrea spent a year researching for this, his début novel, and it shows in the detail he’s able to bring to bear on the time period.
There are plot twists worthy of fantasy fiction but the battle scenes are domestic, and the giants political – Karl Marx is a key character. And though the are no swords there are sentences and entire paragraphs that slayed us. McCrea’s use of language, particularly Lizzie’s Irish influenced English, makes you feel like you’re reading a foreign tongue you’d never realised you’d learned. It feels natural and novel at the same time. Marx may be buried in Highgate cemetery, with what we’d call a less than subtle headstone, but Lizzie is the one that comes to life.
McCrea says about writing the book, “…I was constantly asking myself what it means to own something: houses, money, experiences, ideas, emotions. Do we ever really own anything – even our thoughts, our bodies and our selves?”
Now that we live in what economists are calling a “sharing economy,” where we summon people in their cars on our phones and post private pictures for strangers to appreciate, the question of what it means to own something: our image, our privacy, our selves, is ever more relevant.
And though our ability to communicate with each other is now instantaneous our ability to understand one another is still based on the stories we tell ourselves, or as Lizzie says, “…the stories we make of them, one story good till a better one comes to replace it, and it’s only afterwards that this is understood; only after you’ve loved and hated them for what they never were; only after it has ceased to matter.”