Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea
Review by Sean Towey
Close your eyes and imagine Karl Marx. Can you see him? That giant head covered in curly hair, that jolly girth? Good. Now bring to mind his partner in ideology Friedrich Engels. A little bit harder to do, right? Is it Freud with more hair? Or maybe Nietzsche but less Mark Twain looking?
Here’s the real kicker. Imagine Engels’s two mistresses, the Irish-English, illiterate, cotton-mill-working Burns sisters, Mary and Lizzie. Engels first took up with Mary, but she passed away at the age of forty. Afterward, he began a relationship with Mary’s younger sister. And it’s the inimitable Lizzie Burns who serves as protagonist and narrator of Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, the excellent and hilarious Mrs. Engels.
The novel flips back and forth between two story-lines and time periods. We open in the 1870s, when Lizzie and Friedrich leave Manchester and move to London’s Primrose Hill (which is just as British tea-party fancy as it sounds) to be close to the Marx family. The other story follows Friedrich’s dashing entrance into the lives of the Burns sisters, who he meets when taking over the family factory in the early 1840s. The two intertwining plots provide something for everyone. The Paris Commune makes an important foray into the novel to satisfy the history nerds. Temptation abounds for those of us who revel in romance. And, for the literary intelligentsia, Lizzie’s expertly wrought voice sets the novel’s pace.
Lizzie is the loudmouthed, mildly drunk aunt everyone wants. She has a lot of opinions. On anti-Irish discrimination: “There’s always someone trying to improve you, especial if you’re Irish.” On romance: “I’ve seen enough of this world to know most of us have to accept men we don’t feel for, and I’m not sure it’s for the worst in the end. A marriage of emotions can’t be lasting.” On anal sex: “What’s the draw of an act so cruddy? And what’s the purpose, anyhows, when the normal carriage road has been clear of courses these past twenty years?” Beyond her humor, it’s her homespun-but-not-homey wisdom that often makes up for what the novel lacks in narrative tension.
One might think that a work called Mrs. Engels would, like Friedrich, keep a tight eye on Marx. However, Karl makes relatively few appearances, and McCrea paints an unflattering portrait. At different points in the novel, he is too-drunk, covered in boils, and abusive to the servants. In a twenty-first century American university, he would be the poster child for those agitating against academic tenure. Incredibly intelligent? Probably. A danger to himself and everyone around him? Absolutely.
Mr. Engels fairs a little better, but he’s no worker’s hero. Lizzie watches him with her sister, and she describes him as “a young scholar trying to pull truth out of a foreign gospel. If he learns to understand her, and to speak like her, he’ll know what it’s like to be her, and by there to be poor.” Which gets to the crux of the moral force behind Mrs. Engels.
Unlike Friedrich and Karl, Lizzie actually knows what it means to be poor. Throughout the novel, she is confronted with the fact that she belongs to the proletariat class that remains pure philosophy to Marx and Engels. She’s far more comfortable down the stairs than up them.
Marx and Engels spend a lot of time hosting parties. At these affairs, Lizzie is treated like one of the two African-American couples at a hipster Portland wedding. She’s toasted and repeatedly called the “famous Lizzie Burns.” Her presence legitimizes how the communists want to view themselves—as the Christ-like saviors of the common man. Of course, Marx and Engels never ask the working man if he needs saving. Lizzie exists within a difficult tension as an Irish factory girl in a world dominated by elites who, for a multiplicity of reasons, wish they were working class. She enjoys the praise. She understands she will never belong.
Lizzie manages to bounce back and forth between these two poles for most of the novel, right up until Marx’s daughter Tussy won’t shut up about her parents keeping her from seeing a French communard several years her senior. Lizzie, the long-suffering confidante to the Marx family, finally snaps: “Why can’t you keep your business to yourselves, you people? What do you want us to do with these secrets you insist on making public? Carry the load around so you don’t have to? We don’t want to know what’s inside you. We couldn’t care less for what you carry about in your private wraps. We struggle enough with our own cares as it is.”
In the novel, she’s speaking to a snotty teenager. But in our world, Lizzie’s addressing the vast swathes of well-meaning people given to public flagellation regarding their own privilege. In other words, Macklemore.
McCrea is an Irish-born writer living in London, and he understands the tenuous position of being Irish in England. He also has a whole host of degrees, including two from Trinity College Dublin and two from the University of East Anglia, which I mention because at times Mrs. Engels seems as directed toward graduate literature classrooms as anything else.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve sat in an English class and discussed race in a room full of white people. The conversations are important, sure, but in the way rubella vaccinations are important. We’re doing our part to stop the spread of a disease, not save the world. The same could be said for the number of writers I have met who have said something along the lines of “My dad is a doctor and my mom is a lawyer so it’s totally weird that I ended up a writer.” When in fact it is totally not weird. A person with a doctor/lawyer parental combo is not racked with the very real fear of starving to death.
Engels finds Lizzie’s obsession with specifics amusing. When will the revolution start? Who will pay the bill? What he doesn’t understand is that for Lizzie, and for many others who grow up poor, the practical matters are life and death. What greater luxury is there than idealism? The beauty of Mrs. Engels is that it rests in the tension between the haves and have-nots, between the world as it should be and the world as it is, without falling into a relativist nihilism.
In the end, at least for Lizzie, love might not be everything. But it might just be enough.
Sean Towey has published work in Word Riot, The Rumpus, The Newer York, and elsewhere. He is working on a PhD in English/Creative Writing at Florida State University, where he was recently the recipient of an Emerging Writer Award. He serves as the Online Editor for Southeast Review. For four years, Sean was a Jesuit seminarian training to become a Catholic priest. It didn’t work out. He arrived in Tallahassee via Tacoma “God’s Country” Washington and St. Louis, MO.