Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea

Mrs. Engels
Mrs. Engels

I’ve always hated the question: what do women want? It presumes that a) there’s one thing that all women want that will make them happy and b) that that one thing will always make all women happy. Still, Lizzie Burns is the kind of woman that tempts people to ask this question because nothing seems to make her happy, even when she apparently gets what she said she wanted. Lizzie Burns lived her life with two famous men, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Gavin McCrea, however, turns the spotlight on Lizzie, who was only (officially) Mrs. Engels for a few hours at the end of her life.

Lizzie Burns and her sister, Mary, worked at Engels’ father’s mill in Manchester. When young Friedrich visits, he and Mary begin an off-and-on relationship. (For Mary, though, it’s never really off.) While Mary pines and schemes to get Friedrich permanently attached, Lizzie just tries to find a way to a secure and comfortable life. The narrative goes back and forth time, from Mary and Lizzie meeting Friedrich (called Frederick, here) in 1843 to 1870. We learn how the Burns sisters got tangled up with Engels and how, years later, Lizzie is keeping house with Friedrich.

It’s strange to see the founding fathers of Communism from the perspective of a woman who actually is a member of the proletariat. Lizzie is the daughter of Irish immigrants and, until her sister met Engels, worked for her bread in the mills. She doesn’t trust that anyone will take care of her if she’s not married or doesn’t work for it. Engels bankrolled the nascent Communist movement and was, by all accounts, extraordinarily generous with his funds. Without his money, we wouldn’t have Communism as we know it. But while Engels is clearly one of the bourgeoisie and Marx is, clearly, a moocher, they scribble and spout off about the workers and the coming revolution. This portrayal of Marx and Engels is not very sympathetic to them, showing them as intellectuals who don’t really understand what life is like for people who have to work to keep from starving.

While she lives with Engels, Lizzie constantly worries that Engels will tire of her and that he only keeps her around because she reminds him of her sister. She may not be wrong about this. Lizzie’s not the easiest woman to live with. She doesn’t get on with the Marxes at all. I can feel her inwardly rolling her eyes when they start to talk about the the revolution. It frustrates her that all of these intellectuals have no real understanding of how Engels’ money keeps them all afloat. Lizzie is also a very lonely woman. I felt for her, because no one seemed to be able to love her for herself.

Mrs. Engels doesn’t include an author’s note, so I don’t know how much of this book is based on actual history. It jibes with what I know about Engels and Marx, but one always has to wonder how true a narrative this is because it’s based on the life of an illiterate woman. What I don’t question is McCrea’s ability to create a fully rounded portrait of a woman. I loved Lizzie’s contradictions, though I found her frustrating. I loved the subtlety of this portrait, too. We have to puzzle out Lizzie for ourselves. McCrea lets us see what she feels and follow her logic, but it’s left up to us to figure out what she wants.

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