Frederick Engels, as in coauthor of The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, as in the thinker who provided the ideology of, political strategies and impetus for the Russian Revolution and several other minor upheavals across Europe, was the husband of the Mrs. Engels who is the title character in this book. Frederick Engels came from a solidly Capitalist (burgher) family in Germany. His family’s business manufactured sewing thread in Germany and in Manchester, England.
Engels did not want to work in the family business but in spite of his anti-Capitalist beliefs he ran the family’s mill in Manchester for most of his adult life and provided the money he and Karl Marx needed to enable them to write about the plight of workers in the 1800’s. There is certainly irony here and a purist would have been at constant war with himself but Engels was apparently more pragmatic and felt that the ends would justify the means it took to get to a society where workers were valued.
History tells us that a young Frederick Engels met Mary Burns, a worker at his mill, when he was 24. Mary fell in love and agreed to live with Engels. They never married. Neither believed that marriage needed the approval of government, society, or the church. Mary had a sister, Lydia (Lizzie) Burns. These things are facts. Little detail is known about these women. History also tells us that Mary Burns’ heart gave out in 1863 – 19 years into her relationship with Engels (although he was not in England for all of those years). There are also historical facts to support that after Mary died, Engels and Lizzie Burns lived together for 15 years. In 1878, as Lizzie was dying, Frederick Engels married her.
Gavin McCrea in his novel, Mrs. Engels, invents the details of the daily lives of these two working women who kept house for Engels and shared his younger years, and he tells their lives to us through the voice of Lizzie (Lydia) Burns. Neither Mary nor Lizzie were known to be interested in housekeeping and yet they both kept house for Engels, although Lizzie and Frederick had two servants when they lived in London. The sisters were Irish and Lizzie could not read or write, but both women were somewhat familiar with the idea of revolution and were friends with some of the men planning and conducting the Irish Revolution, the Fenians.
The author does well at capturing Lizzie’s voice and representing her very believable, although unverifiable, activities. However, since Lizzie’s real focus is Engels the author also tells us about Frederick Engels, but through Lizzie’s eyes. There is not a great love here – no passionate romance – just two people who have become companions and who live well together. The author imagines for Lizzie and Frederick and even Mary exactly the kind of life one might imagine for a Father of Communism, but perhaps a bit more upper middle class. There is no evidence that Frederick cohabited with another woman after Lizzie’s death.
Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea, although showing a life that seems quite mundane, seems an entirely plausible account, and gives insight into these two famous men who worked so very hard to get laborers to overturn the social and political order of the times with results that eventually changed the world into the one we still are dealing with in the 21st century. Odd that from something so prosaic came something so transformative. These men gave us a revolution that did not end the inequalities they sought to overcome, but instead left us with an unappetizing political system that affects many people around the globe in powerful ways.
By Nancy Brisson