Shortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Now if I were handing out a prize for most entertaining narrator on this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, Lizzie Burns, protagonist and narrator of Mrs Engels, would win hands down. She’s a real character. How’s this for an opener ….
No one understands men more than the women they don’t marry and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much. It’s no matter what line he’s in or which ideas he follows, whether he is sweet-tempered or ready-witted, a dab at one business or the next, for there isn’t so much in any of that, and you won’t find a man that hasn’t something against him. What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping – is the mint that jingles in his pockets. In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.
Her outlook, which when you consider that Lizzie, a working-class Irish girl, is the unmarried Mrs Engels of the title, shacked up with the exceedingly rich, cotton-mill owning Mr Friedrich Engels but still pining for her poor former Irish lover, explains a lot. (Even if it doesn’t explain her ongoing desire for the latter given the legacy of that relationship.) The further into the novel we go, the more unconventional and complex Lizzie’s domestic arrangements become. Without the wedding ring, there is only so much that Lizzie can do in Victorian society, but she is a force to reckon with, a pillar of strength for Engels, the smoother of many obstacles and embarrassments. Yet she has to put up with Karl Marx, a rival who takes all of Friedrich’s time and a lot of his money. Worse still, his wife, Jenny, towards whom she feels a natural antipathy, not unrelated to the history of Lizzie’s sister, Mary, Lizzie’s predecessor to Engels’s affections. But put up with her she must, and also with Engels’s sometimes high-handed approach, if she wants to continue enjoying his wealth in their “grand” house in Primrose Hill. Otherwise it’s back to the Manchester slums for her.
Through her not-so-convinced eyes we see the birth of Marxism. And it’s a revelation, I must say. The portraits of Marx and Engels as political theorists are not always flattering, and Jenny Marx comes across in places as Mrs Bennett reincarnated. Nor are the French comunards, displaced by the failure of their 1871 uprising, and seeking refuge in London, a sympathetic crowd. Fine clothes and wine, their particular weaknesses.
Shifting between the present life in Primrose Hill and her earlier impoverished life in the Manchester factory, Lizzie’s narrative is always honest, graphic, and in places very down to earth. Even the pragmatist she accepts some real blows with a shrug of her shoulders. I suspect the reigniting of the affair with her Irish pro-Fenian lover is fuelled more by rebellion than by affection.
How much of Lizzie is the real woman? Impossible to say because the real Lizzie Burns was illiterate, and so has left no written records. Engels, of course, had other things to write about other than his partner who died at 40 and who he refused to marry until she lay on her death bed. (But at least he made an honest woman of her in the end.) McCrea has, therefore, written into the gaps of the historical record, and not only created a credible record of what might be true but an absorbing novel to boot.
Mrs Engels was my fourth read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the first I thought would make a worthy winner. Will book 5 A Place Called Winter or book 6 Tightrope snatch the shadow trophy from McCrae’s hands? All to be revealed before Saturday’s official award ceremony …….