Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Debut Novel sees Birth of Communism through Eyes of Mrs. Engels

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Gavin McCrea, Author of Mrs. Engels

By Diane Slocum

January 2016

Mrs. Engels
by Gavin McCrea
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Lizzie Burns and her sister, Mary, were textile factory workers in Manchester when the owner’s son, Frederick, came on board. Of all the girls who were swooning over him, he chose Mary. Throughout their tumultuous relationship, Lizzie stayed by her sister’s side and when Mary died, Frederick’s affection turned to her. Though very different in class and temperament, the two stayed together through the years as Frederick and Karl Marx developed the communist party. While Frederick’s attention is elsewhere, Lizzie faces her own challenges in a world much different than the Irish immigrant community of her origins.

“I came across Lizzie in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. It was a chance meeting.”

AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea to write a novel about Lizzie Burns? Did the fact that she was of Irish descent interest you?

McCREA: I came across Lizzie in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. It was a chance meeting. In fact, it was barely a meeting at all. Because Lizzie was illiterate and left no diaries or letters of her own, she remains a ghost in the record—she wafts in and out of rooms dominated by the great hulks of Engels and his friend Karl Marx. Lizzie is mentioned in the Marx-Engels correspondence but has no real historical ‘weight’ of her own. When I discovered that Engels had also had a relationship with Lizzie’s older sister, Mary, I knew I had to write the story.

AUTHORLINK: Not much is known about Lizzie. What did you use to develop her character and voice? How did you identify with her?

McCREA:  I knew that I would have to write it in first-person, from Lizzie’s perspective. As a writer, I am interested in the creation of the illusion of “mind,” and I wanted to give Lizzie a “mind” that appears larger, more forceful, more fully realized than those of the now-famous personages who surrounded her. I made the decision early on that I wanted Lizzie’s voice (her private thoughts and, in a different manner, her spoken words) to be lyrical, the product of a rich oral culture. I wanted her illiteracy to enrich her voice rather than impoverish it. 

“In order to create the illusion that Lizzie is “someone” other than “me,” I write her in a kind of drag.”

In order to create the illusion that Lizzie is “someone” other than “me,” I write her in a kind of drag. This linguistic disguise is comprised of words and phrases from a number of sources, including the Marx-Engels letters, classic 19th-century literature, and Irish and Northern English vernacular. The mix is highly artificial, but no more so, I believe, than the inherited/found/imposed/assumed/constructed/performed vocabularies which make up my own voice (the voice of “Gavin”), and by which I express and come to believe in my own identity (as “Gavin”).

As a child, I remember being very frustrated that boys weren’t “allowed” to wear dresses. I liked to dress in my sister’s and my mother’s clothes, and I often went out in public in drag. (My mother, to her great credit, never prevented me or scolded me or created a fuss.) Using fiction to become a woman is perfect for men like me who no longer have the bravery they once had as a child—that is, men who have lost their balls.

AUTHORLINK: What research did you have to do to create the England of Lizzie’s day?

McCREA: Before writing Mrs. Engels, I knew little about Communism or 19th-century European history more generally. I was starting from scratch, so I needed to do a large amount of research—about a year of full-time work. (I was fortunate enough to have a scholarship from the University of East Anglia, which enabled me to devote all of my time to it.) Having Lizzie as a goal made the research extremely enjoyable. My reading ranged widely, from literature to history to biography to theory. I often got lost and drawn into stories that weren’t for me to tell.

“Of course, being fiction, the novel is also full of ‘my own’ memories, experiences, and emotions. “

Of course, being fiction, the novel is also full of ‘my own’ memories, experiences, and emotions. I put quotation marks around ‘my own’ because in the course of writing Mrs. Engels, I came to question the nature and meaning of ownership. Mrs. Engels is a book populated by characters who believed that the modes of production (i.e. the sources of power and wealth) would one day be wrested from the wealthy minority and shared among the poor majority. So 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? Ultimately, I think the book asks: can Lizzie own her own destiny?

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

McCREA: Mrs. Engels is the first part of what will be the Wives of the Revolution Trilogy.

I’m currently working on the second book, The Sisters Mao, which tells the story of a London theatre family whose fate becomes bound with that of Jiang Qing, the actor wife of the Communist dictator Mao Zedong.

About the Author:

Gavin McCrea was born in Dublin and holds degrees from University College in Dublin and the University of East Anglia. He has lived in Japan, Belgium, Italy and Spain. Mrs. Engels, his debut novel, was chosen as one of the 20 best books of 2015 by and Publishers Weekly. It is also one of the Kirkus Best and an Oprah pick.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.