‘Let us hear’: fiction can give voice to unrecorded words of working class
Mary and Lizzie Burns are the silent voices in Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England. Our imaginations must transform these slight historical figures into the massive fictional characters they deserve to be
A statue of Marx and Engels in Berlin: the wakening of Engels’s class consciousness was aided by his love affair with a poor Irish worker, Mary Burns, and later her sister Lizzie, subject of Gavin McCrea’s novel, Mrs Engels
In 1842, at the age of 22, Friedrich Engels was sent to Manchester to do a two-year internship at his family’s cotton mill. As intended, this training prepared the young Engels for a career in the cotton industry. Its unforeseen consequence, however, was an awakening of Engels’s class consciousness aided by a love affair with a poor Irish worker.
The Manchester that Engels arrived in was really two towns in one: the working people’s quarters were sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle classes. A bourgeois mill-owner could live in Manchester for years without ever entering a workers’ district. This class zoning horrified Engels, but it was also the feature of Manchester that aroused his interest in the lives of the workers. As soon as Engels saw the boundaries, he wanted to breach them. Once he perceived that he was being denied something, he was eager to encounter it. The workers were the forbidden people, and it was with them that he wished to consort.
To this end he did what few mill men dared to do: he plunged into the slums. In the evening after work, he set off on foot to explore the alleys and courts of the working districts, to knock on doors of cottages and cellars, to speak with the families who lived there. His guide on these excursions was his lover, an Irish worker named Mary Burns. Mary escorted Engels on his rounds, gaining him access to districts and to households which would otherwise have been unsafe for a stranger to enter. She was Engels’s source of information about the factory and domestic conditions endured by the working people of the city.
In 1844, back in his native Barmen (now Wuppertal), Germany, Engels wrote his exposé, Condition of the Working Class in England. He did so with a bourgeois German audience in mind. His aim was to lay bare to the literate, property-owning and industrialist class of his homeland – the class he himself was born into – the privation and degradation suffered by the workers as a direct consequence of the capitalist system.
“Let us hear,” Engels implored repeatedly in Condition. “Let us hear, let us hear,” over and over again. In this way he accused the bourgeoisie of turning a deaf ear to the cries and protestations of the people who suffered under capitalism. Yet only rarely – on a couple of occasions in more than 200 pages-did he actually “let us hear” the voices of the suffering workers themselves. Instead, he devoted the vast majority of his text to the comments and opinions of middle-class observers. It was the bourgeoisie, and not the workers, whom, in the final event, Engels called upon to speak.
Thus, in Condition Engels painted an uncertain picture about which class he believed he belonged to. For while he undoubtedly directed his attack at the class he was raised in, the class with both the education to read and the political and economic power to respond, he was also at pains to align himself – if not by birth then certainly politically, philosophically and emotionally – with the working class he observed in Manchester, the class which had no access to his words. The middle classes, he made clear, were the enemy.
So what made Engels so special that he felt he could demand the attention of the middle classes while at the same time keeping a distance from them? If, as his book suggested, the working class and bourgeoisie were irreconcilable enemies, then what gave him the capacity – or indeed the right – to position himself between these two camps and to profess to see the circumstances of each with equal perspicuity? The answer lay in his private life – where else? Not only had his lover Mary helped to provide him with the material for his nascent communist theory, she had also given him the confidence to shed his purely bourgeois identity and feel kinship with a class that, according to his own scheme, was naturally hostile to his ilk. In 1850, when Engels returned to Manchester to take up full-time employment at the mill, again he took up with Mary, and they remained lovers until her death in 1863. At that point – or perhaps even before – he started a relationship with Mary’s sister, Lizzie. He and Lizzie were lovers until Lizzie’s death in 1878.
It was through these remarkable sisters that Engels became acquainted with the “undiscovered” working people of Manchester, their struggles, their sorrows and their joys. To the lives of Mary and Lizzie themselves, however, we have no guide. Because they were illiterate and left no diaries or letters of their own, they remain ghosts in the historical record. They are the silent voices in Engels’s Condition. They are the spokeswomen who call out to be heard. But how can we hear those who are barely there? Our speculations alone must satisfy us. Our imaginations must do the work of transforming these slight historical figures into the massive fictional characters that they deserve to be.
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, is published in paperback on February 11th (Scribe, £8.99). Over the next four weeks, we will explore the novel through articles and interviews, culminating with a podcast of the author in conversation with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times, to be recorded on Thursday, February 25th, at 7.30pm in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Hodges Figgis offers readers a 10 per cent discount on Irish Times Book Club titles