Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea: The Irish Times Book Club title for February
This acclaimed debut novel is based on the true but little-known story of an illiterate Irishwoman from a Manchester slum who was Friedrich Engels’ common-law wife
The Times of London on Mrs Engels: “Gavin McCrea is triumphant in his exuberant debut in creating Lizzie’s voice; she is dazzlingly convincing. Voices that feel authentic to their period and yet brim with life and verve are so rare that Mrs Engels is my book of the month”
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea is The Irish Times Book Club title for February. This acclaimed debut novel, longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and published in paperback on February 11th (Scribe, £8.99), is the story of two illiterate Irish sisters from a Manchester slum, Anine and Lizzie Burns, who greatly influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Over the next four weeks, we will explore the novel through articles and interviews, culminating with a podcast of the author in conversation, to be recorded on Thursday, February 25th, at 7.30pm in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Bookmark the date. Gavin McCrea will be flying in from Spain especially for the event.
Arminta Wallace, who interviewed McCrea for The Irish Times, wrote that “the most striking aspect of Mrs Engels is the voice of Lizzie herself. Clear-eyed, sardonic, self-deprecating, she is a strong literary heroine in the mould of the main characters of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin and Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.”
How did McCrea come up with that very particular voice? Wallace asked. “I put myself on a strict diet of 19th-century literature: Hardy, all the classics. I made it a source for myself, I made a vocabulary and then I created a very artificial language. Historically, Lizzie would not have spoken like this. But I wanted to create a very powerful voice. I thought long and hard about her being illiterate. I didn’t want that to impoverish her in some way. Every time she speaks, I didn’t want to think, Oh, this woman can’t read and write. I wanted to do the exact opposite. I wanted the liberties that she took with language to enrich her.”
You can read the author’s essay on his novel’s inspiration here.
Reviews have been extremely enthusiastic. “This whirlwind of politics and personalities might become dizzying were it not stabilised by Lizzie’s unmistakable voice,” wrote Helen Dunmore in The Guardian. “She begins life by grabbing what she needs in order to survive; she ends it having achieved deep self-knowledge. She tells her own story with a fierce wit and trenchancy, shot through with poetry ... McCrea’s fictional speculation makes a fine symphony out of the silence that surrounds Lizzie Burns.”
The Spectator called Mrs Engels “an assured, beautifully-written debut, about a woman wiser than her lover perhaps, and slowly growing into herself – reminiscent of Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Eleanor Marx wrote that Lizzie was ‘illiterate and could not read or write, but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet’. Going by this, McCrea describes her perfectly.”
The current issue of the New Yorker, judging Mrs Engels an “incisive” novel, writes of Lizzie: “Illiterate, religious, and from a working-class Irish family, Burns has actually experienced the proletarian existence about which Engels can only pontificate. As she recalls many scarring scenes from her former life, she teeters between accepting her husband’s formulations and coming to understand her past on her own terms. The novel outlines a number of radical dislocations – in geography, nationality, class, and even love.”
The Times of London wrote: “In Mrs Engels, Lizzie Burns, an Irishwoman from Manchester, narrates the story in her own, deliberately non-modern idiom ... Lizzie provides an irreverent working-class take on all the intellectual posturing going on ... Gavin McCrea is triumphant in his exuberant debut in creating Lizzie’s voice; she is dazzlingly convincing. Voices that feel authentic to their period and yet brim with life and verve are so rare that Mrs Engels is my book of the month.”
McCrea was born in Dublin in 1978 and has since travelled widely, living in Japan, Italy and Spain, among other places. He holds a BA and an MA from University College Dublin, and an MA and a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He currently divides his time between Britain and Spain.
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