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Opening Lines: Mrs Engels

Posted on 11th May 2015 by Rob Chilver
Debut novelist Gavin McCrea explores the life of Lizzie Burns and her time with Frederick Engels.

There's nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice, writing at the start of their career. That's why we're highlighting our favourite debut authors of the year so far.

Gavin McCrea follows the life of Lizzie Burns, a working-class woman of Irish descent who moved to London in 1870 with celebrated theorist Friedrich Engels. All at a time when Engels and Marx were engaged with founding a political philosophy set to change the world around them. 

Mrs Engels is an engrossing debut novel told with humour and sympathy as McCrea gives a fresh voice to a fascinating woman from history.  Read an extract below.


Imprisoned, they have us, in their hospitality.  Already here two days longer than planned.  It’s my own fault for not being firmer with Frederick.  I ought kick up more of a row.  

At first I was worried about getting in the way.  I didn’t want to walk in on top of anyone or trespass on their time.  But, as it happens, I keep finding myself alone and lost and off the beaten course, in rooms that go into rooms, up and down and every which direction.  My heart goes out to Jenny, having to govern such a monster, and I’ve come to admire her practice of going away to rest in case she might be tired later in the day, for I’ve learnt that a mere glance into the parlour is liable to dizzy you, for the depth. 


Spread out on the couches, fidgeting and yawning and trying to ignore Karl’s pacing, we bide for Jenny.  After forever has passed, she swishes in and kisses the air about us, a hand busying itself with a button of her coat.

‘If we want to make the best of the afternoon we should set off immediately.  It could be raining in an hour, and then we would have missed the fine spell, or?  

Behind her, Karl widens his eyes and purses his lips as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me, I’ve had a lifetime of it.’  

Once outside the gate, Frederick and Karl stride ahead, arm in crook, their heads tilted close so as not to drop anything important between them.  The Girls hold hands and swing their arms like children; they each lead a dog by a strap.  Jenny lets them gain a bit of distance before drawing me in and sallying forwards.  Nim follows with the basket.  

‘Nothing extravagant,’ says Jenny.  ‘Just some roast veal, some bread and cheese, some ale.’  

I turn and smile a weak smile at Nim, the tiny doll straining under the poundage.

The Men bide for us at the Heath’s edge.  Karl asks whether it’s a good idea to go to the usual spot, given the strong breeze.  ‘Would some place more sheltered be better?’  

Jenny suggests under one of the big oaks, and we agree.  Ohing and ahing like she’s just solved the National Debt, we agree.  And I, for one, must be careful of my mood.

We set off again.  The dogs are released onto the grass.  Tussy skips after them. A sullen-looking Janey searches for flowers to press.  The trees are tossed.  The wind is loud in the leaves.  The kites in the air fly slanted and set their owners straining.  Down in my bad lung there’s a pain.  Naught to fret over but there.  Too much fast air after these long days spent between the dust of the mattress and the smoke of the fireside.

‘Karl is so happy to have Frederick nearby again,’ says Jenny now.  ‘It does me good to see him happy, he’s been so nervous of late.’  

‘I’m glad, Jenny.  That’s nice to hear.’  

‘Of course, he hasn’t been alone.  My own hair is gone grey thinking about Laura in France.  Her second baby lost, and now pregnant again.  Caught up in this damned war.  It has us all hysterical.  

‘You oughtn’t worry, Jenny.  Laura’ll be fine.  Doesn’t she have Paul to look after her?’  

‘Paul?’ she says, whipping a handkerchief from her sleeve and making a whisk of it at me, ‘Paul is French.  And a politics man.

‘Mohme!’  Tussy is calling from about twenty yards.  ‘Mohme!  Mohme!  

‘What is it?’ Jenny says without slowing her gait.  

Tussy runs to catch up with us.  She comes round us and, walking backwards, her hem dancing around her boots and liable to trip her up, holds out a feather.  ‘Look what I found.  Which bird is it from, do you think?  

Sighing, Jenny takes it and runs it through her fingers.  ‘A common magpie,’ she says and hands it back.  

Tussy looks at it a moment, disdainful, and drops it.  Wanders back onto the grass.

‘And it’s not only Laura,’ Jenny says when we’re out of ear-shot again, ‘I also worry for these two.  Look at Janey there and tell me she isn’t radiant?  And Tussy, perhaps she even more so.  But I’m anxious.  I’m anxious that, for this same reason, they are all the more out of place and out of time.  And with the life we give them, how will they ever meet a good ordinary man?  

‘How will any of us?’ I says.  

She squeezes my arm and grants me a smile.  ‘Oh Lizzie, you are funny.  But perhaps I am not expressing myself well.  I speak of a subject it is hard for people who do not have children themselves to understand.  A mother will look at her children and if she sees that one of them has already been denied the chance of a happy kind of life, she will naturally worry that the others will go the same way.  I know I sound like a philistine when I say it, Lizzie, but if they could but find husbands, a German or even an Englishman if he had a solid position, and get themselves comfortably settled; if they could do that, I wouldn’t mind my own losses so much.  The last thing I want is that they have the kind of life I have had.  Often I think I would like to turn away from politics altogether, or at least be able to look upon it as a hobby to take up and leave down as I please.  But for us, Lizzie, it is a matter of life and death because for our husbands it is so, and I fear it has to be the same for our children.  This is our cross to bear. 

I say naught.  Thoughts and memories come vivid, of old desires and chances lost, and though there’s regret in them, and mourning, it’s not unpleasant to have their company.  We walk on.  


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