Opening Lines: Mrs Engels
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
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
‘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
‘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.
Jenny suggests under one of the big oaks, and we agree.
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
‘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.
‘Paul?’ she says, whipping a handkerchief from her sleeve and making a whisk of it at me, ‘Paul is French. And a politics man.
‘What is it?’ Jenny says without slowing her gait.
Sighing, Jenny takes it and runs it through her fingers. ‘A common magpie,’ she says and hands it back.
‘And it’s not only Laura,’ Jenny says when we’re out of
‘How will any of us?’ I
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,
I say naught. Thoughts and memories come vivid, of old desires and chances lost, and though there’s regret in
From the bathing huts of Ramsgate to the hovels of Soho, from a surreptitious life in Manchester to a notorious one on the handsome new parade that is London's Regents Park Road, this book follows Lizzie and the Engels household as it struggles to match its communist principles with its hunger for the high life.