Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

This is a pretty good book if you’re not looking for anything particularly factual about Mary and Lizzie (Lydia) Burns who were involved with Friedrich Engels for the better part of their adult lives – probably 20-30 years.  It’s not that what McCrea says is factually false  (although some of it is)  – it’s that there is virtually  no evidence of very much of it ever happening.  With only slivers of verifiable material McCrea has created a whole world around and within Lizzie Burns Engels.   The outline of what we do know is:

Mrs Engels 
by Gavin McCrea
2015 / 368 pages
read by Annie Farr 11h 55m
rating:  6 (averaged*)  /  historical (?) fiction
* 2 for history,  8 for lit –

1.  The Irish immigrant Mary Burns met Friedrich Engels in Manchester, England where she and her family, including younger sister Lizzie,  were living at the time,  round 1843.

2. Mary and Lizzie helped Friedrich understand the lives of the poor in Manchester.  Mary and Engels then maintained a relationship for about 20 years,  living together when they could, until her death in London.  They never married.

3.  Lizzie lived with the Mary and Friedrich at times.  After Mary’s death Lizzie stayed to help Friedrich and after awhile they presented themselves as a couple,  although they didn’t marry until Lizzie was literally on her deathbed.

4.  There is some evidence that Mary was probably nice looking, pleasant and  witty but given to drink in her later years.  Meanwhile Lizzie was a “honest and fine-souled” “with a passionate devotion to the class into which she was born.” She was quite valuable to Friedrich.    (From papers of Karl and Jenny and Eleanor Marx as well as from  Engels =  see the Wiki links at the bottom for more info.)

That’s it.  Construct your story,  McCrea.  lol  –

Nowhere does it say Lizzie was an unhappy shrew, but that’s what she sounds like in Mrs Engels.   And it  was Mary who got a liking for drink,  not LIzzie (although maybe they both did – no hard evidence of any of that.)

The story McCrea created from such slight material is well enough written for me to become involved.   That said, it’s almost entirely fictitious and that was never far from my mind.  So – caveat lector.

Aside from the nice writing,  there’s another aspect  on the plus side,  but it’s because  of my own temperament.  The historical parts of historical fiction are fodder for my personal research. I don’t care if the author gets the established facts “right” or “wrong”  if he has reasons other than making a “better story.”   I always look up a lot of stuff when I read historical fiction.  No,  not hours and hours at the library – Google is as close as my fingertips. And I learn a lot that way.

The tale opens in September 1870 with Lizzie Burns and Friedrich Engels arriving back in London where Jenny and Karl Marx already live. Mary has been dead for several years.   The narrative continues going back to the early days and Mary in Manchester and other cities,  and on to the later times in London up through  Lizzie’s death in 1878.  This chronology is a bit  confusing because McCrea doesn’t do much to differentiate.  Once in awhile there is an event which can date the events – i.e. the Paris Commune of 1871.

Lizzie tells us the whole story but that gets a bit confusing because there’s a lot of dialogue.   The writing is nice,  smooth.  The plot,  such as it is,  wanders around back and forth through the years with the focus on Lizzie’s  personal issues – Lizzie is shown to be a shrewish  spinster,  unhappy with her lot in life as well as everything and everyone in it.  She does have a bit of her own life,  a lover she’s trying to use or something, political action involvement.  But again,   this story is completely invented.   (Anyone still read historical fiction for their history lesson? – Stop it!   The operative word here is “fiction.”   Check out some nonfiction  sources! – lol).


NOTE TO SELF:   check out the backgrounds on the books you read prior to buying them.


BIos: Mary and Lizzy:


Mary –


bios with photos:

individuals:  (younger sister)

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1 Response to Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I really liked this book (see though yes, it is based on a mere skeleton of a life. But sometimes – because the historical record has ignored women so much – a fictionalisation like this brings a life out from the shadows without much harm being done.
    As it happens I am currently reading a book called Behind the Text, which is a bunch of interviews with authors of what is sometimes called ‘creative non-fiction’. From this book I’m hoping to get a better handle on what authors are doing when the fictionalise like this…


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