Not much is known about Lizzie Burns, an illiterate Irishwoman who was the long-time partner of the German philosopher and social scientist Friedrich Engels. But thanks to the debut novel by Gavin McCrea, Burns comes to life in an entertaining and spirited story.
McCrea said in an interview that he first ran across Burns while reading a biography about Engels. He was immediately intrigued by this uneducated but spirited woman who was always behind the scenes of several famous people’s lives. Burns was there when Engels and Karl Marx co-authored The Communist Manifesto. McCrea flushed out what little he could find out about Burns and her older sister Mary. Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl, was fond of Lizzie and wrote that she “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.’’
The Burns sisters first met Engels when he traveled to his family’s mill in Manchester, England. He was appalled by the workers’ conditions and his investigations led him to his communist philosophy. While the sisters both worked at the Engels’ mill, Mary struck up a romantic relationship with Engels. Mary eventually became Engels’ long-time partner and Lizzie lived with them. When Mary died, Lizzie eventually took over the role of Engels’ life partner. Later, Engels and Burns move to London to be closer to the Marx family.
McCrea imagines Burns as a fiery, opinionated, intelligent woman. One amusing scene imagines Lizzie trying to get Friedrich to help with the laundry with little success. She noted that while women were given a voice among the Communists, they still were expected to handle all the household duties. McCrea does a great job imagining would have talked with her native dialect. While she was often called Mrs. Engels, the couple wasn’t married until Lizzie was on her deathbed.
I enjoyed the outspoken and funny Lizzie Burns, who is a little better known thanks to McCrea’s research and imagination. While the book examines sobering issues, it is done through Burns’ darkly humorous, sometimes irreverent viewpoints. I recommend Mrs. Engels for people who enjoy historical biographical fiction.