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Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels

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Shorlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2016.

Longlisted for the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown Award Longlist 2016.

‘Mrs Engels’ is a stimulating and rather glorious peek at the life of Lizzie Burns, who lived alongside and supported the two men who founded Marxism. Set between 1842 and 1878, Gavin McCrea has planted this story in fact, and then weaved a magical yet earthy tale. Lizzie Burns was a woman of practical strength and determination, she takes the reader into her confidence and tells her own story, and what an amazing tale it is! Gavin McCrea not only transported me back in time, he also had me hanging on to every single word that came out of Lizzie’s mouth. The language surprises on occasion, and may cause a raised eyebrow, it is so full of attitude and down to earth. The story flowed between Lizzie’s past and present, until it felt as though it was one moment in time. Lizzie Burns was a woman who would have been extraordinary today, the voice McCrea has created is startling, and this is a simply wonderful and entirely captivating debut. ~ Liz Robinson

Chair of judges Iain Pears said: “McCrea has cleverly included just enough historical detail to set a very evocative scene, then lets his cast tell the story. The writing always surprises, his characters are compelling without having to be likeable and, as all of we judges noted, Mrs Engels is perhaps the most feminist novel we read for the Prize.”


Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Love is a bygone idea, centuries-worn. There are things we can go without, and love is among them; bread and a warm hearth are not. In September 1870 a train leaves Manchester bound for London. On board is Lizzie Burns, a poor worker from the Irish slums, embarking on the journey that will change her forever. Sitting in the first-class carriage beside her lover, the wealthy mill-owner Frederick Engels, the vision of a life of peace and comfort takes shape before her eyes. But as Lizzie soon learns 'the world doesn't happen how you think it will. The secret is to soften to it, and to take its blows.'


'A terrific, startling read: compelling cast, involving story, historically transporting. Gavin McCrea has found an original and atmospheric way of giving resonant voice to the unsung Lizzie Burns. Beguiling, humorous, terrifyingly candid, clandestine agent in a world of hazardous political intrigue and the equally risky complexities of desire and love, McCrea's Lizzie Burns is an enthralling character who pulls us irresistibly into her fascinating world from her first words to her last.'
Rachel Holmes

'Lizzie Burns'
voice is pitch perfect. She is a magnificent creation, worthy of comparison to Joyce

's Molly Bloom or Beckett's Winnie - her voice spills beyond the pages of the book, endless, vital, witty and enduring.'
Rebecca Stott, author of Ghostwalk

'Gavin McCrea's witty, fictional interpretation of the women who loved Engels crackles and fizzes with life. Lizzie Burns and her sister Mary are the dark heart of a book which manages to reconfigure a key period in British history while also showing us the flawed, human side of a great thinker. Lizzie's narration is wonderfully yet lightly stylised, and this is an excellent debut.'
Francesca Rhydderch

'An unusual, wholly convincing voice.'
Joyce Carol Oates

'Gavin McCrea has in his debut novel, Mrs Engels, done something I admire - he has found a character from a pivotal point in history whom I hadn't thought much about before, and with wit and humor and force settled her into my mind to stay.'
Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter

's Bone 'This whirlwind of politics and personalities might become dizzying were it not stabilised by Lizzie's unmistakable voice. 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.'
Helen Dunmore The Guardian

'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.'
Mario Reading The Spectator

'Ambitious and imaginative ... McCrea breathes real life into a historical character of whom we know next to nothing.'
Nigel Jones Daily Mail

'In Mrs Engels, Lizzie Burns, an Irish-woman 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.'
Antonia Senior The Times

'[Lizzie Burns's] plain, provocative, wittily realistic voice rings truthfully throughout this novel of ideas and ideals. She gives heartfelt, humanising context to the revolutionary politics and principles of Marx, Engels and their conflicted struggles to live morally virtuous lives in late Victorian England. Fiercely but tenderly fighting for heart over mind, Lizzie is one of the most distinctive female characters of modern fiction.'
Iain Finlayson Saga

'[Gavin McCrea] deserves praise for his command of voice in Mrs Engels ... This is the best kind of historical fiction - oozing period detail, set in a milieu populated by famous figures and events about which much is known, but seen through the eyes of a central character who, due to her illiteracy, left no ready access to her experience in the form of letters or diary entries: a rich and accomplished first novel.'
Lucy Scholes The Independent

'The fictional Lizzie Burns is a marvellous creation: an illiterate Irish daughter of the Manchester slums whose withering deprecations cut a swathe through the self-delusions and hypocrisies of the founding fathers of Communism ... Laugh-out-loud funny, touching and tender, and almost Dickensian in its physical descriptions of the Industrial Revolution's worst excesses, Mrs Engels is a stunningly accomplished debut novel.'
Declan Burke Irish Examiner

'Richly imagined ... McCrea gives the illiterate Lizzie [Burns] a vivid, convincing voice, sparkling with energy and not untouched by pathos. Her sharp, pragmatic observations offer a human perspective on historical icons. But the heart of the novel is the beautifully realized romance between Lizzie and Frederick: a mismatch of values and temperaments, yet also a tender and complex bond.'
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

'A stellar debut ... Lizzie's voice - earthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheming - grabs the reader from the first sentence and doesn't let go ... Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun.'
Kirkus (starred review)

'A tour de force ... Lizzie provides a bubble-busting, prole's-eye view of the movers and shakers of socialist theory ... It is nothing short of a phenomenon that a youngish male author has managed to inhabit the heart and soul of a middle-aged Victorian Irishwoman, bringing her and her milieu vibrantly alive - and in his debut novel, too.'
New Books

'[M]asterly and original, examining through the eyes of the brave, noisy and clever yet illiterate Lizzie the work and friendship of Marx and Engels and the lives of women.'
Kerryn Goldsworthy The Age

'An impressive debut ... A memorable portrait of a woman looking for a cause of her own, distinct from the one made famous by her husband.'
Wall Street Journal

'Lizzie is as spirited a narrator as a reader could hope to encounter. As channeled by McCrea, she can turn a humble sentiment into an extraordinary image, and if expressive language is your thing, you need to read Mrs Engels ... McCrea has reached into history and constructed a rich fictional saga.'
Star Tribune

'First-novelist McCrea well captures Lizzy's fiery temperament, vivid voice, and complicated relationship with Engels, whom she both longs to marry and longs to be free of. Moving, finely detailed, rife with full-bodied, humanizing portraits of historical icons, and told in striking prose, this is a novel to be savored.'
Booklist (starred review)

'You can't keep a good woman down ... not even one whose humble background raises eyebrows and hackles in her elite social circles ... Lizzie Burns, the former mill worker who was Friedrich Engels's real-life lover, speaks her sassy mind in Gavin McCrea's debut novel, Mrs Engels.'

'The illiterate lover and eventual wife of a coauthor of The Communist Manifesto is the star of this enthralling work of historical fiction.'
O The Oprah Magazine

'Lizzie Burns has been brought to life with exuberant force by the first-time author Gavin McCrea ... She's shrewd, but having come from the slums, she finds managing household servants rather awkward, and she's ambivalent about life with the rich, powerful man who has made of Marx something like a wife.
New York Times

'Delicious ... The characterization is pitch perfect ... [Lizzie Burns] is an utter delight and the book is a joy to read - entertaining and elucidating.'
Emily Maitlis, Guardian First Book Award Judging Panel

'Exuberant and daring ... [An] authentic reimagining of the co-author of The Communist Manifesto's other half: [Mrs Engels] is a masterwork of time and place, of lives unaccounted for.'
Catherine Taylor, Guardian First Book Award Judge and Deputy Director of English PEN

'McCrea's debut is a historical novel told through the unforgettable voice of Lizzie Burns, the longtime lover of Frederick Engels. Pulled up from her working-class roots after she meets Engels, Lizzie is nonetheless excluded from upper-class society and haunted by her former flame as she struggles to find her purpose. Sparkling with energy, Lizzie is one of the year's best characters.
Publishers Weekly, 'Best Books of 2015'

'A powerhouse protagonist ... [Lizzie] Burns is as improbable a subject for historical fiction as she is irresistible.
New York Times

'Lizzie Burns is fierce, proud and poetic - lit with a determination to make the best of things, bad as they are, and enjoy herself while doing it.'

'McCrea is triumphant in creating Lizzie's voice; she is dazzlingly convincing.'
The Times

'Extraordinarily assured ... Lizzie is an ever-intriguing, rounded character.'
Sunday Herald

'Superb ... A splendid exploration of the complexities of love and the contradictions between political ideals and intractable personal realities.'
Joseph O'Neill Irish Times

About the Author

Gavin McCrea

Gavin 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 the UK and Spain.

Author photo © Eugene Langan

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Book Info

Publication date

11th February 2016


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Scribe Publications


352 pages


Historical Fiction
All Shortlists and Winners
Literary Fiction
Reading Groups

Historical fiction



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