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Discovering Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction
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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 and lives in the UK and Spain. Mrs. Engels is his stunning debut novel, and we asked him to tell us a bit about it… Over to Gavin:

Mrs Engels tells the story of Lizzie Burns, a poor Irishwoman who became the lover of the communist and political scientist, Friedrich Engels. I came across Lizzie in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. It was a chance meeting. Indeed, it was barely a meeting at all. Because Lizzie was illiterate and left no diaries or letters of her own, there isn’t much known about her. A ghost in the record, she wafts in and out of rooms dominated by the great hulks of Engels and his friend Karl Marx. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I adored her instantly. I could only get the slightest sense of her, yet that was enough. Ignited within me was a desire to imagine a life for Lizzie that appeared larger, more forceful, more fully realized than those of the now-famous personages who surrounded her. I wanted to turn this slight historical figure into a massive fictional character.

This task, I knew, would require a lot of research. Over a year of full-time work, it turned out (I was fortunate enough to have a scholarship from the University of East Anglia, which enabled me to devote all of my time to it.). My reading ranged widely, from literature to history to biography to theory. I spent a good deal of time studying 19th-century domestic life: cultural histories, photos, drawings, advertisements, maps, guidebooks and so on. My aim was to set the limits for what my characters were capable of thinking and doing within their environments. Would it occur to a particular character to take this or that action in this or that room? Would a certain action be ‘thinkable’ in a certain location? If so, what form would that action take? How would that action look? What objects or gestures would be employed?

Gavin-McCreaOnce that was done—once the house was built—most of my effort went into constructing and sustaining Lizzie’s voice. I put a lot of thought into how I would represent an illiterate woman as words in a literary novel. I didn’t want Lizzie’s inability to read and write to limit the force of her mental life or turn her into a caricature. Nor did I want to strain her voice by giving her a language that was overly florid or knowing. My solution was to give her voice (her private thoughts and, in a different manner, her spoken words) a specifically oral rhythm; to make it lyrical. I used her illiteracy as a tool to enrich her voice rather than impoverish it. The liberties Lizzie makes with language are intended not to highlight her lack of education (although at times they do this) but rather to lend urgency and power to her expressions. If Lizzie is a feminist it is less for the ideas she expresses (which, be warned, are often conservative and reactionary), and more for the power with which she speaks.

I worked hard to keep my focus squarely on Lizzie (that is, her view of the world). Having done a lot of research for a novel, the temptation was to build scenes which allowed me to activate that research, to show it off. I had to be disciplined to keep Engels and Marx at arm’s length. The sex scenes, for example, had to be Lizzie’s; I couldn’t let Engels take them over and make them his. If at any moment I felt Lizzie disappearing, I had to push him back and return her to the centre.

‘The sex scenes had to be Lizzie’s.’ It is interesting that I say this because one of the main themes of Mrs Engels is the ownership of things (money, knowledge, power, experience). The novel is populated by characters who believe that in the future the system of ownership will be organized in a different way. As a consequence, I was constantly asking myself what it means to own something, be it a house or an idea or emotion. As I was building my characters’ personalities, the question I kept returning to was: do we ever really own anything—even our thoughts, our bodies and our selves? When we have a thought, is it ours, or did it come from outside ourselves (inherited, adopted, imposed)? When we make an action, can we call it our own, or are we imitating something we once saw someone else do (father, mother, friend, teacher, idol)? Ultimately, I think Mrs Engels asks: can Lizzie own her own destiny? Is she making her own life, or is a life being made for her?

(c) Gavin McCrea

About Mrs. Engels

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, we follow Lizzie and the Engels household as it struggles to match its communist principles with its hunger for the high life. At the heart of all the revolutionary tumult stands the woman who will one day become Mrs Engel’s, as compelling and charismatic a figure as ever walked the streets of Victorian England, or its novels.

Mrs. Engels is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

Find out more about Gavin at www.gavinmccrea.com

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