Selected as one of Amazon.com's Top 20 Best Books of 2015.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Desmond Elliott Prize.
"Lizzie has been brought to life with exuberant force by the first-time author Gavin McCrea.” Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times
"Impressive. . . .Mr. McCrea draws sharp ironies from the gap between theory and actuality. . . .A man can help you rise in the world, Lizzie remarks, in one of the many bluff, indelicate observations that give her narration its charisma: 'All you have to do is pick him out right and play him well.'. . .A memorable portrait of a woman looking for a cause of her own, distinct from the one made famous by her husband." Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"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
"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." Best Books of 2015, Publishers Weekly
"Friedrich Engels is a frequent name in history books. He was Karl Marx's Communist collaborator, penning several influential texts of the era. It may seem surprising, then, considering his academic pedigree, that his wife was illiterate and uneducated but truth is often stranger than fiction.
McCrea turns the larger-than-life character of Lizzie Burns, Engels' common-law wife, into one of the most compelling protagonists of the year. "Mrs. Engels" is historical fiction of the finest kind, where fact and fiction mix for the better of both." Top Fiction Picks of 2015, Minnesota Public Radio
A Boston Globe Fall Fiction Selection.
"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 around a woman most American readers won’t have spent any time at all thinking about. Historians know a lot more about Engels than they do about Elizabeth Burns, but McCrea has rendered her unforgettable, a model of resolve with an extraordinary narrative voice." The Minneapolis Star Tribune
"McCrea’s richly imagined debut novel is narrated by Irishwoman Lizzie Burns, the longtime lover of The Communist Manifesto coauthor Frederick Engels. . . McCrea gives the illiterate Lizzie a vivid, convincing voice, sparkling with energy and not untouched by pathos. Her sharp, pragmatic observations offer a human perspective on historical icons (Marx has boils, while Engels is overwhelmed by letters from his mother). 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." starred review, Publishers Weekly
"Irish-born McCrea's stellar debut imagines the lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, not men usually associated with romance, through the eyes of Engels' illiterate common-law wife, Lizzie Burns. Lizzie's voiceearthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheminggrabs the reader from the first sentence and doesn't let go. . . Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun."starred review, Kirkus Reviews
"First-novelist McCrea well captures Lizzie’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." starred review, Booklist
"You can't keep a good woman downnot even one . . . whose humble background raises eyebrows and hackles in her elite new 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." MORE Magazine
“A dazzling first novel. . . . Fascinating as Lizzie's narrative and characterization are, it's the writing itself that brings her story to life. The prose in Mrs. Engels is colorful, unpredictable, occasionally dense with meaning, always cleverly stylized and beautifully wrought. McCrea, appropriately for an Irish writer, invents a kind of contemporary Joycean mélange (in some of the commentary on this novel, Lizzie has been compared to Molly Bloom) of words familiar and words invented. . . . Since so little is known about the historical Lizzie Burns, Gavin McCrea had a great deal of license in portraying her, a freedom he exploits brilliantly. It is her earthiness that has prompted critics to compare her to Molly BloomLizzie, for instance, narrates a number of most unsentimental sex scenesand Mrs. Engels implicitly suggests another parallel in Gustave Flaubert's greatest creation, his characterization of Emma Bovary. . . . In Mrs. Engels, from its eloquent first paragraph to its superb last sentence, Gavin McCrea performs a remarkable feat of language that invites comparison with the best of recent first novels. It is bound to be widely discussed and, surely more important, to endure.” Greg Johnson, The Yale Review
"Through Lizzie’s singular perspective, peppered with her wry observations, readers are treated to a backstage look at the domestic lives of the most public 19th-century revolutionaries and their families. While Lizzie’s story exists only marginally in the historical record, first-time novelist McCrea brings her to life in this soulful work.” Library Journal
"Mrs. Engels explores the subtleties of a historic movement through the vantage of Lizzie Burns, Frederick Engels’ longtime companion and eventual wife.. . . Her position allows the story’s perspective to refreshingly shift from observing Engels and Marx’s work life and ideals to registering the domestic decorum and politics that have shaped Lizzie’s life. As Frederick imagines what could be, resenting the illusory social norms that dictate what is, Lizzie, to survive, must occupy herself with the very reality he and his peers frequently abhor or ignore." ZYZZYVA Magazine
"This debut novel is told in the voice of Lizzie Burns, Communist Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels’s longtime lover. The illiterate Lizzie left no records so McCrea has had to imagine her into existence which he has done impressively." The National Book Review
"Enormously rich and complex. . . Lizzie's voice is tremendously well handled and Victorian London, as described through her wry eyes, explodes on the page." BookBrowse
"Smartly drawn and enriched by fine characterizations, McCrea’s story delivers a fascinating love affair, a vivid portrait of Burns, and a dimensional view of the worlds she inhabited." Neal Wyatt, Library Journal's 2015 Book Club Recommendations
Longlisted for The Guardian 2015 First Book Award.
“McCrea’s fictional speculation makes a fine symphony out of the silence that surrounds Lizzie Burns.”Helen Dunmore, The Guardian (for the UK edition)
“Gavin McCrea is triumphant in his exuberant debut in creating Lizzie’s voice; she is dazzlingly convincing.” Antonia Senior, The Times of London (for the UK edition)
“This is the best kind of historical fictionoozing 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 (for the UK edition)
"This is an assured, beautifully written debut." Mario Reading, The Spectator (for the UK edition)
“McCrea’s novel, Mrs Engels, brings its historical characters to vivid and oftenat least in Lizzie’s caserambunctious life. . . Clear-eyed, sardonic, self-deprecating, she is a strong literary heroine in the mould of the main characters of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin and Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.” The Irish Times (for the UK edition)
"Ambitious and imaginative. . . McCrea breathes real life into a historical character of whom we know next to nothing." The Daily Mail (for the UK edition)
“A marginalized figure in the history books, the fictional Lizzie Burns is a marvelous 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.” The Irish Examiner (for the UK edition)
“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.” Rachel Holmes, author of Eleanor Marx: A Life
"Gavin McCrea has in his debut novel, Mrs. Engels, done something I admirehe 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
"Lizzie Burns is a magnificent creation, worthy of comparison to Joyce's Molly Bloom or Beckett's Winnieher voice spills beyond the pages of the book, endless, vital, witty, and enduring." Rebecca Stott, author of the New York Times bestselling Ghostwalk
"Gavin McCrea’s witty, fictional interpretation of the women who loved Engels crackles and fizzes with life . . . Lizzie Burns’s narration is wonderfully yet lightly stylized, and this is an excellent debut.” - Francesca Rhydderch, author of The Rice Paper Diaries, winner of the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize 2014
Irish-born McCrea's stellar debut imagines the lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, not men usually associated with romance, through the eyes of Engels' illiterate common-law wife, Lizzie Burns. 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. As the novel opens in 1870, Lizzie is moving with Frederick to London as his live-in lover. He wants to be closer to Marx, whom he has long supported financially. Lizzie is excited to move into a grand house but has mixed feelings about Karl's wife, Jenny, herself a fascinating combination of bourgeois sensibilities, love of family, and survival instincts. In the past, Jenny was not kind to Lizzie's older sister, Mary, the first Burns sister with whom Frederick was involved. Growing up in Manchester, the Burns girls worked at Ermen & Engels, the mill that German-born Frederick came to manage for his family in 1842. Mary quickly fell into a serious love affair with Frederick. Although he left Manchester for eight years, "writing his books and chasing the great revolutions around Europe," Mary eventually quit the mill and lived openly with him. When Lizzie's own romantic involvement with Moss, an alcoholic Fenian, soured, she moved in with Mary to keep house. She witnessed Mary's relationship with Frederick turn turbulent after he apparently fathered an illegitimate baby with the Marxes' maid, Nim. Shortly after Mary's death, Lizzie's own sexual liaison with Frederick began. By 1870 their relationship has endured—even thrived—for years, providing for Lizzie attraction, affection, and practical financial security. Forget Marx and Engels as authors of The Communist Manifesto. For Lizzie (and McCrea), social mores trump politics, while individual loyalties and needs are what ultimately matter. Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun?