I’m delighted to welcome author Gavin McCrea to One More Page today to discuss his historical fiction debut, Mrs Engels. Gavin 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 lives between the UK and Spain. Welcome Gavin!
Your debut novel, Mrs Engels is released on 1st May; please could you tell us a little about it and what inspired you to write it?
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. In fact, it was barely a meeting at all. Lizzie was illiterate and left no diaries or letters of her own, so 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. Lizzie is mentioned in the Marx-Engels correspondence but has no real historical ‘weight’ of her own. When I discovered that Engels had also had a relationship with Lizzie’s older sister, Mary, I knew I had to write the story.
I love novels that shed a light on little known figures in history and particularly women; what drew you to Lizzie Burns as a subject?
Despite, or perhaps because of her lack of historical weight, I adored Lizzie instantly. I could only get the slightest sense of her, and that was enough. Ignited within me was a desire to build a personality for her, to perform as her, to present myself as if I was her. I wanted to be her—as I imagined her to be.
I thought Lizzie’s would be a fascinating story to tell. Her position—as a poor worker involved with a rich communist, on one hand, and as a woman having a relationship with the same man as her sister, on the other—allows for a wealth of contradictions, conflicts and complex emotional landscapes to develop. I knew that, to do Lizzie full justice, I would have to write the book in first-person, from her perspective. As a writer, I am interested in the creation of the illusion of ‘mind’, and I wanted to give Lizzie a ‘mind’ that appears larger, more forceful, more fully realized than those of the now-famous personages who surrounded her. I liked the idea of turning a slight historical figure into a massive fictional character.
The novel is narrated in the first person by Lizzie and she has a wonderful voice! How did you get into character and was it strange to write from a female perspective?
When constructing Lizzie’s voice, the most urgent questions I had to address were, firstly, her inability to read and write and, secondly, her sex/gender.
I made the decision early on that I wanted Lizzie’s voice (her private thoughts and, in a different manner, her spoken words) to be lyrical, the product of a rich oral culture. I wanted her illiteracy to enrich her voice rather than impoverish it. I wanted her inability to read and write to add not only urgency and power but also music to her words. My hope was that both the characters within the novel and the readers of the novel would be surprised and challenged by the fierce intelligence that Lizzie’s special vocabulary conveys.
In order to create the illusion that Lizzie is ‘someone’ other than ‘me’ (i.e. a ‘woman’ rather than a ‘man’), I write her in a kind of drag. This linguistic disguise is comprised of words and phrases from a number of sources, including the Marx-Engels letters, classic 19th-century literature, and Irish and Northern English vernacular. The mix is highly artificial, but no more so, I believe, than the inherited/found/imposed/assumed/constructed/performed vocabularies which make up my own voice (the voice of ‘Gavin’), and by which I express and come to believe in my own identity (as ‘Gavin’). By which I mean: if I were to write a novel from the perspective of ‘Gavin’, it would also be a drag performance. It would be me pretending to be me, and I would never really know whether I was doing me any justice.
As a child, I remember being very frustrated that boys weren’t ‘allowed’ to wear dresses. I liked to dress in my sister’s and my mother’s clothes, and I often went out in public in drag. (My mother, to her great credit, never prevented me or scolded me or created a fuss.) Using fiction to become a woman is perfect for men like me who no longer have the bravery they once had as a child—that is, men who have lost their balls.
How did you go about your research for Mrs Engels and what was the most surprising fact that you uncovered?
I did a large amount of research—about a year of full-time work. (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.) Having Lizzie as a goal made the research extremely enjoyable. My reading ranged widely, from literature to history to biography to theory. I often got lost and drawn into stories that weren’t for me to tell. But always there, in my mind and in my heart, driving and directing me, telling me which path to follow and which to ignore, what to keep and what to discard, was my image of Lizzie.
Of course, being fiction, the novel is also full of ‘my own’ memories, experiences, and emotions. I put quotation marks around ‘my own’ because in the course of writing Mrs Engels, I came to question the nature and meaning of ownership. Mrs Engels is a book populated by characters who believed that the modes of production (i.e. the sources of power and wealth) would one day be wrested from the wealthy minority and shared among the poor majority. So I was constantly asking myself what it means to own something: houses, money, experiences, ideas, emotions. Do we ever really own anything—even our thoughts, our bodies and our selves? Ultimately, I think the book asks: can Lizzie own her own destiny?
The two most surprising facts I discovered are revealed at the end of the novel. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!
For readers interested to find out more about the period, Frederick Engels and Karl Marx which books would you recommend?
I would recommend starting with Engels’s exposé Condition of the Working Class in England, which is as relevant today as it ever was. Engels describes the poverty of Manchester in the 1840s but he could easily be talking about a factory town in China or Vietnam today. After that, I would dive into the Communist Manifesto. Like all good propaganda it’s a short and exhilarating read; brilliantly angry. Then I would give the first volume of Marx’s Capital a whirl. Capital is surprisingly readable and contains pretty much everything you need to know about Marx’s thought: his dialectical theory of historical stages, his materialist theory of history (the struggle of classes), an economic and moral critique of capitalist civilization, an economic demonstration that capitalism was bound to collapse, a call to revolutionary action, and a prediction that communism would be the next and final historical stage. I doubt Capital will convert you to communism but its criticisms of capitalism are as compelling today as when it was first published in 1867.
The cover for the book is striking – can you tell us the story behind it?
My novel opens in 1870 with Lizzie and Engels moving from Manchester to their new house on Regent’s Park Road in London. At that time the nearby Regent’s Park zoo held a specimen of the now extinct ‘quagga’. The ‘quagga’ was a South African wild ass. Its front part resembled a zebra, but in the mid-section its stripes faded, and the spaces between them widened, leaving a brown hind quarter much like a donkey’s.
When the ‘quagga’ was ‘discovered’ by white explorers in 1778 it was categorised as a separate species. More recent genetic testing, however, revealed the ‘quagga’ to be merely a category of zebra and not a species at all. The ‘quagga’, as a distinct animal, only ever existed as a kind of (white European) fiction.
The ‘quagga’ makes a small but significant appearance in Mrs Engels. I was drawn to the idea of a fictional animal that looked both common (donkey) and exotic (zebra). I liked that the ‘quagga’ was classed as unique for a couple of centuries and then, long after its extinction, was given back it ordinariness. I’d like to think that if ever Lizzie had a carriage of her own, it would be drawn by zebras dressed up to look like their extinct ‘quagga’ cousins.
And finally … what can we expect next from Gavin McCrea?
Mrs Engels is the first part of what will be the Wives of the Revolution Trilogy.
I’m currently working on the second book, The Sisters Mao, which tells the story of a London theatre family whose fate becomes bound with that of Jiang Qing, the actor wife of the Communist dictator Mao Zedong.
Thank you Gavin!
Mrs Engels is released in hardback and ebook formats on 1st May.
Find out more about Gavin and his writing at: http://www.gavinmccrea.com/
Please do check out the other stops on Gavin’s Mrs Engels blog tour this week.