As the fathers of Communism, Marx and Engels dedicated themselves to empowering the proletariat; at home, according to Gavin McCrea, their dedication to the workers was borne out by their choice of lovers.
Mrs Engels, aka Lizzie Burns, was not Friedrich Engels’s wife, but the two lived as a married couple at 122 Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill. For Victorians, this was a bohemian state of affairs to say the least, and one which did not go unnoticed by the ladies of the Primrose Hill Residents’ Association whose visit to welcome Mrs Engels to the neighbourhood descended into awkwardness and disapproval, brought to an end by the Engels’s maid who sought revenge on the visitors, muttering’ “Those were some bitches…they got what was coming.”’ The PHRA, of which I can find no historical evidence, should not of course be confused with the modern-day Primrose Hill Community Association, which is rather more welcoming!
Introduced by Karl Marx’s daughter to an intrigued houseful of strangers as ‘“Mr Engels’s wife, Mrs Burns. An Irishwoman and a true proletarian,”’ Lizzie is a fish out of water. Comfortable amongst neither the social circles Engels and the Marx family draw her into, nor amongst the servants working away downstairs, she seeks solace elsewhere that she knows can never truly satisfy her.
‘No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry,’ notes the unmarried Mrs Engels at the very start of the book. At the end, however, her position has changed: perhaps there was nothing to know in the first place. ‘You think there’s something there, something to find. The truth is, there’s naught but what you have in your mind about them.’
Primrose Hill is the backdrop to Lizzie’s story, and its streets, park and even the Lansdowne feature. Quite rightly, McCrea describes a run-down, dangerous and slightly wild neighbourhood – the Lansdowne is quiet one night, for instance, because the drinkers are outside watching two men fight.
I couldn’t help wondering, however, if calling the area ‘Primrose Hill’ was quite right for the time. Local historian Martin Sheppard told me that ‘The school was originally Princess Road Primary rather than Primrose Hill Primary (not certain when this changed). The library was Chalk Farm Library. The old overground station, originally called Hampstead Road, opened in 1851, but moved and was renamed Chalk Farm in 1862. It did, however, become Primrose Hill in 1950. Chalk Farm Tube opened in 1907. The church is St Marks, Regent’s Park. As opposed to this, Primrose Hill itself has been well-known since at least the mid-eighteenth century; and a public park since 1842. Primrose Hill Road was built in the 1870s.’
As a work of fiction, McCrea has created a lively read, woven through with well-known historical figures and events; balancing fact against fiction is a difficult job but one which he has pulled off with great skill. The richness of the language of the period is a joy and will fascinate anyone with an interest in words, although I couldn’t help feeling that the characters found it necessary to ‘bide’ just a little too often. However, ‘Mrs Engels’ works brilliantly as a novel, with a strong eponymous protagonist leading us on a wonderful journey of discovery, while at the same time bringing to life the well-documented world inhabited by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Bravo, Mr McCrea.
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, £14.99, Scribe Publications.
© 2015 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.