Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea
(Scribe, 2015)

Mrs Engels

by Gavin McCrea

In September 1870 a train leaves Manchester bound for London. On board is Lizzie Burns, a poor worker from the Irish slums, who is 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: finally, at nearly fifty, she is to be the lady of a house and the wife to a man. Perhaps now she can put the difficulties of the past behind her, and be happy?

In Gavin McCrea’s stunning debut novel, we follow Lizzie as the promise of an easy existence in the capital slips from her view, and as she gains, in its place, a profound understanding of herself and of the world. While Frederick and his friend Karl Marx try to spur revolution among the working classes, Lizzie is compelled to undertake a revolution of another kind: of the heart and the soul. Haunted by her first love (a revolutionary Irishman); burdened by a sense of duty to right past mistakes; and torn between a desire for independence and the pragmatic need to be taken care of, Lizzie learns, as she says, that the world doesn’t happen how you think it will. The secret is to soften to it, and to take its blows.

Wry, astute and often hilarious, Lizzie is as compelling and charismatic a figure as ever walked the streets of Victorian England, or its novels. In giving her renewed life, Gavin McCrea earns his place in the pantheon of great debut novelists.


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, author of Eleanor Marx: A Life
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 stylised, and this is an impressive debut.”
- Francesca Rhydderch, author of The Rice Paper Diaries