Review of “Mrs Engels”

It has been quite some time since I read Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. There are really only two things that I remember.

The first was his argument against the suggestion that the working classes were profligate. Engels’s point was that the relative duration of good and bad times meant that the only noticeable effect of saving when possible was an overall lowering of the standard of living.

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The second feature that sticks with me is that although Engels decried the English treatment of the Irish as sub-human, he also grudgingly admitted they had a point:

True, this limit is relative; one needs more than another, one is accustomed to more comfort than another; the Englishman who is still somewhat civilised, needs more than the Irishman who goes in rags, eats potatoes, and sleeps in a pig-sty. 1

Both Engels’s sympathy for the working poor and racism get a brief run in Mrs Engels, but the work, while being ostensibly historical fiction, is essentially a character study of Engels’s de facto partner, Lizzie Burns.2

As far as literary heroines go, Lizzie is not particularly likeable—even though most other characters at one point or another refer to her as a being a good sort. Lizzie is capricious, petty, devious, and generous by turns. Lizzie seems to regularly set off with good intentions only to have them thwarted by a spasm of pique. However, the enthralling quality of Lizzie is that she gives voice to all of the unflattering things that people think but rarely admit. The author also engages in little touches that flesh out Lizzie’s portrait, such as the occasional misspelt word, or phonetically spelt (particularly Engels’s German utterances), to illustrate her illiteracy.

This novel contains the fullest representation of the inner life of any character I have seen in literature. In that way, it is almost a kind of stream-of-consciousness. However, stream-of-consciousness is a stylistic representation of thought—that is, what is important is how to represent thought as an activity, and not so much what was thought about—, and while there are certainly elements of that here, it is not an adequate explanation for most of what is occurring.

Do not let this talk of stream-of-consciousness be distracting, for Mrs Engels is firmly in the historical fiction genre and as a piece of historical fiction the work is fascinating for its insights into Marxism and the milieu in which Marx and Engels were operating. Unlike some historical fiction (ahem, Ophelia’s Muse), the touch is light enough so that the parade of historical characters does not seem contrived or obligatory and their main theoretical points not simply plucked from Wikipedia.

The book also seems to be a study of the Irish notion of “grand,” which apparently means, “Okay, but only just.” The first few times the Engels reacts to Lizzie describing something as “grand” I thought it was a misunderstanding on the part of the German language native. It’s not until a flashback in which Lizzie’s sister, Mary (Fred’s original paramour), explains what grand means in Irish English.

For all that is wonderful about this book, the pace is reasonably plodding and the plot deceptively thin. These are relatively minor issues, but it does mean that patience and persistence are required for what is ultimately a satisfying read.


1 Engels’s larger point is that the Irish drove down wages because they were willing to work for lower wages because they required “less.” Excerpt From: Engels, Friedrich. “The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 / with a Preface written in 1892.” iBooks.

2 Although Engels regarded the contemporary form of marriage as a form of class oppression, he eventually married Lizzie on her deathbed. However, Engels initially spent twenty years with Lizzie’s sister, Mary Burns, who was also opposed to marriage.

 

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