Gavin McCrea’s stellar debut novel, Mrs. Engels, tells the story of Lizzie Burns, an illiterate Irish worker who became the lover of Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto. McCrea talks about writing research, and blending fact and fiction.
I came across Lizzie Burns in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Friedrich Engels. It was a chance meeting. Indeed, 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 Karl Marx. Yet despite, or perhaps because of her lack of historical weight, I adored her 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 knew that in order to carry off a convincing performance of Lizzie, I would have to give the impression that she was someone other than me, and that this feat would require a lot of research. Over a year of full-time work, it turned out. Having Lizzie as a goal made the research enjoyable, however. 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, 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: my memories of her which were slowly forming.
Marguerite Yourcenar writes that, having spent so much time researching and imagining her characters’ lives, their memories are no more and no less than her own memories—and I know what she means. As much as I tried to create the illusion of otherness; as much as I laboured to keep out everything that I thought readers might recognise as coming from my own personality, ultimately if Lizzie can be said to be someone, that someone can only be ‘me’. When writing from Lizzie’s perspective, I wasn’t feigning to be Lizzie. Rather, I was Lizzie, the only Lizzie I could imagine being. To say I was pretending to be her suggests that, the rest of time, I’m not pretending to be me, that there exists an authentic non-performative ‘Gavin’, which is nonsense. I don’t know what ‘me’ is, if not a performance. I don’t know who ‘I’ am if not an act. To construct Lizzie, I simply switched from what I imagined my self to be in one moment to what I imagined her self to be in another moment. And it wasn’t such a big leap. I’d be unable to distinguish between what is me and what is Lizzie in the book; Lizzie’s memories appear in my mind as vaguely and as vividly as my own. She and I are both the fiction of my self.
Which is to say: Lizzie is a product of ‘my own’ experience of the world (research, memories, experiences and emotions). I put quotation marks around ‘my own’ here 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 ownership of the modes of production in society (i.e. the sources of power and wealth) would one day be wrested from the minority and shared among the majority. So I was constantly asking myself what it means to own something: houses, money, power, experiences, ideas, memories, 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? Can any of us? Are we living, or are we being lived? Are we thinking or are we being thought? Are we acting or are we being acted?
It’s probable that Mrs Engels will be classed as ‘historical fiction’, but in fact I don’t consider the book more historical than any other. All fiction is historical. All fiction requires research (simply to look around is to engage in research), and all fiction is about the past—even (especially) that which is set in an imagined future. Fiction cannot escape the past; indeed it is the past as we remember and understand it.
Nor do I consider my book, because it purports to record the thoughts of a single person, to be more ‘personal’ or ‘close’ than other kinds of fiction. The thoughts Mrs Engels contains aren’t Lizzie’s any more than they are mine. When the thoughts that make up Mrs Engels came to me, I didn’t take possession of them. I didn’t make them mine. They just passed through me for a time. I used them for my act and then released them. By putting them in a book I was simply returning them from whence they came. Who ever thought they owned their own thoughts? Not me. Not Lizzie. We’re all yours.