Historia talks to Gavin McCrea, author of the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown shortlisted novel, Mrs Engels.
The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
I’m now 38 and I really only became interested in history in a conscious way a few years ago, when I woke up to what history actually is: our means of comprehending what has happened. The study of history became important to me, both as an artist and as a human being, once I realised that I was never going to gain any understanding of myself without also gaining an understanding of the historical discourses in/of/by which my sense of self was formed.
How did the initial idea for Mrs Engels come about?
Mrs Engels is a novel told from the perspective of Lizzie Burns, the lover of the communist philosopher Friedrich Engels. I came across the figure of Lizzie in a biography of 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 is not 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. Yet despite, or perhaps because of her lack of historical weight, I knew instantly that she would be my subject.
The book deals with two political figures, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. What drew you to those historical heavyweights?
I started writing fiction soon after the global financial crisis began in 2007-8. This was not a coincidence. The decision to start writing sprang from a desire to make sense of these events. The problem was I didn’t know how to create fiction that would show how individuals’ private concerns are bound up with apparently huge, impersonal forces. I didn’t know how to make fiction that was also ‘historical’.
As it happened—and it could have happened many other ways—my response was to write a novel set in the milieu of Marx and Engels. Why? Well, what struck me about the crisis in Europe was the extent to which, consciously and unconsciously, people of all backgrounds were using the vocabulary of Marx and Engels in their criticisms of capitalism. At the same time, history had told these people that communism was unworkable, so in their discourses they struggled to imagine an alternative to this capitalism that was failing them. I knew that this was my way in. By writing about an earlier time when an alternative to capitalism was thinkable, and by exploring how proponents of this alternative—communists—struggled to reconcile their ideals with their own privileged private circumstances, I could shed light on the struggles that people in more recent times have faced in trying to make sense of and find solutions to the contradictions and failings of capitalism.
I understand that Lizzie Burns was illiterate and left no documentary records. What were the challenges of recreating her life?
Most of the effort I expended writing the book went into constructing and sustaining Lizzie’s voice. I put a lot of thought into how I would represent an illiterate woman as words in a literary novel. I didn’t want Lizzie’s inability to read and write to limit the force of her mental life or turn her into a caricature. Nor did I want to strain her voice by giving her a language that was overly florid or knowing. I made the decision early on to make Lizzie’s voice (her private thoughts and, in a different manner, her spoken words) lyrical. I used her illiteracy as a tool to enrich her voice rather than impoverish it. The liberties Lizzie takes with language are intended not to highlight her lack of education (although at times they do this) but rather to lend urgency and power to her expressions.
The historical research I did was aimed at setting limits for what Lizzie was capable of doing, thinking and saying within a particular space at a particular time. Would it occur to her to take this or that action in this or that room? Would a certain action be ‘thinkable’ for Lizzie in a certain location? If so, what form would that action take? How would that action look? What objects or gestures would be employed?
Did your view of Marx and Engels change as you wrote the novel?
When I set out to write Mrs Engels, my intentions were not altogether virtuous. I was driven, at least initially, by the desire to punish Marx and Engels for their inability to live up to his ideals. I wanted to take revenge on their genius by showing how it did not ‘come true’ in the world. To this end, I pried into Marx’s and Engels’s life with an intensity of scrutiny from which no one would emerge unscathed. Long hours I spent prizing out the men’s contradictions and submitting them to stringent moral tests. It turned out, however, that I was denied my revenge—or perhaps it was Marx and Engels who got their revenge on me—for no matter how thoroughly I proved their hypocrisy, their greatness did not diminish.
What was really hypocritical, I realised, was my whole attitude to greatness. I was grateful for its manifestations, while being appalled by the behaviour of the people who were responsible for them. Indeed I enjoyed being appalled. It was with pleasure that I indulged in moral recriminations against those who have contributed most to our culture, our knowledge, our political and social arrangements. I believed they ought to be better people, and then I was glad when they were not, for seeing that greatness had a human face assuaged the fear I felt in front of it.
So if my novel began as an act of revenge, it did not stay that way for long. As I observed Marx and Engels through my character Lizzie’s eyes; as my opinion of them moved and shifted in line with Lizzie’s changing emotional and mental states, I came to understand along with Lizzie that no one—not Christ, not Buddha, certainly not Engels—has ever lived according to his ideas, and it is disingenuous of us to expect them to. There is no way to be that corresponds with how we think, what we believe. It is impossible to find the road to our own ideals. And perhaps those who truly understand this without ever letting go of their ideal, perhaps they are fated to live more audaciously, more immodestly, more brashly, more hypocritically than those who have no ideal at all.
You’ve been quoted as saying ‘All fiction is historical’ – a view that I’m sure our readers will applaud – can you expand?
I was recently nominated for an ‘historical fiction’ prize. Novels set sixty or more years ago were eligible for consideration by the jury. That is to say, for the purposes of this prize a novel about the Great War was considered historical, while a novel about the Iraq war was not. During a panel session with the other nominated authors, I said—perhaps a little too casually—that I thought all novels were historical, not just those set more than sixty years ago. The atmosphere in the room became tense. The other novelists looked down at their shoes. The interviewer made a bewildered face and quickly changed the subject. But what other subject is there? What conversation can we have that isn’t determined by our personal stories which are themselves determined by our public histories?
What was your path to publication?
It was a slow process, getting from manuscript to contract, and then from contract to publication. By the time it had become a physical object, the book appeared to me like a piece of history. I had begun research for another novel. My interests had evolved. Intellectually and artistically and emotionally, I had moved on. Looking at the book, touching it (I didn’t dare actually to read it) put me into a sort of trance, and I forgot the work I had put into making it. It didn’t feel like mine. ‘What is this thing? What do I do with it?’ It felt like someone else’s, or like a gift someone had made to me – which I suppose it was. To begin to speak as its author, which it was then my job to do, I had to undertake an act of recovery. I had to search my archive (memories, notes, journals) in order to find out what I had once thought about it, and how I had once felt about it. And what I had once thought and how I had once felt, I discovered, did not always make sense to me any more. There was no escaping it: I had to renew my relationship to the book. I couldn’t rely on what I’d once believed; I had to think about it anew. Initially that was difficult for me. I resisted giving more thought to something I felt I’d finished thinking on. Until, that is, I understood that I’d never truly be finished with it. There would be no putting the book away; it would always be there, open, asking me questions.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
I hesitate to give advice to other writers at any stage of their careers because the opposite of anything I might say would almost certainly be equally valid. If I could talk to my own younger self, I would probably tell him to stop chasing the approval of other people, learn to be alone more, and read, read, read. To which he would probably respond: shut up and let me live.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
My favourite novel that might traditionally be called ‘historical’ is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. A literary masterpiece.
And what are you reading right now?
Right now all of my reading is research for my next novel. The novel is set in the mid-20th century, so I’ve put myself on a strict diet of literature written from the 1930s to the 1960s. I’m about to start Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins (1954).
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel whose working title is The Sisters Mao. It will tell the story of a London theatre family, the Thurlows, whose fate becomes bound with that of Jiang Qing, the actor wife of the Communist dictator Mao Zedong.
Gavin McCrea was born in Dublin in 1978 and has since travelled widely, living in Japan, Belgium and Italy, 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 divides his time between the UK and Spain.
Author photo © Eugene Langan