Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels This is another book read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another one that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think I had even heard of it until it appeared on the shortlist for this year’s prize and I’m pleased that it did because otherwise I would probably never have read it and would never have had the opportunity to get to know Lizzie Burns – the Mrs Engels of the title.

The novel is narrated by Lizzie herself, a working-class Irish woman who becomes the lover and common-law wife of the German philosopher Friedrich Engels. In 1870, when we first meet Lizzie, she and Engels are boarding a train which will take them from Manchester to London, where they will be moving into a house in Primrose Hill close to Friedrich’s friend, Karl Marx. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time, so that as well as watching the couple settle into their new home, we also learn something of Lizzie’s early life in Manchester, where she and her sister, Mary, grew up in poverty before starting work at Ermen & Engels cotton mill – something which will bring them into contact with the man who is to become such an important part of both of their lives.

I came to this book knowing almost nothing about Friedrich Engels and his work (other than that he co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx) and I wondered whether that would be a problem. I needn’t have worried, though, because the focus of this novel is very much on the details of his personal life and his relationships with the Burns sisters, first Mary, his partner of many years, and then – after her death – Lizzie. It seems that little is known about the real Lizzie and Mary, so I kept in mind while reading that not everything that happens in the novel is historically accurate and that a lot of it is the product of the author’s imagination.

One thing we do know about Lizzie Burns is that Marx’s daughter Eleanor said she was “illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet”. I think Gavin McCrea does a great job in Mrs Engels of displaying these different facets of Lizzie’s character. On the surface she’s strong, outspoken and tough – she has to be, to cope with everything life throws at her – but underneath there’s an intelligence, a sensitivity and a sharp wit. Through his choice of words and spellings, McCrea also manages to convey the fact that she is illiterate and poorly educated. The result is a narrative voice which is unusual, memorable and perfectly suited to Lizzie’s character.

Mrs Engels is not a perfect novel – the transitions between time periods are not always clear and the characters, with the exception of Lizzie, feel thinly drawn and difficult to like. However, I found it interesting to read the descriptions of the living and working conditions experienced by mill workers in Victorian Manchester and the challenges faced by a working-class woman who suddenly finds herself moving up the social ladder and trying to manage a London household. It’s a fascinating read – and I loved the fact that a woman who was unable to tell her own story has finally been given a voice.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

The Children of Dynmouth I always believe in giving an author a second chance, so after a failed attempt at reading William Trevor’s Love and Summer a few years ago, I have still been interested in trying more of his work. As March is Reading Ireland Month (hosted by Cathy and Niall) and Trevor is an Irish author, this seemed a good time to give another of his books a try.

Published in 1976, The Children of Dynmouth is set in a typical English seaside town full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives – at least on the surface. Fifteen-year-old Timothy Gedge, who wanders the streets of Dynmouth watching and listening, knows what is really going on behind closed doors and inside people’s heads…and he’s not afraid to use that information to his own advantage. As family scandals, hidden passions and secret affairs are brought to light, the adults and children of Dynmouth begin to wonder what Timothy’s motives really are.

Timothy Gedge is a sinister creation, at the heart of all the tension in Dynmouth, although it’s never quite clear whether or not he is fully aware of the trouble he is causing and the inappropriateness of his actions. The first real indication that something is badly wrong comes when we learn that he is planning to enter the annual Spot the Talent contest with a gruesome ‘comedy act’ which no decent person could possibly find funny. When several obstacles are placed in the way of his act – the lack of a curtain for the stage, for example, and the need for a man’s suit and a wedding dress – Timothy goes to great lengths to get what he wants, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.

With no father in his life and a mother who neglects him, Timothy has been left to fend for himself and has grown up to be a lonely, awkward teenager facing the usual fate of Dynmouth’s young men: a lifetime spent working in the town’s sandpaper factory. The people of Dynmouth can’t get away from him as he tries to connect with them in any way he can; he is everywhere they turn, listening to private conversations, staring through windows, inviting himself into their homes, asking questions, hiding in the shadows and lurking in the background at funerals. Nobody likes him and nobody wants him there, but as a representation of all that is wrong with society, he can be seen as everybody’s responsibility and everybody’s problem.

Timothy is an unsettling character – and this is an unsettling novel. It’s a short book at under 200 pages, but long enough for the author to build up a complete portrait of life in a small community in 1970s England, to introduce us to the people who live there, and to add undercurrents of danger and foreboding, so that by the end of the novel we go away with a very different impression of Dynmouth than we had at the beginning.

The Children of Dynmouth is a disturbing but thought-provoking book and one which left me with a lot to think about after I turned the final page. I would like to read more by William Trevor, so your recommendations are welcome. I’m prepared to try Love and Summer again too, as I think I was probably just in the wrong mood for it the first time.

Irish Short Story Month Year 3: Two from Oscar Wilde

Irish Short Story Month

Irish Short Story Month is an annual event hosted by Mel U of The Reading Life. To participate all you need to do is read at least one Irish short story during the month of March. In 2011 I read Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu. I didn’t manage to take part in 2012, but as I’ve been neglecting my short story-reading in recent months, I decided to join in again this year.

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

I have previously read one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale collections for children, A House of Pomegranates, but none of his short fiction for adults. For Irish Short Story Month I’ve read two of his stories – The Model Millionaire and The Sphinx Without a Secret. Both of these are available online and can easily be read in just a few minutes. They also appear in the collection, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

In The Model Millionaire we meet Hughie Erskine, who is in love with Laura Merton, the daughter of a retired Colonel. Hughie is handsome and good-natured but unfortunately has no money and the Colonel will not let him marry Laura until he has ten thousand pounds of his own. One day, Hughie visits his artist friend, Alan Trevor, and finds him painting a portrait of an old beggar dressed in rags, who is standing in the corner of the room.

The beggar himself was standing on a raised platform in a corner of the studio. He was a wizened old man, with a face like wrinkled parchment, and a most piteous expression. Over his shoulders was flung a coarse brown cloak, all tears and tatters; his thick boots were patched and cobbled, and with one hand he leant on a rough stick, while with the other he held out his battered hat for alms.

‘What an amazing model!’ whispered Hughie, as he shook hands with his friend.

‘An amazing model?’ shouted Trevor at the top of his voice; ‘I should think so! Such beggars as he are not to be met with every day. A trouvaille, mon cher; a living Velasquez! My stars! what an etching Rembrandt would have made of him!’

‘Poor old chap!’ said Hughie, ‘how miserable he looks! But I suppose, to you painters, his face is his fortune?’

‘Certainly,’ replied Trevor, ‘you don’t want a beggar to look happy, do you?’

Hughie asks his friend how much he will be paying the beggar for modelling for him and is shocked at how little the amount is compared to the amount Trevor will make from selling the picture. Although Hughie himself is very poor, he feels sorry for the old man and as soon as his friend leaves the room he gives the beggar all the money he has in his pocket. Later that night he discovers that his act of generosity has had a surprising result.

I thought it was very easy to predict what was going to happen in this story, but I enjoyed it and despite it being so short, I still found it satisfying – and very well written, of course.

The other story I read, The Sphinx Without a Secret, is another very short one. The narrator meets his friend, Lord Murchison, in Paris and seeing that something is wrong, asks him what the problem is. Murchison tells him about the beautiful Lady Alroy, whom he had loved and planned to marry.

He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.

‘What do you think of that face?’ he said; ‘is it truthful?’

I examined it carefully. It seemed to me the face of some one who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty moulded out of many mysteries – the beauty, in face, which is psychological, not plastic – and the faint smile that just played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.

Finding her to be very secretive and surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery, Murchison decided to follow her one day and saw her entering a boarding house where she stayed for a few hours before returning home. When Lady Alroy tried to deny visiting the house, Murchison became convinced that she was hiding something – but what could it be?

Although I didn’t find either of these to be particularly memorable stories, I did enjoy them both as I love Oscar Wilde’s writing style. I liked the ambiguous ending of The Sphinx Without a Secret; despite the suspense that builds up throughout the story it’s not hard to guess what Murchison is going to discover as the title does give it away, but we are still left with something to think about at the end. This story may have been intended as a satire on Victorian sensation fiction, in which everybody had a secret to hide and an ulterior motive for every seemingly innocent action, as well as being a study of a person’s desire to pretend to be something they’re not.

Have you read any of Oscar Wilde’s short stories? Who are your favourite Irish writers?

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who lives in a small town in Ireland with her mother and sister. It’s the 1950s, only a few years after the end of World War II and it’s not easy to find a good job in a town like Enniscorthy. When Eilis is offered the chance to work and study in New York she leaves her family behind and prepares to start a new life in Brooklyn. After a traumatic journey across the Atlantic, we see how she settles into her new home and job, struggles with homesickness and makes new friends. But it’s during a trip home to Ireland that Eilis is faced with making the biggest decision of her life…

Brooklyn is a warm, gentle story with an old-fashioned charm. It’s not the most original book I’ve ever read and it’s not the most exciting or dramatic, but when I picked it up and started reading, I found it was just what I was in the mood for. Tóibín tells his story using simple language and a controlled, understated writing style and it was actually quite refreshing to read a book with such clear, direct prose and such a straightforward plot. The book was published in 2009 (and made the Booker Prize long list that year) but if I hadn’t been aware of that I could almost have believed it was written in Eilis’s own era because it does somehow have a very 1950s feel.

Eilis herself is a pleasant, likeable person. Looking at other reviews, many people have complained that she is too passive, allowing other people to run her life for her. I could accept her passivity as part of her quiet, innocent personality, though I agree that it didn’t make her a particularly strong or memorable character. I thought some of the minor characters were more interesting to read about – such as Georgina, the woman who befriends Eilis on her nightmare ocean crossing, or Miss Kelly, who runs the local shop in Enniscorthy where Eilis used to work. We stay with Eilis’s perspective throughout the whole book which means we only get to see the other characters when they are interacting with her directly, but something Tóibín does very successfully is to explore the relationships between Eilis and the important people in her life.

The book does touch on some of the social issues of the time – we learn a little bit about Ireland’s economy, the Holocaust is briefly mentioned, and we get a glimpse of racism in 1950s New York when Eilis starts serving black customers at Bartocci’s department store. But although those issues and others are there in the background they don’t form a major part of the plot. Instead, the focus of Brooklyn is very much on Eilis and the things that affect her personally: her new job at Bartocci’s, studying bookkeeping at evening classes, making new friends and visiting her boyfriend. The reader is immersed completely in the small details of Eilis’s daily life, something which could easily have become very boring, but in Tóibín’s hands is fascinating and compelling.

I haven’t personally had the experience of living in another country and I’m not sure how I would feel about it, but there were still parts of Eilis’ story that resonated with me and that I could identify with. I loved Brooklyn – and I was happy with the way the book ended too!

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light tells the story of Molly Allgood, a real-life Irish actress who performed under the stage name Maire O’Neill and was engaged to the playwright John Millington Synge at the time of his death from cancer in 1909. Molly was fourteen years younger than Synge, she was a Catholic whereas he was a Protestant, and she came from a much poorer background. It seemed that almost everyone disapproved of their relationship including their parents, families and friends.

We first meet Molly in 1952, many years after Synge’s death. She’s living in poverty in London, dependent on alcohol, alone and desperate. We follow her over the course of a day as she prepares to take part in a play which is being broadcast on BBC radio and this story is interspersed with Molly’s memories of Synge and flashbacks to the early twentieth century.

As you’ve probably guessed, Ghost Light is not a happy book at all. Molly’s story is very sad, moving and poignant. The novel is written mostly in the second person, as well as following a stream of consciousness style, which made the book a bit harder to read than it needed to be, but Joseph O’Connor’s writing is undeniably beautiful and I did get used to the second person perspective after a while. There was also a chapter written in the style of a scene from one of Synge’s plays which I thought was a nice addition.

O’Connor states in his author’s note that although Molly and Synge were real people, this is a fictional story and most of the events described in the novel never actually happened. However, even if O’Connor’s Molly and Synge don’t bear much resemblance to their real-life models, they both felt completely realistic to me. Although I didn’t find Molly very likeable, I did love her narrative voice, which was bitter one minute and amusing the next, and this helped me warm to her character.

I won this book in last October’s Readathon and would like to thank Jessica of Park Benches and Bookends for providing a copy. I wish I’d had a chance to read it sooner, but my timing was actually perfect because I was in Dublin for a few days just last week and discovered some displays on Synge and Molly Allgood in the Dublin Writers Museum which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated if I hadn’t read Ghost Light!

Laura Silver Bell by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (Irish Short Story Week)

This week (14-20 March) Mel U of The Reading Life is hosting an Irish Short Story Week. If you’d like to participate all you need to do is read at least one short story by an Irish author. There are plenty of these available to read for free online, including stories by classic authors such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Bram Stoker.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to try a short story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is probably most famous for his vampire novella, Carmilla, and gothic novel Uncle Silas, but has also written a lot of shorter fiction. As I’m not familiar with his short stories at all, I chose one at random from The Literature Network.

Laura Silver Bell is a simple but effective story. It is set in the north of England, in an isolated rural area. Laura Lew, known as Laura Silver Bell, has been raised as a farmer’s daughter after the death of her mother.

So Farmer Lew called the little girl Laura; and her sobriquet of “Silver Bell” was derived from a tiny silver bell, once gilt, which was found among her poor mother’s little treasures after her death, and which the child wore on a ribbon round her neck.

When Laura falls in love with a tall man dressed in black whom she meets while walking home one night, she receives a warning from Mother Carke, a former sage femme (midwife) who is believed to be a witch. Mother Carke suspects that the man is a fairy and she advises Laura to stay away from him. But will Laura take her advice or will she be tempted to go with the fairy – and what will happen to her if she does?

“Say yer prayers, lass; I can’t help ye,” says the old woman darkly. “If ye gaa wi’ the people, ye’ll never come back. Ye munna talk wi’ them, nor eat wi’ them, nor drink wi’ them, nor tak a pin’s-worth by way o’ gift fra them – mark weel what I say – or ye’re lost!”

Although this is not a horror story exactly, it does have quite an eerie atmosphere, due to the lonely setting and the grounding in traditional folklore – there are frequent references to fairies, witchcraft and black magic (fairies, in this sense, are not the pretty winged creatures that are often depicted in modern culture, but something more sinister). It seems that Le Fanu had a particular interest in the legends of humans being stolen away by fairies – after reading this story I read another one by the same author called The Child that Went with the Fairies which, as the title suggests, is on the same theme as Laura Silver Bell.

Have you read this story or anything else by Le Fanu? Which of his stories or novels would you recommend I read next?