Dear Lizzie: The Second Lover to the Second Communist
How the correspondence of Marx and Engels turned into a novel
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were close friends and allies in the early communist movement in 19th-century Europe. Because they lived in different cities for a significant portion of their friendship, Marx in London and Engels in Manchester, much of their communication was done in writing. The 1850s and 60s, in particular, were a rich period of correspondence for the two men. During these years they took advantage of the mid-Victorian postal revolution to maintain a high pace of communication: a letter posted by Engels before midnight would reach Marx the following day by 1pm; a letter sent by 9am would be in Marx’s hands by 6pm the same day. Rarely did more than a couple of days pass without a letter going between them. If a political question or practical issue required their urgent attention, they did not hesitate to exchange several letters a day.
To read the Marx-Engels correspondence, as I did while researching my novel Mrs. Engels, is to be audience to an extensive and involved dialogue between two men of similar backgrounds (they are both of middle-class Prussian descent) and political persuasion (although coming to communism by different paths, they are equally devoted to it) but markedly contrasting critical methods, personal characteristics, manners and lifestyles. Marx emerges, on one hand, as deeply earnest, learned and restlessly dialectical: a master of abstraction. He also has the ability to expend enormous amounts of energy on trivial matters, and has an astonishing talent for vituperation. To opinions which differ from his own, he accords only slight and condescending consideration; those which explicitly contradict him he treats with abject contempt. He lends ready ear to gossip and accusations, and is immediately suspicious of attack from ideological enemies. He speaks with utmost disdain for a class of people he defines as “bourgeois”—the attitudes and behavior of this class he likes to call “the bourgeois shit”—yet he also laughs at those communists who mindlessly mimic his ideas, and he holds a sneaking respect for aristocrats (or at least those aristocrats who appear aware of their privilege). At the same time, he is passionate and earnest in his devotion to the cause. His apparent personal ambition and awareness of himself as a leader (however unrecognized) does not overrule his extraordinary patience during the long wait for a workers’ revolution, nor does it eliminate his capacity for humor in the face of setbacks. He displays sympathy for the plight of the working poor, and kindness for those who have fallen on bad times. He also shows himself to be a family man. He is a gentle and mild father, fiercely proud of his three daughters and anxious about their prospects. He is indulgent of his long-suffering wife, and harbors guilt for his failings as a husband. And, although it manifests in the letters as a tone of presumption and entitlement, he feels shame about his dependence—above all his financial dependence—on Engels.
Engels, on the other hand, a prolific journalist and able businessman, presents himself as practical and disciplined. In his arguments he is clear and precise, more rigorously empirical, and quick to arrive at a resolution. He has an orderly and methodical approach to work, and is responsible in money matters. Less self-absorbed than Marx, more optimistic and charismatic, he rarely suffers from low spirits; he is brighter, happier, more pleased with life, a lover of good wines and social gatherings. He is a womanizer, too. He laughs about his ill-fated romances, and, although capable of long attachments, he refuses marriage. Perhaps because he has not had to endure sustained periods of privation as Marx has, he expresses less personal indignation at the human cost of capitalism than his friend, and moves with more ease between bourgeois and revolutionary postures. However, this does not disguise a note of self-loathing about his own relative wealth. He professes to despise his job in his family’s business and eagerly awaits the day when he can cash in his stake and dedicate himself wholly to the cause. Within the cause itself, he is aware of his subordinate position in relation to Marx. A number of his letters, in particular those containing pleas to Marx to cease obsessing over inconsequential things and return to his important theoretical work, betray the frustration of a man who has relinquished his own ambitions for the sake of Marx’s genius and the advancement of the movement more broadly.
The picture that emerges from the letters is of two men who are, by turns, troubled by and defensive about the contradictions inherent in their opinions, desires and circumstances. Often what Marx and Engels seem to be doing is trying to resolve through dialogue their own internal paradoxes; if one cannot find resolution to a particular incongruity alone, the other can act as a balancing force, neutralizing flaws, eliminating doubts and reaffirming established lines. The letters give the impression of a mutually supportive alliance, of a capacity in both parties to indulge the other’s quirks and forgive his errors, to remind him of his duties and to guide him back to stability. Which is to say: quarrels between Marx and Engels are rare. Rare and, from my point of view as a novelist, all the more precious for being so. For what these rare disputes reveal—what they inadvertently identify and give form to—are a number of particularly awkward problems that go unmentioned in the normal course of Marx and Engels’s exchange; unspoken problems that give further, urgent meaning to the words the two men do speak; material problems that their dialectics cannot reason away.
The row that the men have in early 1863 is especially illuminating. On 7 January, the day after his lover, Mary Burns, dies, Engels writes to Marx. “Mary is dead,” he tells him. “Last night she went to bed early and, when Lizzie [Mary’s sister] wanted to go to bed shortly before midnight, she found she had already died. Quite suddenly. Heart failure or an apoplectic stroke… I simply cannot convey what I feel. The poor girl loved me with all her heart.”
Seldom named and never openly discussed in the letters, Mary Burns constitutes a shadowy figure. It is clear that the men purposely avoid talking about her. Yet her lack of presence, once noticed, feels huge: an unacknowledged force which promises to explain so much and threatens to complicate so much else. Other sources tell us that Engels met Mary over twenty years previously, in 1842, when he was first sent from Germany to Manchester to do a two-year internship in his family’s cotton mill. There is no record of the circumstances which brought Engels, a bourgeois mill man, and Mary, a poor Irish worker, together. It is possible that she was an employee in his mill or a maid at his lodgings. For the sake of discretion he met Mary at night after work, and they walked the city together, avoiding the wealthier thoroughfares and keeping instead to the alleys and courts of the workers’ districts. In this way, Mary became not only Engels’s lover but also his guide to working-class life in the city. By gaining him access to areas and to households which would otherwise have been unsafe for him to enter, she was his source of information about the factory and domestic conditions endured by the working people of Manchester. She helped to provide him with the material for his nascent communist theory. The couple were separated in 1844 when Engels went back to Germany, but he returned to Manchester in 1850 to assume full-time employment at the mill, and at that point took up with Mary more permanently, and more or less openly. They remained lovers until her death.
Marx frowned upon Engels’s relationship with Mary from the beginning, perhaps because he felt it would be misconstrued as exploitative in communist circles, or perhaps because he believed Mary to be beneath his friend, both socially and intellectually. In his reply to Engels’s letter of grief, Marx cannot disguise this long-held disdain. He opens with an appropriate tone of commiseration. “The news of Mary’s death surprised no less than it dismayed me,” he says. “She was so good-natured, witty and closely attached to you.” But after these few hurried words, he launches into a long tirade about the difficulty of his own circumstances, that is to say his continued inability to fund his thoroughly middle-class lifestyle. “My attempts to raise money in France and Germany have come to nought… No one will let us have anything on credit… I am being dunned for the school fees and the rent… The children have no clothes or shoes in which to go out… If I do not succeed in raising a largish sum through a loan society or life assurance then the household here has barely another two weeks to go… It is dreadfully selfish of me to tell you about these horreurs at this time. But it’s a homeopathic remedy. One calamity is a distraction from the other.” Having completed his litany of complaints, he adds a guilty-sounding postscript: “What arrangements will you now make about your establishment?” he asks.
Engels receives Marx’s letter as a severe blow. He waits several days before replying. “You will find it quite in order that, this time, my own misfortune and the frosty view you took of it should have made it positively impossible for me to reply to you any sooner. All my friends, including philistine acquaintances, have on this occasion, which in all conscience must needs afflict me deeply, given me proof of greater sympathy and friendship than I could have looked for.” He then bluntly refuses Marx’s implicit request for money: “You know the state of my finances. You also know that I do all I can to drag you out of the mire. But I cannot raise the largish sum of which you speak.” He devotes to remainder of his letter to a sternly written list of possible ways that Marx can raise money for himself.
The one element of Marx’s letter that Engels does not address, however, is his friend’s inquiry about how he will arrange his “establishment” now that Mary is gone. In fact, he does not mention in his correspondence anything about his living arrangements until almost two years later, in the autumn of 1864, when he indicates that he has begun a relationship with Mary’s sister, Lizzie. The most notable consequence of Lizzie succeeding Mary as Engels’s lover is a change of tone in relations between Engels and Marx. Marx largely ignored Mary in his letters, but he now goes out of his way to make compliments to Lizzie. Engels is far more open about his companionship with Lizzie, calling her “my dear wife” (even though they were unmarried), and forwarding her best regards to Marx and his family. Nevertheless, Lizzie, like Mary before her, does not end up carrying any weight in the letters. She remains a slight form. It is difficult to get more than a vague outline of what she was like. Engels describes her as of “genuine Irish proletarian blood” with “passionate feelings for her class.” Elsewhere Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor says Lizzie is “illiterate” but “as true, as honest, and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet.” But to get a fuller picture than this, the imagination must be called upon. What did this poor Irish woman make of her situation among these bourgeois communists? If “passionate,” how did she feel about being second choice in a man’s affections? If illiterate, how did she judge these furious writers? Would she recognize Marx and Engels as they present themselves on the page?
Immediately upon learning about her, I understood that Lizzie—the second lover to the second communist—was going to become my second pair of eyes onto the world of Marx and Engels. Unsatisfied with my own view, limited as it was to what the men wrote about themselves, I entered an imagined dialogue with Lizzie who, from her position in the silent spaces between the men’s words, offered a startling perspective. She (the illiterate viewer) would report what she saw, and I (the blind reader) would write her words down and compare them with what others had written elsewhere. She would mock my need both to write and to seek other men’s authority for my writing—had she not just told me all I needed to know? In retaliation I would point a finger at her and sneer at her own need for men’s protection. At this she would laugh and point a finger back and ask me what right did I have to point the finger. Which would oblige me to remind her that without me she would have neither a finger to point nor a mouth to laugh. Soon what we thought of Marx and Engels was less important than what we thought of each other, and although our exchanges in this regard were never moderate, we rarely fought. When we did fight, however, as painful as it was, it did us good; it called attention to the contradictions both within ourselves and within our relationship with each other. Together we tried to make sense of these contradictions, and usually—happily—we failed. For in failing we realized that we did not actually want or need the contradictions to be resolved; all we wanted was for them to be acknowledged and played out. And when we were finished with each other—when we ourselves were played out—we agreed that what we had made was the same thing that Marx and Engels had in their letters: a story.