Women of the Revolution | First, the 1889 disaster at the Mauricewood pit near Edinburgh. Second, the unlikely love affair between 19th century pit owner Frederick Engels and a young working class Irish woman Lizzie Burns. These are real-life events which inspired two hugely accomplished historical novels – The Mauricewood Devils and Mrs Engels by Dorothy Alexander and Gavin McCrea – and they joined the Edinburgh Book Festival to chat about it.
”It was something almost forgotten.”
Does the truth get in the way of writing a historical novel? To Gavin, no. “My book is entirely fictional,” he explains. Marx in his book is a fiction – everyone is a fiction shown through the eyes of his character. “The only Lizzie Burns I can claim to know is the fictional one.”
His book spiralled from the financial crisis in Ireland in 2007-8. He wanted to respond to it in some way but didn’t know how – he ended up responding to a 21st century crisis by writing in the 1870s. Why? A lot of people were using the vocabulary of Marx and Engels in their commentary. They were struggling for an alternative way to criticise capitalism, to find an alternative to it. Lizzie Burns came along totally by chance – mentioned briefly and it lit up his mind. It was freedom.
For Dorothy, Martha and Jess spiralled from her own family. She wrote about the Mauricewood disaster because her great great grandfather was killed in it, so there was a personal resonance. Her great gran was going to feature in an original story she had planned, but it slowly became this. Women didn’t really talk about it, they didn’t dwell, just survived and kept going, so largely people didn’t even know it happened. “It was something almost forgotten.”
“It’s inhibiting writing historical fiction.”
She looked into the disaster and found it so horrific, she was so moved by it, that it took over and became a whole novel. A fire broke out in a mine and killed 63/65 of those in there. They sealed the mine two days later, unknowingly trapping many survivors who, by the time they went to retrieve bodies months later, naturally followed a similar fate. “It’s inhibiting writing historical fiction,” she notes. “Doubly so with family members.”
The emotional connection to it helped her continue; she had a desire to make some act of restorative justice.
The pair then give readings from their respective books, each giving a sense of the characters of their leading cast, whether it’s their personal manifestos or situations they find themselves in at a young age. It definitely whets the appetite to pick up the books to read the full thing.
An hour of delving into the lives of real women explored through fiction, the duo consider the impacts their characters had on those around them, from family to Marx and Engels at their peak, and also their place in their own revolution. Each woman plays their own part, even if they didn’t know, in something greater.
They close by considering the present day: something is in the air. With political tides and tensions shifting more than ever, it’s an interesting hour of putting under the microscope how people can indeed be revolutionary whether they identify themselves that way or not. It can be the little things that make the most statement or impact.