First edition cover
|Cover artist||Dante Gabriel Rossetti (painting), Kong (first edition design)|
|Publisher||McClelland & Stewart (first edition); Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (first U.K. edition)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|ISBN||0-7710-0835-X (first edition); ISBN 0-7475-2787-3 (first U.K. edition)|
Alias Grace is a novel of historical fiction by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. First published in 1996 by McClelland & Stewart, it won the Canadian Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The story is about the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Upper Canada. Two servants of the Kinnear household, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Although the novel is based on factual events, Atwood constructs a narrative with a fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, who researches the case. Although ostensibly conducting research into criminal behaviour, he slowly becomes personally involved in the story of Grace Marks and seeks to reconcile his perception of the mild mannered woman he sees with the murder of which she has been convicted.
Atwood first encountered the story of Grace Marks in Life in the Clearings by Susanna Moodie. In 1970, she published The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a cycle of poems informed by the published works of Mrs. Moodie. It became a classic of Canadian literature, as it lyrically evokes the experience of life in the wilderness, immigrant life, and colonial times. Subsequently, Atwood wrote the 1974 CBC Television film The Servant Girl about Grace Marks, also based on Susanna Moodie’s account. However, in Alias Grace, Atwood says that she has changed her opinion of Marks, having read more widely and discovered that Mrs. Moodie had fabricated parts of her third hand account of the famous murders..
Grace Marks, the convicted murderess, was hired out from prison to serve as a domestic servant in the home of the Governor of the penitentiary. A Committee of gentlemen and ladies from the Methodist church, led by the minister, hopes to have her pardoned and released. Grace cannot remember what happened on the day of the murders, and she exhibits symptoms of hysteria, so the minister hires Dr. Simon Jordan, an alienist, to interview her, hoping he will find her to be a hysteric, and not a criminal. An arrangement is made so that Dr. Jordan will interview Grace during afternoons in the sewing room in the governor’s mansion.
Dr. Jordan tries to lead Grace into talking about her dreams and her memories, but she evades his suggestions, so he asks her to begin at the beginning, and she proceeds to tell him the story of her life. Grace tells of early childhood in Ireland where her father was often drunk and her mother often pregnant and Grace had to take care of the younger children. She tells the doctor details of the filthy crowded conditions in the hold of the ship where her mother sickened and died. In Canada, because her father continued to spend his earnings on alcohol, she and the children nearly starved. Dr. Jordan does listen but he feels impatience, viewing her early privations and abuse as irrelevant to the case.
As a serving girl, Grace tells the doctor, she met Mary Whitney, then her roommate and her only friend. Mary taught Grace how to act the role of a servant, and joked with her about the family’s upper class airs, when nobody else was listening. Giving motherly advice on how to stay out of trouble with young men, Mary told her “if there is a ring, there had better be a parson.” (p. 165) Ironically, Mary herself became pregnant by a son of the family and died from a botched abortion. Grace helped Mary get home and into bed, but awoke the next morning to find Mary dead. Grace was troubled afterwards by the idea that she should have opened the window during the night when Mary died, to let her soul out. (p. 178)
Grace continues to tell her story in vivid detail, making an effort to keep the doctor interested. He is aroused by Grace’s descriptions of James McDermott’s advances and Thomas Kinnear’s affair with Nancy Montgomery. Ironically, the doctor’s landlady, whose drunken husband had by then left her, throws herself at him. She is not attractive and he is repulsed by her. He gives her money so she can keep the house, thinking she will stop bothering him, but that only provokes her to try harder until she succeeds in seducing him.
A Spiritualist on the Committee has long since proposed that a Dr. DuPont, “Neuro-Hypnotist,” should put Grace in a trance and arouse her unconscious memory. Dr. Jordan, now mostly concerned with escaping the designs of his landlady, can no longer dissuade the Committee. It appears to all present, that after DuPont puts Grace to sleep, the voice of Mary Whitney takes over, gleefully telling everyone she haunted Grace because her soul was not freed when she died. She said she possessed Grace’s body on the day of the murders, and drove James McDermott to help her kill Montgomery and Kinnear. She says Grace does not remember because she did not know what happened. Dr. Jordan allows that there have been some scientific reports of a “double personality” phenomenon, but he evades the Committee's request for his report and skips town, claiming his mother is ill. He promises to send them the report, but returning home, he promptly joins the Union Army. After he is wounded in the war, he forgets the entire case (and marries the rich young lady his mother has been pushing at him all along). Grace Marks eventually does get pardoned (as did the historical Grace), and the novel tells how she changes her name and begins a new life in the United States.
Grace Marks the notorious murderess was, in fact, a model prisoner and was eventually pardoned. In the novel, she maintains a carefully respectful demeanor. She is more intelligent and observant than she lets on. While she very much resents being made a spectacle as the famed murderess, she is grateful for the effort being made to have her pardoned.
Thomas Kinnear was a wealthy Ontario farmer who was murdered in his home.
Nancy Montgomery, Thomas Kinnear’s mistress and housekeeper, was murdered.
James McDermott was convicted of the murder of Thomas Kinnear and executed. He was employed as a stableman and handyman at Kinnear’s. He was reputed to be a rough character, a rebellious Irishman, resentful of the English. In the novel, being told to answer to Kinnear’s housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, infuriated McDermott.
Simon Jordon, M.D., is a fictional character, a well-traveled and educated young physician who intends to make his career in mental health, planning to open a private asylum someday.
Mary Whitney is a fictional character, a maid, and friend of Grace Marks. Mary believes in herself and in Canada as a place that a hard working girl can earn her way. She plans to save her wages for a dowry so she can marry a farmer and be mistress of her own home.
Jeremiah Pontelli is a fictional character. Jeremiah the peddler, alias Geraldo Ponti, magician, alias Dr. Jerome Du Pont, “Neuro-Hypnotist,” first met Grace when she was a new housemaid and he was peddling house to house in Toronto. When he called at the Kinnear house, he told her he feared she might be in danger there.
Grace Marks, born in 1826, lived in or near Toronto from age 12 until 16, when the famous murders took place. She had resided in The Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario for 15 years in 1859, when the novel begins. Among Toronto and Kingston society, Atwood portrays the highly moralistic, straitlaced language and behavior of the Victorian era. By contrast, it is evident that Mary Whitney’s crude comments would have been shocking even among servants of that time.
The study of mental health, called “alienism,” was a new development at the time. It was first taught in European universities, and advocated that inmates be treated as patients rather than prisoners. Although the Victorian era was a time of some scientific progress, most Victorians were very much interested in the paranormal, supernatural and occult, hence the use of mesmerism, hypnotism, or spiritualism were viewed as legitimate methods of inquiry.
The Rebellion of 1837, took place ten years before the Kinnear and Montgomery murders but still affected public sentiment. The Rebellion terrorized the upper classes, even though the rebels were quickly defeated. Government reforms made soon after the Rebellion reduced corruption and restricted the power of the ruling oligarchies, which also worried the upper classes. The idea that the lower classes could rise above their station by hard work or cleverness (rather than by ancestry and inheritance) was finding acceptance in the United States, so the Canadian aristocracy, basing their identity on their English heritage, felt threatened.
“The Irish Question” To understand conflicts surrounding identity in the novel one must realize that the antagonism between the British and the Irish were not merely about the “haves” and the “have nots” but were felt as racial differences at the time. Being the period of the Great Famine in Ireland, the growing numbers of impoverished Irish immigrants in Toronto, as elsewhere, were so much despised and blamed for all ills that Grace did not identify herself as Irish. Neither her name nor her voice gave her away until she was identified at the trial as an Irish immigrant. As she points out “But of course, our family were Protestants, and that is different" (p. 103) However, her association with the fiery James McDermott made religion seem irrelevant. “Passing” for English was viewed as subversive like crossing class boundaries—refusing to stay in your place.
"The Woman Question” The “Woman Question” is still among us when it comes to societies’ efforts to regulate the sex lives of unmarried young women, but in Victorian times, every aspect of girls' and women’s lives were dictated throughout their lives—which required constant supervision. Victorian women of every class or condition, were to be controlled by men whether their fathers, husbands, masters or doctors. “They were sometimes institutionalized due to their opinions, their unruliness, and their inability to be controlled properly by a primarily male-dominated culture.”
The novel is written in the Southern Ontario Gothic style, highlighting the social ills of the time, while exhibiting the corruption and moral hypocrisy of the upper class. Supernatural phenomena, like the ghost of Mary Whitney, fits the Gothic style, as well as the Victorian spiritualist sensibility, justifying the ghost of Mary Whitney's gleefully evil confession. Returning from the dead is a recurring theme in Atwood's novels.
The main narrator is Grace, whose thoughts and speech are in the first person, and sometimes blend into one another without quotation marks to indicate what is said out loud and what is not. This creates uncertainly at times, echoing the doctor’s uncertainty about Grace’s truthfulness, and the reader’s uncertainty about her guilt. Dr. Jordan’s thoughts and actions are told by an omniscient third person narrator, allowing the reader to see the contradictions between his words, sometimes even his thoughts, and his actions, as does the inclusion of his correspondence in the book. Similarly, other people’s letters and quotations from newspapers, letters, poems, and other textual sources echo the patchwork quilting metaphor in that the author used many sources from various perspectives to piece together the whole story.
The portrayal of Grace Marks through a postmodern narrative has been viewed as a deliberate contrast with her faithful reproduction of the details of Victorian domestic life, or as a deliberate defense against Grace’s objectification. The idea that a gentleman in Victorian Canada would sit in a sewing room day after day listening to the life story of a female servant (no matter how pretty or well-mannered or notorious she might be) is of course, incongruous. However, as Margaret Atwood herself pointed out, “In a Victorian novel, Grace would say, "Now it all comes back to me"; but as Alias Grace is not a Victorian novel, she does not say that, and, if she did, would we—any longer—believe her?”
Women's History Atwood has often used images of sewing and other domestic arts in her novels, illustrating women’s creativity, constrained as it was, historically, to domestic objects. Names of quilt patterns are used as titles of the 15 book sections in Alias Grace, making parallels between Grace’s interest in quilts and the meanings of their patterns and Grace’s storytelling, her creation of a domestic history, in which Dr. Jordan hopes to discern patterns.Grace tells her life story to the doctor as a chronology, but, as she does, she reflects on what she tells him like it was a patchwork of experiences. Each patch is destined to fill a particular place in the quilt, and they must all be created before the quilt can be assembled, much as historical research, and especially research on women in history, requires examination of many disparate sources in order to construct a chronological account.
Identity Grace and the "ruined" Mary Whitney represent the only two identities ordinary women could have throughout much of history and that one self does not recognize the other is just as true. The only achievement to be attained by a female servant was the difficult accomplishment of preserving her maidenly virtue while under the control of her employers. Hence we have the classic divide: the maid and the whore. Mary, who believed she could determine her own future, died a painful death. Grace who did not expect any measure of independence, only managed to protect herself for awhile by getting a somewhat better paid position as a somewhat more skilled servant.
Social class was what determined how much one’s identity was "authentic," i.e., dependent on inheritance, and how much performative, subject to circumstances. Unlike women, men did have some potential for self-determination, witness: Reverend Verringer, former Anglican, turned Methodist minister, and Jeremiah the Peddler, alias Dr. Jerome DuPont. On the other hand, Dr. Jordan gives up on his career and finally returns home to marry the woman his mother selected for him.
Modern readers may not be satisfied with the idea that Mary, alias Grace, was the murderer. Others might view the use of the term "alias" in the title as suggesting that in their search for the truth about Grace Marks, both readers and characters may be frustrated by duplicity. Grace resists being completely comprehended, by these men of power, scientific or religious. She belongs instead to the marginal communities of immigrants, servants, and mad people who are always vulnerable, and often lost as Grace lost her mother, and her only friend. The only simple truths for Grace are about things – quilts, sheets, carpets, petticoats, the laundry of her life—she gains confidence from a needle and thread. As Margaret Atwood says, “The true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma.”
In 2012, Sarah Polley announced that she would be adapting Alias Grace into a feature film. This has since evolved into a television miniseries, confirmed by CBC Television as going into production in summer 2016. The series will air on CBC Television in Canada, and will stream globally on Netflix 
In 2016, Ball State University premiered a stage version written by Jennifer Blackmer.
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- "Sarah Polley to adapt Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace". National Post, January 4, 2012.
- "CBC, Netflix to screen miniseries based on Margaret Atwood novel Alias Grace". The Globe and Mail, June 21, 2016.
- Margaret Atwood Profile at Bold Type Exclusive interviews, a book excerpt, and an audio excerpt; plus text of an 1843 letter used as research for the novel.
- Cover-story interview with Margaret Atwood discussing Alias Grace, originally published in The Minnesota Daily's A&E Magazine, February 27, 1997.