In the summer of 1843, a young girl, barely sixteen, by the name of Grace Marks, was arrested in Toronto for two brutal murders. By nineteenth-century standards, it was an unusually sordid and mysterious crime-a lovely, pregnant, and unmarried housekeeper slaughtered along with her well-to-do lover and employer, Thomas Kinnear. Some well-placed folks believed Grace wrongly accused, intimidated into participating in the murders, and then literally kidnapped by a lovesick thug into the United States. In their minds it was her alleged accomplice, the beefy, brooding, and older James McDermott, who was solely responsible for the slayings; the innocent and witless Irish-born Grace, only recently employed at the Kinnear household, was simply another victim. McDermott's own confession, on the other hand, was devastating for Grace. The hired hand swore that the attractive maid-of-all-work had so entangled his heart with promises of her sexual favours that he had been seduced into killing, first, Nancy Montgomery, and then his hated boss, Kinnear. Which was the real Grace, the treacherous vixen or the impressionable innocent? History did not answer this question, but Margaret Atwood contrives a clever possibility.
Atwood's interest in the Kinnear murders is not new. Just over twenty years ago she wrote another version, a CBC television play called The Servant Girl. The play relied entirely on Susanna Moodie's dramatic first-hand meetings with and studies of Grace Marks as presented in Life in the Clearings. According to Atwood's afterword to Alias Grace, Moodie believed that Grace had indeed led McDermott to commit the murders, motivated by envy of Nancy and love for Kinnear. But Moodie has since been shown unreliable; among other problems, she appears to have been overly fond of melodrama-Nancy's body, for example, was not chopped into four quarters by the murderer(s), contrary to Moodie's report. Not surprisingly, then, Atwood changed her mind about Grace. More needed to be said about this unique murderess, and this plump, heavily historical novel is her attempt to be "definitive" with Grace's story.
For Atwood, the notorious Grace must be given a voice, a soul, and, in the end, a support group. Clearly, she knows the quagmires historians face: in The Handmaid's Tale her historian concludes, "All historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day." Grace herself gave three versions of what happened that day in a secluded farmhouse in Richmond Hill. How does one determine her guilt or innocence? The scandal sheets reported much, but with little accuracy; the judicial records themselves are slight; there are no photographs, no fingerprints, no DNA samples to help us. Closure for Grace is possible only as fiction. Atwood leaves Grace, appropriately enough, half flesh and blood, half myth. It is a finely spun myth.
What did Atwood have to work with? It is known that both Grace and McDermott were found guilty of Kinnear's murder. A second trial for Nancy Montgomery's was deemed unnecessary as the sentence for the first was death. On November 21st, 1843, barely four months after the murder, McDermott was publicly hanged before a huge and rowdy crowd. Later his body was morbidly donated to science, to be dissected for study at the University of Toronto. Defended by a skilful lawyer and supported by a small group of "gentlemen petitioners" (as Atwood dubs them), Grace apparently convinced the jury that her youth, sex, and lack of critical judgement had allowed her to be taken in by McDermott. A political event six years earlier may also have played a part in the trial's outcome: many remembered Mackenzie's failed rebellion of 1837, in which have-nots (like Grace and McDermott) attacked men of property and some political power (like the murdered Kinnear). If nothing else, the rebels had sensitized a portion of the public to the social inequities of their day. This serving-girl could consider herself lucky: she had her sentence commuted to life in prison.
Except for a short stay at the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, where Moodie observed first-hand a "shrieking, capering Grace," the convicted murderess spent nearly three decades incarcerated at the Kingston Women's Penitentiary. Once there, she proved a model prisoner, even a trusted servant in the house of the governor of the penitentiary. Many liberal-minded reformers and clergymen continued to petition for her pardon, and many times expert medical opinion was sought to support these petitions. Nothing new was ever uncovered that could help confirm Grace's claim of innocence. Mysterious and suggestive details, however, remained unaccounted- for. Why was Kinnear's corpse wearing another man's shirt? Why did Grace choose to run away in Nancy's clothing? What was a blood-covered magazine doing in Nancy's otherwise unstained bed?
In the end, the petitioners for Grace won out, and it was John A. Macdonald himself, perhaps for reasons of political expediency, who signed a pardon in 1872. Shortly after, escorted by the warden and his daughter, she travelled to New York State and to a house anonymously provided. Some suggest she married or adopted an alias, but no documentation exists. This is practically all that is known about the real Grace Marks-just enough for Atwood to forge an inventive but plausible solution to the mystery.
When we first meet the enigmatic title-character of Alias Grace, she has already been in prison sixteen years, or half her life. She has inured herself to the hardships of prison life, to her menial role in the governor's house, and to her notoriety as a convicted murderess. Often stiff and proper on the outside, her private thoughts are remarkably unrestrained and vivid, eerily steeped in the horrors of her past. Her dreams are of blood and loss. Atwood's writing here is Poe-like: the tones are dark and blood-drenched, a pleading victim haunts Grace's fragile psyche:
"Then up ahead I see Nancy, on her knees, with her hair fallen over and the blood running down into her eyes. Around her neck is a white cotton kerchief printed with blue flowers, love-in-a-mist, it's mine. She's lifting up her face, she's holding out her hands to me for mercy; in her ears are the little gold earrings I used to envy, but I no longer begrudge them, Nancy can keep them, because this time it will all be different, this time I will run to help, I will lift her up and wipe away the blood with my skirt, I will tear a bandage from my petticoat and none of it will have happened."
Grace's life is in ruins, hope seems a luxury, her mental state always in question.
Into this grim and sombre tale of her life in the penitentiary, Atwood introduces a young and attractive doctor, Simon Jordan. As a promising specialist in the field of mental illness, fresh from the Continent, Doctor Jordan has been engaged by those seeking Grace's release. They want him to provide an expert medical opinion as to her mental condition at the time of the murders. If any details turn up that would exonerate her, so much the better. The doctor's own purpose in studying Grace is self-interested: she is his doorway to procuring his own, financially solvent private asylum. Few in this novel operate without ulterior motives.
Atwood has taken considerable care that neither Jordan nor his therapy appear anachronistic. Her Acknowledge-ments display a conscientious effort at researching nineteenth-century studies of mental illness. The terms Atwood uses and the methods she refers to-such as amnesia, somnambulism, hysteria, the recording and analysis of dreams, word association-would all have been familiar to Jordan. Employing what he believes to be the newest and most humane of nineteenth-century medical techniques, the man of science attempts to break through the wall of Grace's alleged amnesia. But the captive Grace, the "celebrated murderess", is more than ready for him:
"I see what he's after. He is a collector. He thinks all he has to do is give me an apple, and then he can collect me. Perhaps he is from a newspaper. Or else he is a travelling man, making a tour. They come in and they stare, and when they look at you, you feel as small as an ant, and they pick you up between finger and thumb and turn you around. And then they set you down and go away."
At the start of each session, Jordan brings Grace commonplace items-an apple, a dried flower, an onion, a radish-hoping to uncover buried memories. But she is not opened up so easily. She has nothing to gain by allowing the good doctor to finish with her and, intriguingly, appears to be in no hurry to uncover the truth herself. Does Grace already know the truth? Does she keep silent only to preserve her chance at a pardon? The reader quickly becomes as anxious as Jordan himself to find out, as a delicate cat-and-mouse game develops between the strangely appealing patient and the gentlemanly doctor.
But who is the cat here and who is the mouse? From a poor family, only minimally educated and with some history of mental illness, Grace deftly eludes Jordan:
"It would be helpful to me, if she were indeed mad, or at least a little madder than she appears to be; but thus far she has manifested a composure that a duchess might envy. I have never known any woman to be so thoroughly self-contained..She `sits on a cushion and sews a fine seam,' cool as a cucumber and with her mouth primmed up like a governess's, and I lean my elbows on the table across from her, cudgelling my brains, and trying in vain to open her up like an oyster. Although she converses in what seems a frank enough manner, she manages to tell me as little as possible.."
Ominously, as Jordan gets closer to the truth about the murders, his interest in the patient goes from scientific, to tenderly pitying, to romantic. It's as if Grace is opening him up like an oyster. He fantasizes about marrying the convicted murderess, and when he's with his mistress he sometimes imagines he's with Grace. As Jordan's public and personal life crumbles beneath the weight of this case, Grace remains intact.
In the end the doctor proves unable to give Grace's petitioners, a few fashionable Kingston Spiritualists and a genuinely concerned Methodist clergyman, what they want. Grace is either incapable of remembering the dreadful details of the murders or unwilling to reveal them to Doctor Jordan. She remembers the quality of the carrots she fed Kinnear's horse and the laundry items she washed on any particular day of the week; she even claims to remember warning Nancy the night before that McDermott planned to kill her. Almost defiantly, however, she fails to remember the actual murder of Nancy. But Jordan can no longer bear her beguilements. Both disgusted and resigned, Jordan turns her over to a neuro-hypnotist he suspects is a charlatan.
Doctor Jordan, though a failure, is a charming failure. His lovesick adventures outside Grace's therapy sessions almost steal the show from her. The seduction scenes between the doctor and his tarantula-like landlady show Atwood's genuine touch for those awkward, often disconcerting moments that take place between desire and delight.
"Tentatively he kisses her again: small kisses. It's the alternative to taking her pulse. He works his way around until he finds a vein, the one in her neck, throbbing. Her skin is warm, a little sticky, like syrup; the hairs behind her ear smell of beeswax.
"Not dead then.
"Oh no, he thinks. What next? What have I done?"
He cannot marry the "murderess" Grace, or stomach his actual lover, and he certainly doesn't want to marry his mother's choice, the good Faith Cartwright. His self-control threatened by his fantasies, Jordan struggles valiantly along, doomed to fail, but nevertheless a sympathetic character.
Atwood has a tendency to make leading men withdraw or simply vanish from her novels (recall Paul in Bodily Harm, or the three stooges of The Robber Bride )-and Simon Jordan is no exception. His rushed exit directly following Grace's hypnosis, and his melodramatically sketched final appearances remind us how seldom Atwood leaves her serious male characters standing by the end. This is not to suggest that Atwood dislikes men, she just seems to find their continued presence by the end of a book routinely annoying. Here Grace replaces Jordan with a man of no admirable or even likeable qualities.
At times Atwood runs the risk of vexing the reader with her social commentary. The impecunious young working women are routinely mistreated, their hard lives altered only by the rarest of occurrences, a happy and profitable marriage. At this time quilting was largely considered poor women's work, and in Alias Grace the quilt comes to represent the lives of women like Grace-their backbreaking work, elaborate hopes, and marital follies. Atwood drives this point home by heralding each section of Grace's story with the poignant name of a particular pattern of quilt: "Puss in the Corner", "Broken Dishes", "Young Man's Fancy", "Tree of Paradise".
Stereotypically, the landed upper classes are portrayed as vain, mostly muddle-headed, and, above all, abusive. In the roughness of this societal categorizing, Atwood comes close to making Grace, the expert seamstress, into a mid-century poster-child for the subjugation of lower-class women. Thank goodness she gave Grace's best friend, Mary Whitney, a sense of humour. On the whole, the murderess is most compelling when she is less a victim of her sex and social position and more a victim of herself.
Dramatically, Alias Grace is almost Gothic; dark motives and bitter secrets prevail. Additional intensity is achieved through the first-person narrations of Grace and Jordan and the pervasive use of private letters and unsettling dreams. The story jumps back and forth in time and space. What Grace tells you now may not match up with what she tells you later. Sometimes pages have to be re-read for complete clarity. It's almost as if Atwood is forcing you to put your finger to the page, to make surer contact with the story, or to hold down a section for later review. This is what we do when we're solving puzzles.
Atwood's presentation of Grace under hypnosis-the climax of the mystery-is arguably the best writing of the book. The unravelling of the enigma at the hands of a second, unorthodox doctor is funny, haunting, and sad. The reader comes away from the therapy session much like Jordan himself:
"Throughout the evening he's maintained a plausible self-control, but now his brain feels like a roasting chestnut, or an animal on fire. Silent howls resound inside him; there's a confused and frenzied motion, a scrambling, a dashing to and fro. What happened in the library? Was Grace really in a trance, or was she play-acting, and laughing up her sleeve? He knows what he saw and heard, but he may have been shown an illusion, which he cannot prove to have been one."
The answer to the riddle of Grace's involvement in the murders is adept; most readers will be genuinely surprised. Even so, Atwood keeps the reader puzzling over what the answer means. Just as one mystery is solved, another comes into view.
Some may say that Atwood has presented yet another tortured portrayal of a woman in pain, together with men who are mostly bounders and a society that knows not what it does and hence does much that is wrong. While not inaccurate, this would miss the point. Alias Grace should be approached as a murder mystery, one elaborately woven from a few historical threads. More than that, it is also a convincing psychological study. As Atwood observes, the historical Grace remains an enigma, but Atwood has added a complex interior life to the Grace that history left us.
Theresa Goldberg is a Canadian at present living in the United States-presumably not for reasons such as caused Grace Marks to move there.