I’m incredibly glad that I have finally got around to reading some of the Atwood novels that have been gathering dust on my shelves for years. Lady Oracle, The Handmaid’s Tale, and now Alias Grace have all been enthralling, intelligent and page turning reads that have reminded me of just how brilliant Margaret Atwood is, and I am now determined to read everything she has written. Happily I have Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake sitting prettily on my shelf, and hopefully I will get time to read them both before I jet off to my new life in the Big Apple. Alias Grace is based on the true story of the murders of a Mr Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1840’s Canada. Two servants; James McDermott and Grace Marks, were convicted and sentenced to death for the murders. McDermott was hanged, but Grace was spared, and given life imprisonment. Intrigued by the story and by the opposing contemporary public opinions towards Grace, Atwood decided to write her own creative retelling of Grace’s story. She has done a marvellous job, writing a phenomenally intelligent, thought provoking book that touches on so many different issues to do with truth, and perception, and identity, that I couldn’t possibly hope to do it justice in just a short blog post.
The basic plot centres around Dr Simon Jordan, an enthusiastic young American doctor with an absorbing interest in the treatment of the mentally ill. He is intrigued by the story of convicted young murderess Grace Marks, incarcerated for life in Kingston Penitentiary, near Toronto, for her part in the murders of her former employer and his housekeeper. Grace, who was just 15 at the time, claims to have no memory of the murders, and has since suffered bouts of hysterical ‘insanity’ than have seen her placed in an asylum for a brief period. Due to Grace’s youth and good looks, she has several admirers who are convinced of her innocence and are campaigning to get her released, but the evidence against her is damning. Reverend Verringer, who lives locally to the Penitentiary, and is the ringleader of the campaign to free Grace, hears of Simon’s reputation and interest in the case and requests him to come to Kingston to make a study of her. He, and the other members of his Committee, are convinced that Simon will be able to use his psychological methods to draw out Grace’s hidden memories and thus prove her innocence. Simon eagerly takes on the challenge, but it proves to be far less straightforward than he initially anticipated.
The story is told in chapters that alternate between Grace’s first person narration of her life; from her impoverished upbringing in a rural Irish village to the family’s emigration to Canada, and then on to her various jobs as a servant in well to do homes in the Toronto area; third person narration of Simon’s life and experiences; and also letters written to and from various characters in the story. It is an intriguing narrative, jumping from the lively, youthful and fascinating voice of Grace, whose life, despite its ordinariness, is so evocatively told that it cannot help but interest, to the more staid and conflicted voice of Simon, who finds himself confused, harried and trapped in a foreign town, unsure of his abilities, depressed about his circumstances, and hopelessly mixed up in various unsuitable love affairs. While being swept up in the lives of the characters and their experiences of a 19th century, newly built Canada, the reader must also contend with trying to work out whether Grace is as trustworthy as she appears, and what the motives of those trying to prove her innocence are.
Young, pretty, polite, adept at needlework; Grace is not the monster the press made her out to be at her trial. However, there is no smoke without fire, and Simon’s correspondence with other doctors who have treated her show a cunning, devious and untrustworthy character that Simon cannot reconcile with the gentle Grace he has found himself falling in love with. Are Grace’s memories being wilfully hidden? Is she a wicked, jealous woman, moved to murder in order to get her own back on a woman she hated, or is she an innocent victim of an amorous fellow servant, whose own murderous desires could have resulted in her own death had she not appeared to side with him? Is her innocence suspected due to her good behaviour, or merely because her supporters are unable to stomach the idea that a pretty young girl could harbour murderous instincts? With the only other witnesses dead, Grace’s freedom depends on the impression she can give to the learned men sent to help her, and so can anything she says be taken as truth?
To say I loved this would be a massive underestimation. It’s such a clever, subtle, thought provoking novel that also manages to be immensely entertaining and involving. It reminded me a little of The Children’s Book in that it attempts to throw in a lot of 19th century concerns for good measure; mesmerism, spiritualism, women’s roles, etc, but unlike A S Byatt’s rather laboured attempts at doing so, in Alias Grace they felt a natural part of the story rather than shoehorned additions. Each chapter is named after a quilt pattern, aptly related to the story that unfolds; Grace is an accomplished quilter, piecing blocks in the Governor’s house while she has her talks with Dr Jordan. This domestic activity, so useful, so proper, is subtly undermined by the often violent names of the pattern – Jagged Edge, Broken Dishes – hinting at the frustrations felt by their makers, confined within the domestic sphere, with nothing else to do but make quilts. Innocent, beautiful, useful, they appear harmless objects at first glance, but beneath the surface they are bloodied from pricked fingers, filled with the repressed anger and boredom of women, trapped by the confines of wealth, or equally trapped by the confines of poverty, desperate for a life of freedom from circumstances they are not empowered to control. So many women in the novel are imprisoned; not literally, like Grace; but metaphorically, in a prison of society’s making, and also of their body’s making, denied the liberty of movement, of work, of independence, that their male contemporaries take for granted.
Grace, like the quilts she makes, is, on the surface, an innocent, pretty, harmless young girl. This is what those around her wanted to believe; heaven forbid that the Victorian ideal of innocent femininity could be torn asunder by the realisation that yes, some women are violent, are capable of hate, of murder, of brutality. Instead of facing up to the truth that women have hearts and minds just as liable to commit the basest crimes of humanity as men, Reverend Verringer and his committee seek to transform Grace from murderess to innocent maiden, giving her a history and personality that is no more her own than the one she displays to Dr Jordan. Her aliases are many; for she is a construction of a girl created not just by her own attempts to portray herself as a wide eyed innocent, but also by those around her, desperate to see her vindicated and their naïve beliefs about the angelic qualities of womankind confirmed. For what does the truth of Grace’s actions really matter, when a comforting status quo needs to be maintained? It begs the question of who are any of us, really, but a number of people, a number of aliases, created to conform to the needs and expectations of different people and situations that surround us. Is there ever one narrative, one interpretation, that can adequately portray the depths of a human soul? In Grace’s case, it would certainly seem not, as by the end of the novel, no one is any the wiser of her innocence or guilt than they were at the start.
ps. The winner of A Mile of River is Gill! Congratulations!