By Margaret Atwood
“Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.”
I must begin by acknowledging my profound admiration for a certain prolific Canadian author and make it clear from the outset that this post is a brief outline of my general thoughts on one of her most popular novels rather than a critique of any sort.
I invariably feel secure when plunging into a previously unread Margaret Atwood novel, knowing before I begin that such an erudite literary shape-shifter, while never restricting herself to a single genre, will transcend mere classification while remaining faithful to a precise literary form. Regardless of subject matter or historical period; whether describing emotional cannibalism, the thoughts of a bullied child or a dystopian society of the future, her work will never be anything less than expertly penned, original and sharp-witted.
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize, Alias Grace, Atwood’s highly acclaimed 1996 historical novel, is based on the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maidservant who in 1852, at the age of sixteen, was convicted of helping to kill her employer while also being strongly suspected of taking part in the murder of his housekeeper (and mistress). The case, often referred to as ‘The Kinnear-Montgomery murders’, was widely reported in the North American and British press at the time and became something of a sensation when her ‘accomplice’ (perhaps lover), the stableman James McDermott, was hanged for the crime while her life was spared. She was initially committed to an asylum but was later transferred to Kingston Penitentiary, where she remained incarcerated for almost thirty years.
There was much debate then as now over her culpability. Was she a vicious killer or an unwitting accessory? Evil or insane? A “female fiend and temptress”, as Atwood suggests, or a young girl terrified of a brutal killer? The murders took place in Richmond Hill, Ontario on 23rd July 1843, but Marks claimed to have no memory of the horrific events. Nonetheless, she was exceptionally attractive, and several ‘respectable’ gentlemen petitioners came forward to plead her youth and vulnerability. Unfortunately, most if not all the men in her life held Marks in contempt, even those campaigning for her release, although they were no doubt insensible to these ingrained attitudes. From doctor and lawyer to clergyman and suitor, misogyny was the norm: the fairer sex was thought to be either cunning or completely lacking in intelligence.
Naturally enough, after finishing the novel, I was intrigued to know which parts of the story were based on fact. Atwood is ahead of her readers here and supplies several pages of background in an Author’s Afterword. She confirms, as we know, that Alias Grace is a “work of fiction […] based on reality.” She has “not”, however, “changed any known facts” but stresses that the “written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally ‘known’.” Her method: “When in doubt” over credible scenarios, is to choose “the most likely possibility, while accommodating all possibilities.” In instances where “mere hints and outright gaps exist in the records,” she has “felt free to invent.”
Written with her usual verve and intuition, Atwood’s extraordinary novel is at once intimate and perplexing. The case combined an assortment of Victorian obsession, not least sex, violence and mistrust of the lower classes, providing the author with all the necessary material to reanimate one of the most enigmatic and infamous women of the 1840s.
Alias Grace is quintessential Atwoodian Gothic.