Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s imagining of the true story of Grace Marks, a convicted (and later pardoned) murderess…
“Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”
… in 19th century Canada whose sensationalistic trial left doubt as to the nature of her involvement in the double murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/mistress Nancy Montgomery. Atwood utilizes what is known about Grace and her early life leading up to the murders to construct a narrative from Grace’s perspective, giving her a form and history unrelated to the crime for which she was best known.
Reading about the murders and the trial, it’s fairly easy to see why Atwood would be interested in Grace Marks, being an author particularly known for a rather cynical view of society’s treatment of women. Whether it’s the oppressively fascist, dystopian patriarchy of The Handmaid’s Tale, or the extreme violence women endure as the norm in the MaddAddam books, one of Atwood’s persistent narrative focuses is the myriad of ways, large and small, that women are dismissed, oppressed, and, not least, cast as villains that lead men astray.
Which brings us to Grace herself. The sentiment that got her convicted, based on the testimony of her convicted co-conspirator James McDermott, was that she was jealous of the attention lavished on Nancy Montgomery by Thomas Kinnear, and convinced McDermott to murder the both of them. This version is embellished with details of an affair between Marks and McDermott, and generally made Marks out to be an accomplished seductress. As such, two disparate ideologies formed around Grace: while at the time, it would have been unheard of for a woman — women being classified as the more pure, morally upright gender — to have masterminded such murders, here we had an example of a rotten one: allegedly jealous, promiscuous, and, importantly, a servant and therefore low class. On the other hand, a vocal contingent of defenders leaned into the feminine stereotype and, thanks largely to Grace’s youth, promoted the point of view that of course she was led astray by McDermott, an older man, and given her weak nature and lack of education, she was easy to, basically, brainwash into becoming his accomplice.
This all must have been catnip for Atwood, who in her fictionalization therefore sought to fill in the nuance between these two polar camps. By reframing Grace as a person, with all of the duality and contradictions inherent to every individual character, Atwood offers enough substance that the reader could lean either way in the simplistic question of the guilty verdict. But more than that, Atwood’s fictionalization of Grace also works as a mirror to expose the assumptions and prejudices of those around her. Whether it’s the therapist interviewing her, who essentially means her well but still dooms the efficacy of his sessions with her from the beginning by bringing into them the arrogance of assuming she’ll open up to him after casting him as her savior, or the young, infatuated neighbor boy who, hearing the gossip about Grace and McDermott being lovers and assuming it to be true, gives a vindictive testimony against her character that he later recants out of guilt — for no reason relating to her actual character, but to the ways that other people project expectations on her, Grace herself becomes an afterthought.
Atwood has written a really compelling, clever book that, by creating precise detail around the life of Grace Marks but not touching what may have happened in those unknown moments, forces the reader to engage with Grace the way that everyone involved in the trial and aftermath did not: by seeing her as the person she was, and drawing conclusions based on that, and not by what was said about her by various other people who may have had their own motives and biases.