ElCicco#CBR4 Review#36: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace is a novel based on a real double murder that occurred in Toronto in the 1850s. Grace Marks was a 15 year-old servant in household of Mr. Kinnear. He and his mistress Nancy, also a servant, were found dead in the cellar. Grace and the stablehand James McDermott had gone missing and shortly afterward were found just over the border in the U.S. with Kinnear’s and Nancy’s belongings. They were apprehended and returned to Toronto for trial, which resulted in both being found guilty. McDermott was hanged, and Grace was sentenced to death but had her sentence reduced to life in prison. Atwood imagines Grace’s history and what might have really happened. The narrative is relayed through characters’ reflections and letters as Dr. Simon Jordan tries to uncover Grace’s lost memories. Is she innocent or a manipulative seductress? Benevolent church groups working on her behalf retain Dr. Jordan, who uses the latest methods, to try to uncover her memory of the murders, and with any luck, secure her pardon.
Atwood did a lot of research on the period and her characters, particularly the attitudes toward women and the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. She includes excerpts from the trial as covered by newspapers and commentaries by philanthropists and specialists who observed and interviewed Grace. Atwood uses Dr. Jordan, a fictional character, to introduce discussions of mesmerism, hypnotism, and current (for that time period) interventions for dealing with inmates in penitentiaries and asylums. Grace blacked out during key moments of the murders, and Dr. Simon hopes to spark her memory by using association. In some rather humorous moments, he brings in a series of root vegetables, which would be stored in a cellar, to make her think of the murders. “According to his theories, the right object ought to evoke a chain of disturbing associations in her..,” but “… all he’s got out of her has been a series of cookery methods.”
Dr. Jordan also presents uncomfortable ideas and attitudes about women. His thoughts regarding Grace, his landlady and a servant named Dora are sometimes disturbing and misogynistic, which he himself recognizes. He reflects that, “The difference between a civilized man and a barbarous fiend — a madman, say — lies, perhaps, merely in a thin veneer of willed self-restraint.” Nonetheless, he, Kinnear and other men in authority frequently abuse their position vis-a-vis women without sensing their own barbarousness. Grace sees things more realistically: “Men such as [Dr. Jordan] do not have to clean up messes they make, but we have to clean up our own messes, and theirs into the bargain. In that way they are like children, they do not have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what they do. But it is not their fault, it is only how they are brought up.”
Atwood’s take on what might have really happened in the murders has sort of a gothic twist to it, but given the novel’s focus on psychological matters, it seemed fitting. The novel provides much to discuss in a reading group. I’ve only touched on a few things here, but certainly religion and philanthropy, crime and punishment, relationships between rich and poor, men and women and amongst women are all themes that recur throughout the novel. And Atwood is an outstanding writer, creating complex characters and using poetry, popular songs and the names of quilting patterns to frame each chapter. A really wonderful book!