Margaret Atwood’s ninth novel, Alias Grace (1996), is a work of historical fiction that centres on the mysterious figure of Grace Marks. She was convicted in 1843 at the age of 16 for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy Scottish Canadian, who was killed along with his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Alias Grace won the Giller Prize for fiction in 1996. It was also shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and England’s Booker Prize. In 2017, Sarah Polley adapted Atwood’s novel into a six-part CBC/Netflix miniseries, starring Sarah Gadon as Marks.
While attending Radcliffe College at Harvard University in the 1960s, Margaret Atwood came across the story of Grace Marks in Susanna Moodie’s novel Life in the Clearings (1853). “I was intrigued… Moodie recounts seeing Marks in the Kingston penitentiary, she then takes the occasion to tell the whole account.” However, Moodie’s account was from the perspective of James McDermott, Marks’s co-worker and co-accused in the murder of Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. This version of Marks’s story formed the basis of Atwood’s 1974 CBC television play about Marks, The Servant Girl.
By the 1990s, Atwood started questioning Moodie’s “third-hand account” and portrayal of Marks as a guilty madwoman. In the afterword of Alias Grace, Atwood reveals that public opinion was sharply divided on the question of Marks’s role in the murders; reflecting 19th-century gender stereotypes, she was both demonized as a ruthless femme fatale and romanticized as a helpless victim.
In Alias Grace, readers are introduced to the “celebrated murderess” Grace Marks in 1859. She has served more than a decade of her life sentence at the Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario. She is only permitted to leave the prison to work as a domestic servant for the governor’s wife, where she becomes an object of fascination and pity among Kingston society.
A sketch of Grace Marks and James McDermott as they appeared at their trial for murder in Toronto in 1843.
Marks’s Kingston supporters engage Dr. Simon Jordan, a specialist in the burgeoning field of mental illness, to help Marks recover her apparently repressed memories of the murders. The core of the novel consists of their patient-therapist dialogue. As the narrative unfolds, it is clear both doctor and patient have split selves.
Dr. Jordan is unable to determine Marks’s innocence or guilt. He allows Dr. Jerome DuPont, who may or may not be a charlatan, to hypnotize Marks, hoping to discover the truth. Afterwards, Dr. Jordan worries that the hypnosis session will damage his reputation in the medical field, so he decides to leave Kingston and return to the United States. After receiving a pardon in 1872, Marks relocates to New York, where she marries a widower.
Alias Grace is both a murder mystery and social history. Through the story of Grace Marks, Atwood explores mid-19th-century gender stereotypes, especially for female criminals, as well as theories of mental illness; public fascination with spiritualism; medical interest in somnambulism; “neuro-hypnotism” and the significance of dreams.
Atwood also explores the power of storytelling. She has said, “The novel is partly about stories, how they are constructed, how they are influenced by the circumstances surrounding them: who is telling, who is listening, and why.” In that sense, Marks and Dr. Jordan are both unreliable narrators; Marks is sharing her story with someone who may be able to get her out of prison, while Dr. Jordan is hoping to advance his career. The reader must determine Marks’s innocence or guilt based on the evidence, or the stories, presented.
Honours and Awards
Canadian actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley first read Alias Grace when she was 17. She tried to option the rights to create a film adaptation, but Atwood turned her down. In 2012, Polley approached Atwood again for the rights to the novel. It was announced that Polley had received funding from Astral Media’s Harold Greenberg Fund (see Harold Greenberg) to option and adapt the novel into a screenplay. The six-episode miniseries, directed by Mary Harron and starring Sarah Gadon as Marks, Paul Gross as Thomas Kinnear and Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery, aired in Canada on CBC and was available internationally on Netflix in 2017. The series received six Canadian Screen Awards, including best limited series as well as best writing, direction and lead actress in a limited series.