By Margaret Atwood. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Alias Grace, by Canada's premier novelist, is a retelling of the story of Grace Marks, a notorious Canadian criminal who, in the 1840s, was convicted of murder at the age of sixteen. Thomas Kinnear, an upper-class Canadian bachelor, and his lover/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were killed on July 23, 1843. Nancy had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was pregnant with Kinnear's baby at the time of her death. Grace Marks, Nancy's pretty young assistant, and James McDermott, another servant in the Kinnear household, ran away to the United States after the murder, and the two were presumed lovers. They were captured shortly after their escape, accused of the murders, and brought to trial early the following November. Because of the sensationalistic nature of the case, Canadian and American newspapers covered it extensively, and Grace Marks became a cause celebre.
Only the Kinnear murder was tried. Since both Grace and McDermott were found guilty and condemned to death, it was deemed unnecessary to try the Montgomery case. McDermott was hanged before an immense crowd on November 21, and before he died he accused Grace of masterminding the crime. However, due to the efforts of her lawyer and a nucleus of upstanding citizens, Grace's sentence was commuted to life, and she was incarcerated in the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston.
From the beginning Grace polarized public opinion. The mid-nineteenth century was a period of intense interest in prison reform, prisoner redemption, and psychology. Grace elicited sympathy from reform-minded Canadians and Americans, who were moved by her youth and the presumed fragility of her mental health. One of the myriad immigrants from Ireland who flooded Canadian shores, Grace had suffered extreme poverty, the loss of her mother, and the drunken violence of her father from an early age. Her defenders saw her as a bewildered child who became the unwilling victim of McDermott, who controlled her through threats. Her foes, influenced by traditional and contemporary attitudes toward women, saw her as a jealous temptress who was in love with Kinnear and persuaded McDermott to murder Nancy in order to get her out of the way, perhaps not foreseeing that McDermott's resentment of Kinnear would provoke a second crime. The three conflicting versions of events given by Grace and the two given by McDermott added to the confusion.
For years after the Kinnear trial Grace's advocates and adversaries continued to contend with unanswered questions: Who instigated the murders and who manipulated whom? Did Grace actually participate in the murders herself, or did she stand by while McDermott did the deeds? Was she really in love with Kinnear? Was she having an affair with McDermott and, if so, did she feel something for him or did she callously use him? Was she really mentally unbalanced, with full-blown bouts of insanity, or did she pretend to be so in order to get attention and special treatment?
Atwood neither answers these questions nor attempts to. Instead, through an ingenious weave of first-person monologues, third-person narrations, historical documents, letters, and folklore, she retells Grace's story, leaving it open to diverse interpretations. The novel is structured like a quilt, in which each piece contributes to the total image, yet often the image changes form, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Atwood maintains the quilt metaphor throughout the novel, for each segment carries the name of a common quilt pattern, which is reproduced under the section title. The novel focuses on the period at the end of the 1850s when Grace, having demonstrated her domestic abilities, is allowed to work as a servant in the home of the governor of the penitentiary. There, she uses her extraordinary talents as a seamstress to sew for the governor's wife and daughters, often making quilts. At the end of the book, she is still quilting, sewing into her design bits of fabric that serve as mementos of the different characters in her drama, thereby creating an intriguing, but elusive whole.
Much of the book revolves around the efforts of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American medical researcher, to penetrate the secrets of Grace's mind. Recruited by a group of progressives anxious to prove her innocence, Jordon interviews Grace extensively, using the most modern investigative techniques available. Sitting and sewing in the governor's parlor, Grace recounts her own version of events, shrewdly embellishing or withholding data. As the sessions wear on, the attraction seems to grow between Grace and the doctor, who must grapple not only with his own ambivalent feelings toward Grace, but also with several other predicaments. His mother is plotting to marry him to a young lady he does not love, and his landlady has ingeniously maneuvered herself into his bed. If his relationship with the landlady comes to the attention of the Methodist minister on whose support his research depends, he will certainly be removed from the case. To complicate matters further, events back home point to the imminent outbreak of a civil war.
The progressives who champion Dr. Jordan's research are fascinated not only with prisoner rehabilitation, but also with mesmerism, hypnotism, spiritualism, and other psychological and parapsychological phenomena, and they are fast growing impatient with the doctor's painstaking, rigorous, and time-consuming investigation. At one of their meetings, an old friend of Grace's, who is a first-class charlatan, contrives to persuade the group that even though Grace may have committed the clime, she was not acting consciously of her own free will because at the time she was possessed by the spirit of a certain Mary Whitney, a fellow servant who had died earlier as the it of a botched abortion. The solution enables the reformers to secure Grace's freedom and allows Jordan to escape from the clutches of his clinging landlady. However, it also puts an end to the scientific research that the young doctor had hoped would secure his professional position. Early in the story Mary Whitney had predicted that Grace would wind up marrying a man whose name started with the letter J. After she is released from prison, she travels to the United States, where the prediction does, indeed, come true. However, since all the men in Grace's life have names that begin with J, Atwood keeps us guessing until the end.
Readers have come to expect the best from Margaret Atwood, and with Alias Grace, she delivers. The author recreates Grace's voice and the Weltanschauung of Kingston's progressive elite with amazing dexterity. In doing so, she brings to life not only the enigmatic and fascinating Grace Marks, but also an entire period in Canada's history.
Barbara Mujica is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. A regular contributor to Americas, she is also a professor of Spanish at Georgetown University.