Updated on June 17, 2018
21. ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood
I chose to read Alias Grace partly because I wanted to read the book before I watched the TV show, and partly because I wanted a big, already battered book to take with me to the Hay Festival. It turned out to be the perfect read for trains, bus replacements and waiting at bus stops in the rain.
Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a real-life Canadian woman imprisoned for murder in the 1840s. She worked as a servant in the household of bachelor Thomas Kinnear, where she was accused of killing her master and the housemaid, Nancy Montgomery, with the help of James McDermott, another servant in the house and, supposedly, her lover. The novel is told partly through real-life accounts and newspaper clippings from the time, and partly through letters written by Simon Jordan, a fictional doctor who interviews Grace Marks years later and becomes more and more drawn into her story. But the most important sections are the long, detailed accounts of Grace’s life, as told by Grace herself. The central question of the book is: did she do it?
“Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”
In this novel, Atwood has created an incredibly rich and detailed world. She has clearly done tons of research, but it doesn’t read like a big exposition dump (‘Look how much I know about this time!’); instead the research does just what it’s supposed to – it fleshes out the world so that the reader gets totally sucked in. My favourite sections were just Grace Marks describing her daily duties as a servant in a wealthy 1800s household – doing the laundry, lighting the stove, scrubbing the floors (and, surprise, everything takes ages and is hella complicated). Even hopping between buses and trains, I found that I could slip right back into this wonderfully drawn world as soon as I opened the book.
Unsurprisingly for Atwood, feminist ideas dominate in Alias Grace. They’re mainly explored through the dreadful injustices that the female characters suffer, mostly to do with society’s ideas of female virtue at this time, and how a ruined reputation could literally be a matter of life and death. Violence and the threat of death are a real part of these women’s lives, and Atwood does an incredible job of depicting the disenfranchisement of poor women in the 1800s. Grace’s friend Mary Whitney knows about this better than anyone, and the section about her is brilliant and heartbreaking.
“…once you are found with a man in your room you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in.”
Of course, Grace knows all about mistreatment too. The book charts almost her entire life, and it is not an easy one. From travelling from Ireland to America as a child, to life with her abusive, alcoholic father, to her string of servant jobs in various households (often under the command of predatory masters), Atwood gives a complex and troubled history to a character simply labelled by history as ‘murderess’. As for the question of whether she really is a murderess, I won’t spoil where the book goes, but I imagine some readers will be satisfied (I was) and some will not.
(I should also add that, of course, this is a fictionalised account of Grace Marks’ life and Atwood has taken a lot of creative liberties here, although she does highlight some of the issues with the actual accounts of the murders from the time. Still, Alias Grace is about deciding whether the character of Grace Marks is guilty or not, not the real woman.)
I also want to mention the recurring theme of quilts. Grace admires the quilts her friends and masters own, and she dreams about making her own and the pattern she would use. (In fact, the sections of this book are all named after quilt patterns.) I’m a bit obsessed with sewing and textiles myself, so obviously this motif appealed to me, but I also loved how it tied in with the feminist themes of the novel: quilting has been a sort of hidden art, dismissed for centuries as ‘female’ and ‘domestic’, but filled with hidden meanings for those who understand it.
I really enjoyed Alias Grace. If you want to lose yourself in a massive novel with a compelling central character and heaps of historical detail, you can’t go far wrong with this one. I hope the TV show is just as enjoyable!
“He doesn’t understand yet that guilt comes to you not from the things you’ve done, but from the things that others have done to you.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Alias Grace here.