Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

There’s nothing like the spectacle of female villainy brought to justice to revive the old debate over whether women are by nature saintly or demonic. Unleashed by ghastly visions of the angel of the house clutching a knife or pistol, a swarm of Furies rises shrieking from our collective unconscious, along with a flock of martyrs. Meanwhile, our vengeful passions or pious sympathies are never so aroused as when the depraved criminal or unjustly slandered innocent happens to be young and pretty.

One such alleged miscreant is at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s (¬†and¬†novel, Alias Grace (1996). Its protagonist is a historical figure, the notorious Grace Marks, a handsome but hapless Irish immigrant who worked as a scullery maid in Toronto in the 1840’s. At the age of 16, she was convicted of abetting the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and paramour, Nancy Montgomery. The question of Grace’s innocence or guilt has always been in some doubt. Atwood plays on this dubiety.

Alias Grace has the weighty authority of a 19th-century novel. In its scope, its moral seriousness, its paradoxically ponderous and engrossing narrative, the book evokes the high Victorian mode.¬†Atwood has always had much in common with those writers of the last century who were engaged less by the minutiae of human interaction than by the chance to use fiction as a means of¬† dramatizing ideas. So, after reading her novels, we may find it harder to recall her characters than to remember the larger issues their destinies reflect: the tidy convergence of misogyny and totalitarian social control in The Handmaid’s Tale, the machinations of female power and malice in Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride. Part of what’s interesting about Alias Grace is that among the themes it addresses (guilt and innocence; conscience and consciousness; Victorian notions of criminality, insanity, gender and class) is the irreducible and unique mystery of the individual personality.

Who better to tackle this puzzle than Simon Jordan, a well-meaning young doctor from Massachusetts employed by a committee of pious do-gooders petitioning the Canadian Government to pardon the unfortunate and (after 15 years in prisons and asylums) possibly rehabilitated Grace? Despite the confession extracted from her at the time of her arrest, she claims to have no memory of her part in the murders committed by the surly hired hand, James McDermott, her co-worker and purported lover. Was she an active participant or a horrified witness? Fired by scientific curiosity, armed with the latest theories about mental illness, Dr. Jordan sets out to help Grace retrieve the memories that shock and damage have erased.

The novel is told in sections that alternate Grace’s point of view with a third-person narration closely focused on Simon Jordan. For the most part, the servant girl’s hair-raising story unfolds through long interviews, during which the doctor urges her to reflect upon her life. Grace’s gloriously commonsensical, observant, often lyrical perspective guides us through her impoverished childhood, her rough trans-Atlantic passage and her tranquil interlude in service among the Toronto bourgeoisie – all the way to the fateful sojourn at the country house in which Thomas Kinnear lives in sin with Nancy Montgomery.

This is all¬†beautifully written and convincingly imagined. Atwood finds the exact right voice for Grace – and a tone for her narrative – that doesn’t seem mannered, anachronistic or archaic. With startling authenticity, she renders, for example, the delirious joy that a fresh red radish or a newly plucked chicken offers a woman who has survived on prison fare. Arguably, the book’s great strength lies in its elegant and evocative descriptions of the domestic activities that once commanded the full attention of women from the less privileged classes:

‘When we had a wash hanging out and the first drops began to fall, we would rush out with the baskets and gather all in as quickly as we could, and then haul it up the stairs and hang it out anew in the drying room, as it could not be allowed to sit in the baskets for long because of mildew. . . . The shirts and the nightgowns flapping in the breeze on a sunny day were like large white birds, or angels rejoicing, although without any heads. But when we hung the same things up inside, in the gray twilight of the drying room, they looked different, like pale ghosts of themselves hovering and shimmering there in the gloom.’

There’s a complex rhythm to much of the cautious pas de deux that Grace and her would-be deliverer dance around each other, and enough plot twists, forebodings and unanswered questions to keep us paging rapidly through the accounts of daily routines in the prisons and social calls in the drawing rooms of Victorian Canada. Who is the elusive Mary Whitney? What does Jeremiah the peddler know about the murder? How is Grace’s recurrent dream of red peonies connected to her buried knowledge of the grisly crime? Still, it’s not until halfway through the book, when Grace recounts her meeting with the irregular Kinnear menage, that the tension escalates and the plot gathers real momentum. After all that parlour politesse and patient probing, it’s a relief to find ourselves in a hotbed of seething jealousies and grudges and precipitous departures, in a household plagued by night terrors and urgent whispers in the dark.

Atwood joyously toys with both our expectations and the conventions of the Victorian thriller.¬†The plot’s many riddles are delightful, as we are steeped in the mystery of a pretty young woman who was either the loathsome perpetrator or another innocent victim of an infamous crime. This is a truly wonderful novel.¬†It was the winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize and the 1996 Governor General’s Award,¬† and shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction.

560 pages in Virago Press paperback edition.

ISBN 978-1860492594

Margaret Atwood

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