This page last revised 21 June 1999
Alias Grace is the most recent novel by Margaret Atwood, Canadas most prominent modern novelist. The novel is, as Atwood writes in her afterword, a work of fiction, although it is based on reality(538) centred on the case of Victorian Canadas most celebrated murderess, Grace Marks, an immigrant Irish servant girl.
The manner in which Atwood imaginatively reconfigures historical fact in order to create a subversive text which writes back to both the journals of a Canadian literary ancestor, and to Canadas nineteenth century self -image, illustrates what critic Linda Hutcheon has called the use of irony as a powerful subversive rule in the rethinking and redressing of history by both the post-modern and post-colonial artist (131).
Atwoods interest in the Marks case was first raised by her work on the journals of Susanna Moodie, a 19th-century emigrant to Canada. In a disparaging memoir entitled Roughing it in the Bush , published in London and addressed to an English audience, Moodie concentrated on the otherness and foreigness of Canada to refined European sensibilities, thus emphasising the privilege of home over native and metropolitan over provincial. (Litvack 120). Life in the Clearings, Moodies sequel, intended to show the more civilised side of Canada west, contained an account of her visit to the notorious Grace Marks in a Toronto Asylum. Moodie portrayed Grace as a shrieking, capering madwoman, and concluded her account with the pious hope that this raving maniac would find some peace at the feet of Jesus in the next world.
In the seventies, Atwood wrote a play for television which was based closely on Moodies recounting of the case, but in returning to the story twenty years later in Alias Grace, recounts a much more ambiguous, open - ended tale than the cut and dry femme-fatale urges dim farmhand to murder account rehashed in Life in the Clearings.
Alias Grace can therefore be read both as a fictionalised account of a notorious true life case and also as a genuine instance of post-colonial writing back, as Canadas most prominent present day (female) novelist, a leading exponent of modern Canadian literature, significantly revises a tale recounted by a female literary antecedent who spent most of her time unfavourably comparing the Canadian colony to Home.
In 1843, at the tender age of 16, (the real life) Grace Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in the brutal murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery at Kinnears rural homestead outside Toronto. James Mac Dermott , Kinnears farmhand, was hanged for the crime; Graces youth and sex meant that her death sentence was commuted.
As Atwood makes clear in the novel, no one except Grace really knew what happened on the day of the murders. The co-accused gave several differing accounts of the event in question, and contemporary newspaper reports were riddled with contradiction and speculation, some of which probably influenced the manner in which the accused themselves framed their accounts. The case, with its potent mixture of sex scandal, class tension and extreme violence became a cause celebre in nineteenth century Canada
Atwoods novel is set mainly in 1859, when Grace, having spent some time in an asylum, is now a thirty something, long serving inmate of a Toronto Penitentiary, so trusted that she is permitted to works as a seamstress and servant in the adjoining home of the governor. Enter (fictional) American Doctor Simon Jordan, a young psychiatrist who is determined to probe the depths of Graces psyche through a series of detailed interviews, intended to help him decide if she was sane or insane at the time of the killings. The bulk of the novel is taken up by Graces recollections of past events
Grace is one of Canadas white settlers, a Protestant immigrant from the North of Ireland. Forced from Ireland by poverty and the shiftlessness of their good for nothing father, the Marks family were transported to Canada on a ship that was like a slum in motion (130) , which brought logs eastwards from the Canadas, and emigrants westwards the other way, and both were viewed in much the same light, as cargo to be ferried (130). In Graces account of her passage from Ireland we can see an illustration of the colonial process at work, as the natural resources of the colonised nation are ferried out for imperialist profit, whilst the white settlers, traditional agents of colonial rule, are ferried in in order to cement the Mother Countrys claim on the land (Loomba, 7)
The Toronto of the 1840s in which Grace and her family arrive is a melting pot of diverse cultures. The citys port seems to Grace like a modern day Babel, filled with Europeans of every nationality. The poor quarters of the city teem with disease, poverty, and exploitation - ironically, the very circumstances which many of the new arrivals had sought to escape from in the first place. Grace manages to find work as a paid servant in a series of domestic positions, which, for a woman of her background and class was probably the most palatable form of employment.
The Upper Canada rebellion of 1837 has created a scarcity of dependable servants, and Grace, under the capable tutelage of her Canadian born friend, Mary Whitney, soon becomes privy to the many tricks of the trade, the most important being that a servant should be able to have the work done without it being seen to be done. There are few secrets a master can keep from his servants, who have the run of the house, and access to the most private of affairs - a servants job is simultaneously both a marginalised and yet privileged position in society.
It is in this tension between master and servant, and the lower and upper classes that the dark seeds of violence are sown, for , despite Mary Whitneys confident claim of class mobility in this new country, that on this side of the ocean folks rose in the world by hard work, and not by who their Grandfather was(182), Canada was still a nation divided by class, driven to replicate the distinctions between classes that emanated from Britain, the imperial centre of power.
As Aritha Van Herk pointed out in her review of the novel, this is very much a story about listening, and about reading between the lines in order to get a truer idea of the real story. Graces version of events up to and including the murders is pragmatic and perceptive, aware of politics and the duplicities of manners, subtle and fascinating in its focus on tangible detail, but exercising also a silent doubleness, and intricate awareness of what she [Grace] should not and cannot say (Van Herk 111).
The trope of doubleness is echoed in the structure of the text. Each new section is prefaced by extracts from Victorian Literature of the time, from Moodies recollections of her encounter with Grace to a poem by Christina Rossetti, and, the most ironically of all, the extract from Coventry Patmores paean to feminine goodness and domesticity, The Angel in the House, which appears directly after Graces disjointed account of the murders. The ironic contrast between Victorian ideals of womanhood encapsulated in the extracts and the sordid series of events recounted by Grace, a real life Victorian female, creates a purposely subversive contrast between cosy stereotype and brutal actuality.
In her interviews with Jordan, Grace uses her knowledge of popular literature to shape an affecting tale for her one-man audience (LeClair 2) Grace combines the specificity of local colour and the ideality of romance, heart rending tales of poverty with the genteel stereotype of helpless womanhood. Just as Canada the nation must come to terms with the trope of doubleness - the dual history that Hutcheon characterises as the mark of the colony- Grace, the white settler, weaves into her initially believable tale (believable I must add, because the average reader is predisposed to trust Graces beguiling tale, just like Jordan) a possibly fictitious inner narrative that deconstructs the outer, happier, fiction of Alias Grace(LeClair 2).
Grace is thus using the pervasive ideology of the day to fashion a revolt within the power field of the dominant culture, characterised by Hutcheon as a hallmark of both postmodernism and postcoloniality (Hutcheon 134).
In her after word to the novel, Atwood writes that the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma. The same can ultimately be said of her fictional counterpart, about whom we really know nothing, save for what she has told us herself. Indeed, all but the most perceptive first-time readers will end Alias Grace with the initially disconcerting sense that they have just fallen victim to a literary sleight -of- hand as smoothly executed as Graces (all too possible) deception of Jordan.
Perhaps the most pervasive evidence for this suspicion arises from the many references to Graces most common activity, sewing. It therefore seems appropriate to end this paper with the following exchange between Simon Jordan and Graces ally, the Reverend Verringer, for it not only emphasises the manner in which Atwoods novel is in some ways a writing back to Moodie, but also casts a significant light on Graces entire narrative, by suggesting that patchwork quilts are not the only things she constructs from virtual scratch .The exchange between Verringer and Simon whilst discussing Susanna Moodies account of the Marks case is highly relevant :
Mrs Moodie is a literary lady, and like all such, and indeed the sex in general, She is inclined to-
Embroider, says Simon.
Precisely, says Reverend Verringer. (p223)
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. London : Virago, 1997.
Hutcheon, Linda. Circling the Downspout of Empire. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London : Routledge, 1995. p130-135.
Le Clair, Tom. Quilty Verdict. (Review) The Nation, September 1996.
Litvack, Leon. Canadian Writing in English and Multiculturalism. English Post-Coloniality. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.
Van Herk, A. Alias Grace. Canadian Literature (1998) 156, 110-12.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
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