Alongside her fellow-servant James McDermott, fifteen year-old Grace Marks was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employer Thomas Kinnear and his ‘housekeeper’ (mistress) Nancy Montgomery. While McDermott was hanged, Grace’s sentence was commuted to life incarceration and after thirty years she was pardoned and released to a life of anonymity. Atwood’s novel explores our society’s fascination with women who kill; via her own character Grace, Atwood points out that a murderer is ‘simply brutal’ but the word murderess conjures up quite a different impression, the word ‘rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.’ The Ballad of Lizzie Borden, Myra Hindley, Rosemary West – female killers live on infamy. Only last year, I read Burial Rites, another stunning novel contemplating the fate of a woman who might or might not have been guilty of taking someone’s life. We are drawn to these stories even as we are repulsed by them.
As with so many of Atwood’s other novels, she draws together a story that we are not sure that we should put our trust in. There are in many ways three narrators; we have the voice of Grace Marks as she speaks to us the reader, the doctor Simon Jordan who is interviewing Grace to determine her sanity and her guilt and then there is Grace’s second voice – the voice she uses to speak to Simon, narrating her story to him and via him to us. This second Grace is minding her manners, speaking on safe topics and attempting to craft a good impression. This does not mean she is telling the whole truth. The question of Grace’s true self is a complex one – when she was arrested for her crime, she was wearing Nancy Montgomery’s clothes and going by the alias Mary Whitney. Her background was unclear, she was thought to appear ‘better than her circumstances’. People commented on her beauty. What is the truth of Grace’s character?
|Grace Marks alias Mary Whitney|
Each of the chapters of Alias Grace is named after a different kind of quilt pattern and Grace draws her story together in a similar kind of patchwork. We hear how she and her brothers and sisters made the passage from Ireland to Canada, how her mother died aboard the ship and how Grace started work as a maidservant at thirteen. Grace’s choices in life were no more governed by her own wishes or desires when she was free than they were when she was incarcerated. There is nobody who is quite able to fictionalise the subjugation of women like Margaret Atwood. The young Grace is befriended by fellow-servant Mary Whitney who takes on the role of elder sister but we know that this will end badly as indeed it does. Atwood walks us through all of the various mishaps and misdemeanours that could befall women in service and they all happen to Grace. We cannot claim that our world is perfect and Atwood may say she is not to be a feminist writer but she makes a very compelling case for What Feminism Has Done For Us.
I liked though that this was not a story simply about the Unfortunate Poor. Simon sits at the prison governor’s table and is repeatedly caught by middle-aged women wishing to confide in him about their intestinal difficulties but again Atwood makes the point of how the women are kept in their place. These upper class women have been raised to be decorative but that has not brought them happiness. Simon is the outsider at the table, the man who has supposedly seen the world, and he imagines for them a secret network of women helping other women but via Grace, the reader knows better. Simon is caught by his landlady’s tragic circumstances, a woman who has not been brought up to take care of herself and who has been left with but one way of making her way. Simon is the nice young doctor but he still cannot stop himself taking advantage. Behind him he has his mother attempting to conceal their poverty and trying to guide him towards eligible young women with high levels of sewing expertise. Even for Lydia, the girl from the good home, daughter to the prison governor, her choices are few. She settles for a lacklustre marriage rather than brave the life of an unskilled spinster, yet Grace sees that all has not gone well as Lydia loses her bloom on her honeymoon, her laughter gone. These bright young girls raised to be ornaments, kept spick and span and clear of life’s dirt, only to be shocked and sullied on their wedding night. No wonder female hysteria was such a big problem.
Nancy Montgomery and Mary Whitney had lives which closely mirrored each other. Grace took the job with Nancy Montgomery in the hopes of finding a similar kind of companionship and there are very deliberate echoes in the fates of both women. But just what mark had Mary left on the young Grace? What exactly happened at the house? The build-up to the crime is so detailed and Kinnear’s house is vividly conjured. We expect that all will be revealed but some things are kept under wraps. As a habitual reader, I am often surprised and then surprised to be surprised when life does not fit into the story template – sometimes there is no clear conclusion, the characters do not get closure, an answer is never found. We still don’t know who shot Kennedy, the identity of Jack the Ripper, where Lord Lucan went and that bothers me. Here, I was expecting a resolution, a verdict of Grace’s guilt but this is Atwood, she would never offer something quite so equivocal. We cannot know at this remove what was true about Grace Marks, we do not even know what her fate might have been. As Grace points out, when you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all – it’s just your life.
|Tree of Paradise Quilt|
Alias Grace never did sum up who Grace really was but it was not clear if Grace herself knew that. Everybody had their own opinion about Grace; whether she be villainess or victim, everyone around her had firm beliefs about her character. Even the committee determined to secure her release built up their own notions of her innocence which had as little to do with Grace’s true self as the lurid tales of her deviance. Indeed, Grace seemed to settle ultimately for a life where she existed as an idea, to be the victim that people needed her to be in order to live with her. What confused me was how much Simon had realised – his fate seemed disconnected and even distracting from the main narrative and I am not sure if it quite came off. There are suggestions of the supernatural which are never quite drawn out, there are emerging ideas of psychiatric disorders which are not yet understood – this is not a simple murder mystery, there is more to think about than simply guilty or not guilty.
Like the quilts which Grace sews throughout, the pattern is more complex but we will have to look for it ourselves. Grace’s comment on the Tree of Paradise quilt sticks in the mind, ‘Whoever named that pattern said better than she knew, as the Bible does not say Trees. It says there were two different trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge; but I believe there was only one, and that the Fruit of Life and the Fruit of Good and Evil were the same. And if you ate of it you would die, but if you didn’t eat of it you would die also; although if you did eat of it, you would be less bone-ignorant by the time you got around to your death.‘ The ‘better’ ending might have been to have Grace confess her guilt and sob out her repentance or else to expose her own innocence and be borne away for a happy life but I do not know if it would have lingered in quite the same way. We cannot know, fix, understand or save Grace – she may have been guilty, she may have been not but like all of us she was most likely made up of a mixture of good and evil. We all encounter the serpent at some point, without it as Grace says, there would be ‘no story’ to our lives but it is the acceptance of this idea that Alias Grace wrestles with. People cannot be put on trial for every misdeed, every thought that they have ever had – Grace’s sexual transgressions cause just as much outrage as her supposed murderous behaviour but neither was a fair representation of her character. So – what does everyone else think? This was certainly not the average whodunnit.
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Published by Hachette UK on September 3rd 2009
Genres: Fiction, General
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