This review contains spoilers.
I’ve been in a literary fiction mood lately, and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace really skewered what I wanted. (Well, what I really wanted was another Our Tragic Universe, but that wasn’t what was on my TBR pile, so.) One of Atwood’s lesser-known novels, it takes as its focus Grace Marks, a real-life Canadian woman who was, alongside fellow servant James McDermott, convicted in 1843 of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear. Along with McDermott, she was sentenced to death on her conviction, but the sentence was commuted to imprisonment. She spent some time in an asylum before being transferred to Kingston Penitentiary. After thirty years’ imprisonment, she was pardoned, and went to live in Northern New York, where all trace of her vanishes.
What’s interesting about the case, to Atwood, is its profound ambiguity. Marks’ conviction was controversial: she evidently managed to convince a number of influential and respectable people that she was, in fact, innocent, and she seems to have related three different versions of the murder. So: was she a murderess, or an unwitting accomplice? Or something in between?
Atwood’s novel focalises Grace’s story through a fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, who is trying to ferret out the truth from Grace in order to get a good enough reputation to set up a lucrative asylum on his own method. It’s narrated partly from his point of view, and partly from Grace’s, in the novel’s “present”; there are also extended flashbacks to Grace’s past as she narrates her story to Dr Jordan; and there are letters to and from various characters, including Simon’s mother, his landlady and his doctor friend in the States. Finally, each section begins with a number of epigraphs, many drawn from one of the primary sources for the Kinnear murder, Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings. (Moodie met Grace at the asylum, and Life in the Clearings contains one of Grace’s three accounts of the murder.)
This technique of multiple narratives is a classic way of creating textual ambiguity, and so it is here – although Atwood makes the technique her own. Early in the novel, Dr Jordan, writing to his friend in the States about his latest project (Grace herself), says:
…I suspect Grace has had scant reason to trust anyone at all for a very long period of time.
This follows a highly imagistical scene, narrated by Grace, in which she meets Dr Jordan for the first time and is clearly unsure what to make of him. Atwood’s setting up a certain narrative expectation, here: we might well think that we’re about to read a story in which an abused, mistrusted innocent slowly opens up to the first disinterested kindness she’s received in a very long time. This expectation is perhaps bolstered by the generic expectation that we’re about to read a detective story of sorts. Dr Jordan is a scientist, and that discipline in the early nineteenth century is accompanied by specifically masculine rhetoric, about penetrating Mother Nature’s secrets, laying them bare for categorisation and pigeonholing.
But, of course, Dr Jordan isn’t disinterested or particularly scientific: he’s trying to “cure” Grace of her amnesia (she’s claiming that she doesn’t remember murdering Kinnear) in order to prove himself as a psychiatrist and create a name and a fortune for himself. He has no real interest in her wellbeing; to him, she’s a problem to be solved.
And, in turn, Grace resists penetration, categorisation, pigeonholing, solving. She knows perfectly well that those appealing for her pardon, or asking to hear her side of the story, are mostly doing so not for her benefit, hers as an actual specific person, but for ideological reasons, or because they want to seem magnanimous and merciful, or simply because they want to have an opinion about Grace Marks, the Celebrated Murderess. The people appealing for her pardon – primarily represented in Alias Grace by Reverend Verringer, a Methodist in whose social circle Dr Jordan finds himself – are seeking to pin her down just as much as those who think she’s a violent murderess. And so, Grace lies. And she acts. And she edits the story she tells Dr Jordan.
And we’re never sure, even as readers, exactly how much.
It’s a fantastic piece of feminist mythmaking, because it is, at root, about the ways that femininity is pathologised as madness. Madness, of course, is a social construct: it’s been used in literature since the Brontes to encode feminine resistance to patriarchal norms. Grace is deeply threatening to society – and I can’t help thinking here about the novel’s Canadian setting, in a colony that’s caught between English propriety and provincial making-do – precisely because she can’t be categorised. Her demeanour is mild-mannered, polite, all innocence – and yet her actions are canny, guarded, even wicked. And so, because she fits neither of the characters society grants women – angels or demons, innocent as children or guilty as sin – she must be mad. There is no in-between.
I really, honestly wasn’t expecting to enjoy Alias Grace: I was anticipating a tough slog. What I got was everything I like in literature: ambiguity, generic slippage, radical feminism, a sprawling Victorian narrative. Just excellent.