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Margaret Atwood's Web site

Margaret Atwood feature on Bold Type, BDD's online literary magazine

Readers' Group Companion to Bodily Harm

Readers' Group Companion to Cat's Eye

Readers' Group Companion to The Edible Woman

Readers' Group Companion to The Handmaid's Tale

Readers' Group Companion to Lady Oracle

Readers' Group Companion to Life Before Man

Readers' Group Companion to The Robber Bride

Readers' Group Companion to Surfacing

Other titles by Margaret Atwood:

Bluebeard's Egg

Bodily Harm

Cat's Eye

Dancing Girls and Other Stories

The Edible Woman

Good Bones and Small Murders

The Handmaid's Tale

Lady Oracle

Life Before Man

The Robber Bride


Wilderness Tips

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Reader's Companion to Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Anchor/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-49044-5, $12.00 US

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-47571-3, $24.95 US

Bantam/Seal paperback, ISBN 0-770-42759-6, $9.99 CAN

Bantam Doubleday Dell audiocassette, ISBN 0-553-47772-2, $24.95 US

Bantam/Seal audiocassette, ISBN 0-770-42745-6, $32.95 CAN

Reader's Companion to Alias Grace © 1996 by Doubleday.


1. A Letter from Margaret Atwood
2. An Interview with Margaret Atwood
3. Topics for Group Discussion
4. Useful books selected by Margaret Atwood

A Letter from Margaret Atwood

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread--
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the "Song of the Shirt!"

--from "The Song of the Shirt" by Thomas Hood, 1843

Dear Reader,

The central figure in my novel is Grace Marks, one of the most "celebrated" women of her generation, having been convicted of murder in 1843 at the age of sixteen. How did Grace enter my imagination?

As a child in the 1940s I learned in our school reader about Susanna Moodie, an English emigrant who over a century ago settled in the Canadian backwoods. She was unsuited to pioneer life and wrote about her experiences, including the fire that took her log cabin, in Roughing It In The Bush. I myself had grown up in cabins in the north, so the image of the fire was an anxiety-producing one for me. After I became a writer, I had a vivid dream about Susanna Moodie. I dreamt I'd written an opera about her--unlikely, as I could barely read music. I was impressed enough by my own inner life to get Moodie's books out of the library, and in her second book, Life In The Clearings, I found Moodie's version of Grace Marks, as she describes her meeting with Grace in the Kingston Penitentiary and dramatizes the double murder for which Grace was convicted. She also recounts a later meeting with Grace in the Lunatic Asylum; there her account ends.

Years passed and Grace Marks continued to wander around in my head. I wrote a script about her for a television play. More time passed and she kept insisting on being given a fuller hearing, so I began to write this novel. Was Grace Marks the cunning female demon many considered her to be--or was she simply a terrorized victim? I began researching, not only the murder case but life in Victorian times. Every major element in the book was suggested by something in the writing about Grace and her times, however suspect such writing might be; in gaps left unfilled, I was free to invent. Since there were a lot of gaps, there is a lot of invention.

My readers always ask how much personal experience I put into my books. I can truthfully say I've never murdered anyone or run away with the hired man, as she did. But there is one bit of autobiography: the laundry. When I lived in the north of Canada the laundry was done in washtubs, with the water heated on a wood stove, and when I was Grace's age, much of it was done by me. Grace's pleasure when she has a line of clean white washing flapping in the breeze comes straight from the heart. As for the pieced quilts, they too are autobiographical: my grandmother in Nova Scotia had a large supply of them. I tried to sew one once but it was too much for me.

In fact, the novel itself at times seemed almost too much for me; I found myself wondering where the parsnips would have been stored, wrestling through the details of Victorian domestic and prison life. But I finally made it to the end. And so now it's your turn. I invite you to meet ALIAS GRACE. May she stop wandering around in my head, and perhaps wander around in yours for a while.

Best wishes,

Margaret Atwood

An Interview with Margaret Atwood

In her bestselling novel The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood masterfully took us to a chilling world of the future. In her astonishing new novel, Alias Grace, she just as convincingly takes us back 150 years and inside the life and mind of one of the most notorious women of the 1840s. Grace Marks is serving a life sentence for her part in the vicious murders of Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy land owner who employed her as a maid, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. James McDermott, who was hanged for the murders, accused Grace in his confession of leading him on and promising sexual favors in return for the murders, but Grace herself claims to have no memory of the killings. Weaving together sex, violence, the burgeoning science of psychiatry, and a good old- fashioned mystery, Atwood has created a novel--and recreated an era--of mesmerizing power.

Doubleday spoke with Margaret Atwood in Ireland, where she is finishing up some "odds and ends" and plunging into her new novel.

DOUBLEDAY: Many of the characters in Alias Grace, including Grace Marks, are historical figures. How did you first discover this story?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I came across it a long time ago when I was writing a series of poems about one of the people who makes an appearance in the book--Susanna Moodie, who wrote the story down. But she wrote it, as she says, from memory, and she got a lot of it wrong, as I found when I went back to the actual newspapers of the time and went into things such as the prison records. It always bothered me that the story Moodie told was so theatrical. It made you wonder, could it really have been like that? And when I went back to check, in fact, it wasn't. She had done a certain amount of embroidery.

D: How did you determine when to stick to the facts, and when to fctionalize?

MA: When there was a known fact, I felt that I had to use it. In other words, I stuck to the known facts when they were truly known. But when there were gaps or when there were things suggested that nobody ever explained, I felt I was free to invent. For instance, Mary Whitney was the name that appears as Grace's alias in the picture that accompanies her confession, but none of the commentators ever mentions a thing about it. Although people at the time may have set down a version of events, you can't actually go back and question them. And they leave out the things that you would most like to know. People don't have the consideration to foresee that you might be interested in this stuff 150 years later.

D: What was the most challenging bit of history for you to find?

MA: The most difficult thing I had to discover was at the very beginning--I tried to find Thomas Kinnear. It turned out there were two Thomas Kinnears, and one of them would have been about seventy- three years old at the time of the murders. I figured it couldn't have been him-- otherwise you wouldn't have had the steamy element of the story, with Thomas Kinnear having a mistress who was his housekeeper, and some people feeling that he was also flirting with Grace. So I went looking for him, and I couldn't find his grave or Nancy's grave, although I knew where they were supposed to be buried. I discovered that they really were buried there, but in unmarked graves. I did finally trace Kinnear back through the Scottish end, and it appears that he was the half brother of a man who lived in Scotland. But the Burke's Peerage listing for the family shows Thomas as dying in the year when he turns up in Canada. In other words, it's the age-old English point of view that going to Canada is the same as death. It's also true, however, that Scottish families often felt that it was as scandalous to be murdered as to do the murdering, and the Kinnears may have tried to cover up the murder.

D: How reliable was the news coverage then?

MA: Very unreliable. Sort of like now when a story first broke what you got is what you get now, which is rumor. In this case, there was a great deal of speculation about who had murdered Kinnear. At first they thought that one of the murdered people had done it, because they hadn't found Nancy yet. They thought she had run offwith the two other servants and that if they could find her, they would know the truth. But then they did find her, and she was dead.

So there was a lot of speculation about that; there was also a lot of editorializing, with political factions taking different points of view. That is, the very conservative ones were against Grace Marks, and the reformers were more for her; in their eyes, she was a victim. So you've got two quite distinct points of view, as well as a lot of digressions. People were talking about letting too many immigrants in--sound familiar?--and the need for better letters of reference for servants.

D: Has the growth of TV journalism improved or decreased the reliability of the news?

MA: You will always have biased points of view, and you'll always have the story behind the story that hasn't come out yet. And any form of journalism you're involved with is going to be up against a biased viewpoint and partial knowledge. Also, there's the very human need to shape a story and make it mean something. One person telling the story may have one spin on it and another person may have quite a different one. You saw that a lot in the O. J. Simpson trial. And it's particularly evident when it's a matter of a crime. When a crime has been committed, opinions get extreme.

D: How differently do you think Grace would have been treated today--psychiatrically and judicially?

MA: It would be a very different kind of trial. Today you would have expert witnesses. There weren't any then, you didn't have any of that at all . And certainly psychiatry as we have it today was not recognized as a science in the same way then. There were medical practitioners who were interested in it and people who were studying mental conditions, but there was nothing like the kind of establishment we have today.

D: Grace often felt that people were curious about her less because she was a "celebrated murderess" than McDermott's "paramour. " What role did the Victorian attitude toward sex play in her treatment?

MA: About the same as it would now. She certainly was celebrated, by the way. People went to see her the way you would go to see the elephant in the zoo. In those days you could visit prisons and insane asylums as a tourist attraction. People would go to the prison and say,"Here I am, and I'd like to see Grace Marks. " And she would be trotted out for them to look at.

The question is, would they have been as interested if there hadn't been a sex angle? Well, probably not, same as now. The big question for them was: Did she or didn't she? And there were things to be said on either side. For instance, although she had run off with McDermott, when they got to the tavern in Lewiston, they had separate rooms. It was generally assumed that it was that kind of relationship, but Grace is not on record anywhere as having said so.

D: In your afterword, you write that the attitudes people had toward Grace "reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of woman. " What do you mean by that?

MA: One group felt that women were feeble and incapable of definite action; that is, Grace must have been compelled by force to run away with McDermott and that she was a victim. Other people took the view that women, when they got going, were inherently more evil than men, and that it was therefore Grace who had instigated the crime and led McDermott on. So you had a real split between woman as demon and woman as pathetic.

Topics for Group Discussion:

1. This novel is rooted in physical reality, on one hand, and floats free of it on the other, as Atwood describes physical things in either organic, raw terms (the "tongue-colored settee") or with otherworldly, more ephemeral images (the laundry like "angels rejoicing, although without any heads"). How do such descriptions deepen and reinforce the themes in the novel?

2. The daily and seasonal rhythm of household work is described in detail. What role does this play in the novel in regard to its pace?

3. What was your view of Mary Whitney before you met her in chapter 18? During the time she was working with Grace at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's? When you hear of her again? Do the earliest references and asides about her illuminate her role in the novel later?

4. Atwood employs two main points of view and voices in the novel. Do you trust one more than the other? As the story progresses, does Grace's voice (in dialogue) in Simon's part of the story change? If yes, how and why?

5. Grace's and Simon's stories are linked and they have a kinship on surface and deeper levels. For instance, they both eavesdrop or spy as children, and later, each stays in a house that would have been better left sooner or not entered at all. Discuss other similarities or differences in the twining of their stories and their psyches.

6. Discuss the importance and use of dreams in the novel.

7. Atwood offers a vision of the dual nature of people, houses, appearances, and more. Discuss these manifestations of dark and light that are at bedrock in this novel.

8. Discuss how Atwood foreshadows certain events by dropping clues throughout the novel. Did you find key events surprising and inevitable?

9. In a letter to his friend Dr. Edward Murchie, Simon Jordan writes that "...Not to know--to snatch at hints and portents, at intimations, at tantalizing whispers--it is as bad as being haunted..." How are the characters in this story affected by the things they don't know?

10. Were you of the same mind regarding Grace's innocence or guilt throughout the novel? At what points did you waver one way or the other?

11. Did any character in the novel freely choose his or her course of action?

12. Why do you suppose the book is titled Alias Grace?

Useful books selected by Margaret Atwood

Mrs. Beeton. Beeton's Book of Household Management. London: Chancellor Press, 1994.
A facsimile edition of Mrs. Beeton's famous 1859-61 book, which covers all aspects of the running of the mid-Victorian household, from the mistress's preferred dress and conversational topics--narratives are safest--to the proper foods for invalids, to the favored methods for laundresses. Replete with recipes.

Brandon, Ruth. The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: Knopf, 1983.
What went on in the medium's parlor, and why, more or less.

Byrde, Penelope. Nineteeth-Century Fashion. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1992.
Profusely illustrated treatment of the trends in fashion from 1800-1900. Though a British publication, the main themes pertain to North America as well.

Crabtree, Adam. From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Pre-Freudian psychiatry, with an emphasis on Mesmerism, hypnosis, and Spiritualism.

Duffel, Jacalyn. Langstaff: A Nineteenth-Century Medical Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
An extensively documented account of the life and methods of Dr. Langstaff, who practiced in Richmond Hill shortly after the Kinnear-Montgomery murders. Fascinating detail for the not-too-squeamish.

Ellenberger, Henri F. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books, 1970. A pioneering study of pre-Freudian psychiatry.

Geller, Jeffrey L. and Maxine Harris. Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 184S1945. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
First hand accounts by women incarcerated in American mental asylums, with explanatory text and an introduction by Phyllis Chester.

Perrot, Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Amusing and informative illustrated history of the evolution of clothing--from hierarchical to democratic, from handmade to ready-made--in the nineteenth century.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press, l 991.
A fascinating analysis of American women writers in the nineteenth century, especially of their use of sewing as a metaphor.

Walker, Marilyn L. Ontario's Heritage Quilts. Toronto: Stoddart, 1992.
There are many excellent books on quilts and quilting in North America, but this one is still in print.