Reader's Companion to Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
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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
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.
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-
mystery, Atwood has created a novel--and recreated an era--of mesmerizing
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.,
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
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
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,
There are many excellent books on quilts and quilting in North America, but
this one is still in print.