There are no fewer than five epigraphs by way of introduction; it is understandable that Margaret Atwood should hesitate on the brink, before launching herself into the powerful currents of her latest novel. Her chapter headings take their titles from the names of quilt patterns. This would be a worn and dangerously cosy device, if the names themselves were not so shudderingly evocative. There is peril here: Jagged Edge, Snake Fence. There is woman’s fallibility, woman’s fate: Broken Dishes, Secret Drawer, Rocky Road. There is destruction: Falling Timbers. And woman’s primal guilt: Pandora’s Box.
The thing about quilts, suggests Grace, the protagonist, is that what you see depends on whether you look at the dark pieces or the light. Grace is an expert quilter, and so is Atwood. Our experience, our very consciousness, is fragmented and can be rearranged, she suggests; your perception of the past is likewise a thing of shreds and patches. This is a story of murder and memory, a chilling horror story, almost a story of possession; it is also a novel of ideas, where intellect and passion are finely hand-stitched, revealing their ultimate effect only when some 500 pages are shaken out and the dazzling design shows, in all the glory of its pattern, texture, and color.
We are in Canada; when the book opens it is 1851, Grace Marks is twenty-three and shut up in Kingston Penitentiary. Grace is a murderess. She thinks: “It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”
Grace was a child of sixteen when she was tried and sentenced to hang for the murder of her employer, Mr. Thomas Kinnear. A clever lawyer got her sentence commuted, pleading her youth, her supposed witlessness; it was a near thing, for the tide of opinion had run strongly against her, and she would almost certainly have been hanged if she had been tried for a second murder, that of Nancy Montgomery, Mr. Kinnear’s housekeeper-mistress. But the second trial did not take place, as Grace and her accomplice had both been sentenced to death already, and it was deemed quite sufficient to hang a person once.
Grace was from a poor family, Irish immigrants; her mother died on the ship, her father was a brute, she escaped her family only by selling herself into virtual domestic slavery. It is a hard tale, told without sentimentality. “Only the usual poverty and hardships, etc.” says Dr. Jordan, a practitioner of the nascent psychological sciences, who visits Grace in the penitentiary.
After taking various jobs in Toronto, Grace had a stroke of luck. She met up with Nancy, bouncing and cheerful, who wanted an underservant in her employer’s house in the country. The pay was good, said Nancy, and the master easygoing. With some regrets for city life, Grace drove out north on the early coach: wildflowers, butterflies, dust, coarse talk of men encountered on the journey. Houses gave way to log cabins. Then mosquitoes, the edge of the forest, the forest itself.
The dealer in farm implements said, Would you be afraid to go into the forest, Miss, and I said No I would not be afraid, but I would not go in there unless I had to. And he said Just as well, young women should not go into the forest by themselves, you never know what may happen to them; there was one found recently with her clothes torn off and her head at some distance from her body, and I said, Oh, was it the bears, and he said, The bears or the Red Indians, you know these woods are full of them…
Every line of the book is suffused with Grace Marks, her voice, her ambivalent voice, her doubled tongue. Sometimes she is prim, naive, sometimes sardonic: sometimes sardonic because observant: sometimes observant because naive. Grace knows when someone is trying to scare her. She also knows when her innocence—her double-edged, always conscious innocence—has been abused. And Nancy does abuse it, she feels. For Mr. Kinnear’s household is not a proper establishment. If Nancy is a servant, why the pretty frocks, the gold earrings? Why does she breakfast with Mr. Kinnear? Grace can know, and not know; she is good at that.
The hired man, James McDermott, allows her no choice of what to know. His voice is insistent. He broods, eyes Nancy, eyes Grace, desires them both. When Grace is in the barn she hears his feet above her head, step-dancing on bare boards. He sulks, is dismissed for his insubordination. His revenge is murder. And Grace: Does she assist the slaughter? Does she take a terrible revenge too, for what she sees as violation of her trust? When she came to Mr. Kinnear’s she was a girl too tenderhearted to kill a chicken, and (by her own analysis) too simple and virginal to understand in advance that the well-dressed Nancy was sleeping with the boss; she blames Nancy for corrupting her. And yet, with her background of deprivation, how likely is it that she had retained any innocence at all? Grace is a deceiver. She is never simply what she seems. “I had now been a servant for three years, and could act the part well enough…” Later, we learn how she feels about victims. They are not to be pitied. They should know better. They are dead, and other people are stuck with the consequences.
James McDermott died: in real life, danced on air, November 1843, on a Tuesday and just past noon, at Toronto Gaol, in front of an “immense concourse of men, women and children….” Margaret Atwood quotes the Toronto Mirror: “What kinds of feelings those women can possess who flocked from far and near through mud and rain to be present at the horrid spectacle, we cannot divine. We venture to say they were not very delicate or refined.”
The feelings of the men in the crowd, of course, are not called into question. Violent death is their business. Murder is their business, for once Grace was apprehended—over the US border, with McDermott, wearing Nancy’s clothes—it was men who would defend and prosecute her, sentence her, reprieve her, diagnose her.
This is a true story. That is to say, it is as true as Atwood can make it. She has worked on it before. She wrote a television play called The Servant Girl, shown by CBC in 1974. She based this on the accounts of the real-life Grace Marks, given by Susanna Moodie, author of Life in The Clearings (1853). Moodie, in anthropological spirit, went to see a famous Canadian criminal, and wrote about her. She met Grace in Kingston Penitentiary, and during her stay in Toronto’s Lunatic Asylum. Moodie’s account of Grace may have been, to Atwood’s earlier self, a persuasive one. Now she sees that Moodie’s view was shaped by her pre-conceptions, for she had been reading extensively about the murderess in the newspapers; she was very ready to see a “cunning, cruel expression,…a sidelong, stealthy look….” Again, what Moodie observed was highly colored by her penchant for Dickens at his most gothic and for Harrison Ainsworth, whose vividly imagined romances about highwaymen and witches and Newgate prisoners were mid-century best-sellers. The bloodshot eyes of the dead Nancy haunt Grace Marks: Do they so? Did Grace admit as much, or did this gruesome fancy begin with Moodie? Or is Moodie unfairly blamed, and does the fault lie with an inventive trial lawyer?
Atwood gives Grace her say: I never mentioned red eyes, Grace says, I mentioned red peonies; someone misheard. She hallucinates the flowers in prison as she walks around the exercise yard. “They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snails’ eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin.” The peonies in Mr. Kinnear’s yard were white, in fact. They were white, in the days when she saw with a (relatively) innocent eye: before she saw Nancy’s sexual capacity, and her bloody corpse. Before she saw her own capacities?
Grace, sentenced to life, is a useful meek servant in the prison governor’s house. She has access to newspapers and is well aware of how her case is perceived by the public.
…They called James McDermott my paramour. They wrote it down, right in the newspaper. I think it is disgusting to write such things down.
That is what really interests them—the gentlemen and the ladies both. They don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier, they’d scarcely blink. No: was I really a paramour, is their chief concern, and they don’t even know themselves whether they want the answer to be no or yes.
If no, maybe she is a pitiable, pure-minded victim. Maybe they were right not to hang her, maybe one day they can free her? But if yes…if she was sexually complicit with McDermott, as many of her contemporaries like to believe…what does that make her? Still a victim? A likely instigator? We cannot, in general, feel inherently superior to the persons who judged Grace Marks. Female violence is still thought worse than male violence, because it is “unnatural”; and women should be natural creatures. But we know what nature is: it is the tangled thickets where the bears and savages wait to rip a woman’s head off. Nature is not a woman’s friend, unless she can forge some extraordinary relationship with it. When Grace is in the asylum, she meets a woman who gets herself admitted every winter. When the nights grow cold, she exhibits signs of madness. When the air sweetens in spring, she becomes sane, and they release her. She is part Red Indian; in summer, she lives by fishing, and on what the land provides. Grace envies her. But she could never live like that, she thinks.
As the years pass, various worthy persons have interested themselves in pressing for her release. Dr. Jordan has set himself the task of understanding her. He wants to draw the story out of her. Grace is his territory. She is to be a means of advancing his career. He wants to make a name for himself.
The nineteenth century, he concluded, would be to the study of Mind what the eighteenth century had been to the study of Matter—an Age of Enlightenment. He was proud to be part of such a major advance in knowledge, if only in a very small and humble way.
Grace has been induced to confess, but does not remember the murder—or claims not to. Year after year, she is invaded by images of it. It is not just the facts that are in question, but the context of the facts—not just what did Grace do, but what did she think she was doing? The doctor, finally, cannot know if Grace is bad or good, mad or sane, guilty or innocent. He can shuffle the pairings, match them up in any possible way:guilty/mad, guilty/sane, mad/innocent. He will be no nearer to penetrating the enigma that is Grace Marks: that is, perhaps, any human being.
Jordan’s science is not adequate for the task he has set himself. It is often more than inadequate, it is ludicrous. He hits on the notion of bringing Grace a vegetable each day: to see what she will say about it. As time goes on, his choice falls on root vegetables: those things that grow in the dark, and are stored in cellars. He questions her: What does this make you feel, what does it make you remember? Grace’s replies are bland and demure. She will not participate in his system of metaphors. If the vegetable is immediately edible—a radish, say—she rewards him by being a little more forthcoming than usual. It is Grace who controls their encounters, the reader feels.
So I said, Sir, you are without any item today.
And he said, Item, Grace?
Any potato or carrot, I said. Or onion. Or beet, I added.
And he said, Yes, Grace, I have determined upon a different plan.
What is that, Sir? I said.
I have decided to ask you, what it is that you yourself would like me to bring.
Atwood sets up for Jordan a private life that is so sexually tormented and guilt-ridden that it becomes a ghastly parody of Grace’s assumed situation in the Kinnear household; his landlady, with whom he is having an affair, proposes that they murder her husband. Jordan deals with this by packing his bags and leaving town. This is a choice often open to men.
It is frustrating to Jordan that Grace has no memory of the killings. He cannot spring the trap of her repression. He fails to elicit anything from her that can reasonably be called the truth. But the pseudo-scientists are waiting for Grace. Atwood takes us down into the undergrowth of occultism, down among the tablerappers, the hypnotists, the clairvoyants. Someone speaks through Grace; who is it? Is it Mary Whitney, a servant girl, a dead girl, dead of a botched abortion; a voice from Grace’s past, from before she came to Kinnear’s? Mary Whitney’s unexplained presence hangs heavy over the first hundred and fifty pages of the narrative. When Grace fled the scene of the murders, it was Mary Whitney’s name she took as her alias. She has internalized her; but at what level?
Margaret Atwood has always written her characters from the inside out. She knows them: in their hearts, their bones. For many years now she has been a stylist of sensuous power. In Alias Grace she has surpassed herself, writing with a glittering, singing intensity. She digs her unifying images deep into the flesh of the book. Grace at Mr. Kinnear’s house hangs out the laundry:
…The shirts and the nightgowns flapping in the breeze on a sunny day were like large white birds, or angels rejoicing, although without any heads.
Grace’s tone is encapsulated there: she has a quicksilver imagination, but she is also literal, truthful: she must add “without any heads.” It is a lovely image, and a comic one.
But later, when the murder is done, Grace dreams of white crows gathering round Mr Kinnear’s house; the crows then take on human form,
and they were the angels whose white robes were washed in blood, as it says at the end of the Bible; and they were sitting in silent judgment upon Mr. Kinnear’s house, and on all within it. And then I saw that they had no heads.
The image has pursued us through the book, to twist at last into the stuff of nightmare.
Atwood is extraordinarily adept at setting up resonances through her text, at tuning in the reader to her wavelength. From the earliest pages the present reviewer was driven by a (quite unprecedented) compulsion to read Tennyson’s Maud, but it is not until page 137, in a headnote, that Atwood actually quotes from the poem.
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.
Clearly it is the image of the peonies that leads the reader towards Tennyson, but simply to mention red flowers would not be enough; it may be that Atwood has somewhere in her prose set up the rhythm, so that her reader perceives it subliminally; so that the powerful images of the poem open out inside the reader’s imagination, to assist, to reinforce, Atwood’s own writing. If as a novelist you can get your readers working for you in that way, your text will take a tenacious and intimate grip on the imagination. In the center of the book there is writing of an awesome visceral power:
It’s dark as a stone in this room, and hot as a roasting heart; if you stare into the darkness with your eyes open you are sure to see something after a time. I hope it will not be flowers. But this is the time they like to grow, the red flowers, the shining red peonies which are like satin, which are like splashes of paint. The soil for them is emptiness, it is empty space and silence. I whisper, Talk to me; because I would rather have talking than the slow gardening that takes place in silence, with the red satin petals dripping down the wall.
The whole book is informed by Atwood’s brilliant sense of place. Her portrait of Canadian society in mid-century is unfussy, exact, authoritative. We learn as much about Grace’s daily routine at Kinnear’s as if Atwood had written a manual of antique housewifery, and yet the information neither obtrudes nor slows the action. Historical novelists succeed in bringing the past to life when they select detail, not when they accrete it. Atwood selects judiciously. What does she call to our attention? This, for instance: that a woman wearing one of the bonnets of the period is like a horse in blinkers. Out on the street, if she wants to see what is going on at the side of her, she must turn her head. She cannot glance, she must reposition. Her privacy of intention has gone. Anyone can know what she has chosen to look at, and when. This is “the woman’s view”—restricted, and by her own choice. The book is full of such instances, of simple observations, left for the reader like a budding bouquet, to flower in our minds if we have good will and can supply the water of a little imaginative effort. Again, the power comes from the interiority of the style. Other authors describe clothes; Atwood feels the clothes on her characters’ backs.
Some may find this book too long, just as some have found Cat’s Eye overextended. Yet it is hard to find a place where the narrative energy flags, and the tone never falters or wobbles. The last hundred pages deliver multiple shocks and mordant ironies. And perhaps the serpentine length is necessary, so that the narrative, with its many time-shifts, can gently coil and recircle the darkness at its heart. It may be that Atwood feels she has shortchanged Grace once, in her TV play; she means not to do it again.
She has not set out to exonerate her, or to blame her, or to guess what the truth may be;especially not that. She is concerned rather to explore her many versions, her selves and her false selves, the stories she told to the outside world and the stories that (perhaps) she told to herself. Atwood is conscious now, as it may be she was not twenty years ago, of the infinite slipperiness of historical truth, the flawed and partial and frequently misleading nature of what the world calls “evidence.” One may think that, provided they research soundly, novelists are as qualified as historians to attempt the ascent of the glassy slopes of the past. Or perhaps one could say that they are differently qualified; digging their intuitions into the ice, making footholds for themselves. We can say, the truth is not single, the truth is plural; but pursue it we must, and pursue it as Atwood does here, with every scrap of ingenuity and energy. For the dead have power, Grace believes, and they don’t like to be laughed at. Alias Grace is, among many other things, a meditation on the responsibility of the artist to the dead, and a reflection on the nature of memory. Perhaps there is no such thing as memory, only the process of remembering. The product of memory is reconstruction, not reproduction. Atwood has seen this, and she has illustrated it most beautifully.
She has asked herself, what do we do when we change a string of events into a story? We make a pattern, and each one of us makes a pattern of our own. We know that two witnesses never have the same version, that when a story is told it is changed by every repetition. You cannot separate the story from the person who is telling it, the person who is hearing it. Grace’s story became a murder mystery, an instant legend, purveyed through ballads and sensational newspaper accounts. The task Atwood has embraced is to try to hear her voice. She knows the pitfalls: Grace says, “…There are always those that will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them right into your mouth for you too; and that sort are like the magicians who can throw their voice, at fairs and shows, and you are just their wooden doll.” Margaret Atwood has made more than a wooden doll. She has revivified Grace Marks, in a novel glinting with necromantic genius.