Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

July 26, 2011

Alias Grace By: Margaret Atwood

The Weekend Sun, September 7, 1996

Alias GraceBy: Margaret AtwoodPublisher: McClelland & Stewart, 460 pages, $32.50

With this new novel Margaret Atwood enters the era of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne (with an affectionate nod to Robertson Davies) and masters the art of the Victorian novel without forsaking her own trenchant, intensely observant and irreverently funny voice.

Critics have already proclaimed Atwood’s greatness. But now they will have to stretch that word’s meaning still further.

Alias Grace is built around the story of Grace Marks, a young servant girl fresh off the boat from Ireland, who was accused and convicted of being an accomplice in the 1843 murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper/mistress Nancy Montgomery.

The story opens with the arrival of Dr. Simon Jordan in the town of Kingston, where he hopes to perform a psychological study of the prisoner and recover her memory of the period when the murders were committed. He has been brought there by the Rev. Verringer, who heads a committee working to have Grace pardoned.

Grace is a Victorian heroine, a socially disadvantaged near-orphan whose life seems doomed from the start in a society that first makes her invisible as one of the poorer classes then experiences a voyeuristic frisson watching her every move as a “murderess.”

In both situations she is pinned, unable to move. The society—Toronto and Kingston in the Victorian era—is fully fleshed out, its etiquette, moral structures, hypocrisies, injustices and merits observed in detail, often with stealthy humor.

While waiting in the governor’s parlor, Grace thinks, “Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it’s still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly soft-boiled eggs.”

Atwood is in complete control of her narrative from the start. The research that went into writing this novel is impressive, yet, and this is one reason Atwood’s narrative is so tight, historical details are never used merely to create authenticity. Nothing in this 460-page book is superfluous or without dramatic purpose.

As Grace recounts her story to Dr. Jordan through a series of interviews in the governor’s parlor, she dwells on the details of her domestic chores, listing every step involved in doing laundry or making a cup of coffee for the master. The everyday running of a 19th century household makes fascinating reading, yet it also fits with a character who is consciously or unconsciously trying to avoid remembering something else—a bloody, very physical murder.

When Atwood describes what a female prisoner would have smelled like, she does so through the character of Dr. Jordan, whose awareness of Grace’s smell betrays his sexual curiosity:

“She smells like smoke; smoke, and laundry soap, and the salt from her skin, and she smells of the skin itself, with its undertone of dampness, fullness, ripeness—what? Ferns and mushrooms; fruits crushed and fermenting . . . He is in the presence of a female animal; something fox-like and alert. He senses an answering alterness along his own skin . . .”

A particularly brilliant example of the marriage of historical detail to character occurs when Grace, now the convicted murderess, muses: “I’m in my cell, under the coarse prison blanket, which I likely hemmed myself. We make everything we wear or use here, awake or asleep; so I have made this bed, and now I am lying in it.”

The structure of the novel is elegant and unusual. Told entirely in the present tense, it oscillates between Grace’s first person account of her story and a third person narrative anchored to Simon Jordan. Interspersed are letters written by various players in the drama (Simon’s mother’s letters to a woman who has seduced her son and is seeking to make further claims on him deserve quotation in full; they are masterpieces of the indirect exertion of indomitable female power). Each chapter opens with excerpts from newspaper and prison reports and selected passages of Victorian poetry.

There is a curiously reflexive quality to this book. What draws the reader into the novel is the same thing that draws the character Simon: we want to uncover the missing part of Grace Marks’s memory and learn how the murders really happened. Because this is a true story and Atwood has decided to stick close to the facts, we are all, reader, character and author, destined to have our desire somewhat frustrated.

“. . . the fact is that he can’t state anything with certainty and still tell the truth, because the truth eludes him. Or rather it’s Grace herself who eludes him. She glides ahead of him, just out of his grasp, turning her head to see if he’s still following.”

 Atwood manages to deliver a satisfying denouement by sublimating our desire for certainty: we see facets, look through windows, gain insight through different mental processes (hypnosis, free association, dreams, factual evidence, confessions, witnesses, opinions). We learn again the impossibility of ever knowing anyone, or their motivations, absolutely.

“Not to know—to snatch at hints and portents, at intimations, at tantalizing whispers—it is as bad as being haunted. Sometimes at night her face floats before me in the darkness, like some lovely and enigmatic mirage.”

What makes Margaret Atwood so great? She has a powerful, multi-sensual imagination. She can write about intellectual ideas without compromising the dramatic impact of a good story. Her subversive sense of humor lies everywhere in ambush. She’s really smart.

And she’s really, really good with words. I don’t envy the person whose job it was to come up with fresh superlatives for the cover copy.