In 1970 Margaret Atwood, known only in small, mostly Canadian circles for her poetry, published a book entitled The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a persona poem sequence written from the point of view of a legendary 19th-century Canadian pioneer who had encountered the notorious murderess Grace Marks on a visit to a lunatic asylum. Grace had been alternately institutionalized and imprisoned for the brutal murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his lover/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, spared from the sentence of hanging her accomplice James McDermott because of a shadow of doubt about whether she was temptress or victim.
Out of this rich documented history, Atwood, 26 years after publishing the book of poems about Susanna Moodie, returns to the character of Grace Marks in her 26th book. Alias Grace is the retelling of the events that convicted Grace, at age 16, for a crime about which she claims to have no conscious memory. Structured in alternating sections told from Grace Marks’ point of view as well as that of an omniscient narrator, this blend of fact and fiction is pieced together like a quilt (a deliberate metaphor established from the novel’s divisions or chapters, each named for a particular pattern of quilting).
The events leading up to the murders are revealed through narrative, letters, newspaper accounts, excerpts from Susanna Moodie’s journal, notes by doctors and wardens and poems by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Atwood maintains an ironic distance that manages simultaneously to reveal the character of Grace in her own words and to paint a broad picture of mid-19th century Canada as a nation experiencing the passionate explosions of science colliding with spiritualism.
This is the age of scientific disciplines and unbridled mysticism–studies of the brain and drawing room table-rapping seances, electromagnetic therapies and mesmerism. This is a novel about gender and power and the upheaval of superstition in the face of what may or may not be provable theory. Grace Marks provides the catalyst for the mysterious alchemy of these forces and becomes the focus of a nation, embodying the projections of the age-old paradox of woman as either Nurturer or Sorcerer.
Atwood provides no easy alliances; the deeper she delves into Grace’s story, the less the reader’s convictions as to innocence or guilt can be formed. She provides the perfect agent for the provocation of Grace’s story in the enthusiastic but hopelessly naive young American doctor Simon Jordan, who takes a clinical interest in her case, hoping to map the unconscious, discover the roots of madness, and make his mark on the burgeoning field of psychology. The interviews start well enough–Grace, having spent nearly two decades in one institution or another with no pardon in sight, is more than agreeable to the daily visits.
After all, she’s bored and is not immune to the stirrings such male attentions evoke. She has an uncanny eye for detail, even if she does have amnesia. But when Dr. Jordan’s arsenal of root vegetables fails to provoke, by association, memories of the cellar where Nancy Montgomery’s body was found, Grace is off and running, weaving a skein of stories, and like any Scheherazade worth her salt, delays the ending. She quickly learns which details excite him and does her best to provide him with as much material as he can handle.
Dr. Jordan thinks privately, “What is perceived as being known is only a small part of what may be stored in this dark repository. Lost memories lie down there like sunken treasure, to be retrieved piecemeal, if at all; and amnesia itself may be, in effect, a sort of dreaming in reverse; a drowning of recollection, a plunging under. ” The problem is, Dr. Jordan, a mama’s boy with rather thin boundaries, is increasingly bewitched and bewildered, plunging into his own conflicting fantasies of Grace as the personification of feminine innocence or as calculating seductress.
The transference is complete when the dreams he wants Grace to remember so that he can record and analyze them become dreams from his own suggestible unconscious, and the sexual dominance he fantasizes coming from Grace he finds himself literally enacting upon the willing surrogate of his cunningly frail landlady. Grace Marks, whether she is mere serving girl or clever manipulator, sends everyone around her into a freefall into the unconscious. Female madness is an old story that persists, in spite of efforts to explain it, and prejudices abound today about the accuracy of memory.
False Memory Syndrome is heatedly debated in the courtroom. The 19th-century outrage of Canadians about Grace Marks was no less than the recent hysteria regarding the infamous Susan Smith, who drowned her children in a car she deliberately rolled into a lake. Women, it would seem, should be governed by some biological instinct that prevents them from inflicting harm. But if they do harm, well, how utterly, horrifyingly tantalizing, as Atwood herself might intone, holding up the mirror of this novel to the face of the age-old Madonna/whore. As Grace Marks says privately to herself, “…
Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. 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. Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices. ” As I read this book, I couldn’t help but picture Atwood as a magician, mixing potions of emotional chemistry–wishful thinking, outrage, lust, laudanum-laced delusions, grim determinations.
She is an astonishing stylist, her “temperature” range cool, ironic, detached and very controlled. Although I would admit this book is a fascinating read and found myself consistently impressed with Atwood’s precision, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the characters as I wanted to be. The book lags in the middle, the pacing slowed by an overly long delay in getting to the murder scene. But ultimately, Atwood’s strategies pay off in bringing all the disparate pieces of the book to bear upon a larger pattern. Choosing to fictionalize a true story gives her a lot of liberties, and she takes every last one.
The precedent, as she states in the afterward, is that the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts can be unequivocally known, and she therefore felt free to invent. But it is the particular beauty of invented truth that it can become metaphor in the grand scheme of things. “What really happened” is exchanged for the mystery of “what if,” and in that exchange a third thing arises–the paradox of knowledge that quantum physics has revealed in this century–the more that becomes evident, the less is actually clear; in spite of what can be mapped and known, there is untold wisdom in the random.
I wanted to use the subtitle, “The Logic and Illogic of Scientific Discovery,” but the publisher wouldn’t go for it. After Rolf Sinclair, Director of Physics Programs at the National Science Foundation read it, he called it “the classic book on its subject,” and invited me to speak at a seminar he was organizing at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As you’ve read, it’s long been out of print –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.