Saturday, July 22

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996)

This is cross-posted at the sister site.

I've often said that if I were ever to consider suicide, I would pause and remember that Margaret Atwood is writing another novel right now, and to end my life would likely mean I'd miss it. Nevertheless, I can hardly imagine an afterlife where her books were not on the shelves: I consider The Blind Assassin (2001, and winner of the Booker prize) one of the greatest novels ever written. I'd promised myself that this summer I was only going to read trashy romance or 19th century high trash, but Atwood's Alias Grace has a little of both, and gives me the added panache of reading literary historical fiction as well.

Grace Marks, the center of Atwood's novel, was a real person. She was convicted of the murder of her master and his housekeeper/mistress in 1843, when she was sixteen years old. The murders took place near Kingston, Ontario, and Atwood came across her story as a child in the Canadian school system. Grace's accomplice, James McDermott, was a manservant in the household, and their flight to the United States and subsequent arrest story was quickly taken up by the sensational press of the day: the class warfare angle, the sex angle, and the psychological angle (Grace claimed to have no memory of the murders) brought page after page of newspaper coverage, not all of it true or even verifiable.

Atwood weaves this story with her customary brilliance. We meet Grace Marks eight years after her arrest, and are told in detail the story of her life through interviews with a young psychiatrist, Simon Jordan, who is attempting to establish his career with some celebrated solution to Grace's amnesia. She has no idea, she claims, of the violent events that led to her arrest and conviction. As Simon becomes ensnared in Grace's story, he becomes ensnared in other, more pernicious ways, both inside and outside of the penitentiary.

In this review, I will talk about three aspects of Atwood's novel: Atwood is writing historical fiction and but at the same time delivering a sharp and excellent commentary on 19th century women's fiction. She is also making a clear and biting commentary, as she usually does in her writing, about gender politics in general. These three aspects make Alias Grace a fascinating work of art.

As historical fiction this is good stuff. Atwood, as one might expect, gets it right, from the changes in fashion as the novel progresses, to the story of Grace as celebrity defendant. Atwood was aware of her responsibility in this regard, and claims to have taken it almost too seriously. In a letter accompanying the "Readers Companion" to the novel, Atwood writes:

...the novel itself at times almost seemed 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.

Thanks, Margaret. While any novelist reaches a point where they are eager to let go of their characters and plots, Atwood seems particularly so. One of the reasons is no doubt that this is not only a novel, but a conscious and detailed meditation on what is known in Lit Crit circles as "the woman novel" of the nineteenth century. It came as no surprise to me whatever that Atwood lists Elaine Showalter among the source material for this book. Showalter is an expert in the woman novel, and Alias Grace is a woman novel looked at through the sharp-angled lense of Margaret Atwood.

Woman novels were the Harlequin romances of the nineteenth century: popular fiction, read primarily if not exclusively by women, and known for sentimentality, romantic visions, and primarily happy endings. These novels often shared a common overplot, where a young woman would lose her mother (and sometimes gain a Bible), be thrown out into "The Wide, Wide World" (one of the most popular titles of the genre), where she would meet up with two distinct female archetypes. The first, usually an aunt or older cousin, would be a gruff woman who would nevertheless take our young heroine into her house for some serious domestic tutelage. The heroine learns the proper way to sew, cook, preserve, and clean an agrarian house. The second woman in heroine's life would be usually a neighbor or daughter of the local Reverend (let's be obvious and call her Faith), who would teach the heroine Christianity and ladyhood, the two qualities intertwined beyond all separate recognition. The time at which our heroine stops weeping over her dead mother, finishes her quilt and prays for calm amidst life's storms, is when Faith's brother Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, walks in from finishing college just in time to marry her and live happily ever after.

There are a great many ways in which Alias Grace is a brilliantly distorted version of this story. Grace does lose her mother in their trans-Atlantic crossing from Ireland, leaving her bereft. She enters domestic service and learns the proper ways of domesticity, to a fault. Indeed, the fetish-ization of housework in Alias Grace is the most telling reflection of the woman novel Atwood provides. Sections of this novel are named after quilt blocks. We know from Grace where the parsnips are kept, how the chives are cut, when the beds are made, how a floor is scrubbed, when the kitchen is cleaned, how the tea is served, etc. etc. A reader of nineteenth century woman fiction would feel right at home.

Except, of course, that Grace is telling all of this from prison.

Imprisonment is the major theme of this novel, and its detailed presence here stamps Margaret Atwood's distinct feminism on Grace's story. But here the author becomes servant to her character, and it is easy to see why Atwood wanted Grace to stop "wandering around in her head." Atwood can show how domestic servitude trapped women, but she cannot deny Grace the power of who she is. She is a prisoner, and yet she continues to assert and celebrate her expertise in housekeeping through telling the minute domestic details of her life history.

This novel parts ways with the nineteenth century woman novel in its treatment of Christianity. Christian faith is an essential part of the ideal womanhood of the nineteenth century version of this story, but Atwood leaves that element firmly in the margins of her narrative. When we meet Grace she is twenty-four and knows her Bible quite well, tellingly not from a kind neighbor but, one assumes, from the daily readings-aloud at the prison. The only time Grace mentions communing with God is around the time of the murder, particularly during her escape with McDermott:

...I thought, I am riding through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as it says in the Psalm; and I attempted to fear no evil, but it was very hard, for there was evil in the wagon with me [McDermott]...and I looked up at the sky...behind it was a cold blackness; and it was not Heaven or even Hell that I was looking at, but only emptiness. This was more frightening than anything I could think of, and I prayed silently to God to forgive my sins; but what if there was no God to forgive me?

No nineteenth century heroine would even think such an existential thing. Atwood may be avoiding the complex workings of nineteenth century piety, or making a strong statement about the absence of God's lovingkindness in Grace's life. It's hard to tell, because religion, apart from the over-pious minister who pleads for her clemency and the spiritualists who attempt to divine Grace's amnesia from her, is largely absent from this work. Grace goes to church only once in this novel, and it is with the housekeeper/mistress she later is accused of murdering. The church scene seems primarily to show the community as in judgment of the housekeeper's low morals, as they are stared at and speak to no one during or after the service.

spoiler alert

Atwood is loyal to the woman novel, however, in its happy ending, and again in her fetishizing of the domestic details of Grace's life. Rather than telling us in detail how Grace feels about her pardon and release from prison at age 45, we are instead treated to over four pages of detail about her new home: the bedrooms, the curtains, the rugs, the cross-stitch pictures (which of course Grace has done herself) and the quilts. Grace is working on a quilt in the end with literal scraps of fabric that are cut from garments in her past life. A little over-literary, but small complaint in a novel that both defines and transcends both the story of a real-life celebrity and an entire literary genre.

Your local library should have a copy of Alias Grace, if not, Abebooks has lots of used copies for sale cheap.


  1. I read this novel when it was first released. Thanks, BG, for rekindling my enthusiasm for this book with your review. You reminded me of many delicious hours in front of the fireplace with this book one winter.

    Greetings from Bean Town.

  2. Something new for my reading list. Thanks BG.

  3. Silly me...I didn't *know* there was a *sister site* I was missing out on.


    More interesting reads to add to my list (and I NEED to do a Bookstore Shopping date!)

  4. "The Robber Bride." Most under-rated of her work.

    Will look for this: thanks for the tip.

  5. Robber Bride is next on my Atwood list. I also really liked Oryx and Crake, which had quite a bit of humor in it for dystopian sci fi. I listened to that one unabridged on CD. Campbell Scott read it and it was excellent.

  6. I have a confession to make, even though i was an english lit student, i've never picked up any of the copies of the atwood novels that we have at home. I think I might now. Elaine Showalter? There's a name from my student past....
    BTW do you think that a novels such as jane eyre could be considered as a "women novel"? I know it doesn't strictly follow the guidelines but it could be considered surely?


  7. What's a "women's novel"?

    A "chick book"? Or a book written by a "women"? I'm about to start reading "The #1 Ladies Detective Agency," about a "women," written by a man, with the word "ladies" in the title. So what's that called?

    Just. Read. It.

  8. Absolutely, Quaker Dave, tho' not to put too fine a point on it, "woman novel" is a term of art used by lit critters to talk about the 19th century pulp novels with the overplot I mentioned. The seminal feminist lit crit on this period is "Madwoman in the Attic" by Gilbert and Gubar, and yes, Pippa, the title refers directly to Jane Eyre. There's a whole English Lit dissertation topic on whether Jane Eyre is woman novel and how it reflect/distorts the woman journey story of the popular fiction of its day. Just like Alias Grace.

    But again, I'm with Dave, a lot of this is just intellectual jerking off and does not add one bit to the enjoyment of literature.

  9. I got to take courses at Temple with two outstanding feminist writer/critic/poets: Rachel DuPlessis and Sonya Sanchez. These were two of the most rigorous, most mind-expanding, most amazing undergrad classes I ever took, and I was one of maybe four males who made it through to the end of those semesters whithout dropping out. Why? Because they felt intimidated by the material. Not by the assigned readings. By everything else. Now, this is a good thing and a bad thing. I got to read a lot of neat stuff I never would have read, and I got to learn about it in ways I never would have normally been exposed to. But, in defense of the guys who quit the class, some of this discussion and analysis made the material unreadable. They never got to appreciate the literature *as literature*, meant to be READ. So they never read it, and missed out.

    I'll probably get hammered for saying that, but I think I feel the need, as a reader and as a teacher of reading, to say that sometimes we need to put down the microscope or the scalpel or whatever other toys we bring to the book and just read the book.

    Besides, I met the coolest women in those classes...

  10. And I was in classes at Harvard Divinity School where men were deliberately excluded to the detriment of the class and the learning experience. I would have loved to have a reader like you along side me, Dave.


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