For Doing the Laundry and Feeling Like a Murderess: Read This
By R.H. Lossin
Alias Grace is an historical novel based on the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Yes, it’s beach material. It is also a vehicle for interrogating common and not-so-common sense notions of memory, agency, femininity and culpability. The event in question unfolds retrospectively in part through Grace’s narration of the story to an alienist (a precursor to the psychoanalyst), Dr. Simon Jordan. When we meet Grace Marks she has been in a women’s penitentiary for 8 years, accused of a double murder that she insists she didn’t commit, and a group of reform-minded socialites are lobbying for her release. She is a “model prisoner” according to the Prison Governor’s wife, who has taken her on as a domestic servant and believes staunchly in her innocence.
Innocence though, is a slippery and strange idea that cannot be uncoupled from questions about female competence and agency. And, of course, feminine innocence, intelligence and insanity are never too far from questions concerning sexuality. When Grace is not speaking to Dr. Jordan or to us, she is being discussed. Grace is as much a medical curiosity as she is an individual, and to that extent she is a sort of everywoman despite her exulted title of murderess (which sounds much better to her than “murderer”). At one point, Dr. Jordan is approached by a hypnotist who wants to know what he thinks of the theory that prostitution is a form of insanity—a sort of “acting out,” to be placed “in the same class as the homicidal and religious manias.” Jordan wonders to himself about this “dubious” tendency to “want it both ways…If women are seduced and abandoned they’re supposed to go mad, but if they survive, and seduce in their turn, then they were mad to begin with.” James McDermott, her accomplice, insisted that he carried out the murders because Grace seduced him. Grace claims that she remembers none of it.
Grace is 24 at the beginning of the novel, 16 when she was accused of carrying out a grisly double murder with her (depending who you ask) lover. She is an exploited immigrant; a traumatized young woman with a dead mother and an abusive father; a witness to the bloody, lethal abortion administered to fellow servant and close friend Mary Whitney. She never offers a confession. She is Irish, but unlike her tempermental and outwardly violent partner in crime, she is a protestant. She was terrified by Mary Whitney’s pregnancy and a virgin by her own account. She allegedly suffers from unexplained blackouts. In short, Grace is a nearly perfect object of pity and therefore a perfect recipient of charity—both ours and the church ladies’. But she is also very good at getting stains out of sheets and remarks that her prison issued shoes “fit me better than any I’ve ever had before.”
The leitmotif of a failed popular rebellion in 1837 draws particular attention to the convergence of psychic pathologies, marginalized populations (in this case women and the Irish) and political uprisings. The novel thus allows Atwood to raise a number of compelling questions concerning memory and repression at the scale of the individual and society; the meaning and uses of diagnosis; the never stable category of pathology; and the very definition of stability—historical, mental, political or narrative. All of these discourses—medical, religious, sociological--come to bear on Grace Marks. They make her legible to her supporters and her accusers and it is an agreement on her place within these schemas that will ultimately decide her fate. But Grace consistently evades, and ultimately exceeds all of this naming and placing. She is, in the end, undiagnosable and for this reason, an utterly compelling character.