An attractive young woman is charged with murder. She is convicted and receives a lighter sentence than her male accomplice, who is given the maximum penalty. The newspapers enjoy a bonanza, each trying to outdo the other in uncovering every lurid detail of the crime. There is much prurient discussion about the sexual relationship of the two accused. Debate rages over whether the woman was the evil instigator or a terrified victim coerced by a killer into committing heinous acts. The woman herself claims to have forgotten crucial details about the events. Sound familiar? While the story is eerily reminiscent of the Karla Homolka-Paul Bernardo saga that unfolded last year in a Toronto courtroom, in reality it describes a notorious
case tried in Upper Canada in 1843. Grace Marks, a 16-year-old housemaid, and manservant James McDermott were convicted of murdering their employer and his mistress. Now, celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood has recast that story in her ninth novel, Alias Grace, which she describes as “a mystery about a murder.” Brilliantly realized, intellectually provocative and maddeningly suspenseful, it has already been hailed as a work that confirms Atwood as “the outstanding novelist of our age.” That accolade, from the London Sunday Times, puts more gloss on Atwood’s already-brilliant reputation. Her 41 novels, poetry books, children’s tales, works of literary criticism and anthologies—published in 22 languages—have won trunkfuls of international awards and honorary degrees. According to her assistant Sarah Cooper, Atwood generates so much material— manuscripts, reviews, speeches—that it is archived annually, with the documents going to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the
University of Toronto. Then there are the 14 books of criticism written about her work, with the first full-length biography due out in 1997 from McGill University academic Nathalie Cooke. The Atwood Web site on the Internet also does a brisk business, offering information about the author and her works—an attempt to keep up with the steady stream of letters and queries that flow into 0. W. Toad Ltd., the anagrammatic name under which Atwood has incorporated herself.
The 56-year-old author seems remarkably serene even in the midst of that hubbub—and at the outset of a seven-month tour on four continents. Arriving for an interview last week at Mackenzie House in Toronto, once the home of 1837 Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie (who figures in the background of Alias Grace), Atwood is playful with the photographer. She hams it up, kibitzing and striking silly poses—
but only while he is adjusting the camera and cannot catch her. “This is a lot more fun than being interviewed,” she says.
Given how she has been portrayed over the years, Atwood’s wariness of journalists seems understandable. She has often been depicted as a medusa, a hostile, man-hating, angst-ridden writer who invents characters “so prone to suffering, you wonder how their creator can get up in the mornings,” as one British critic recently put it. Atwood believes that image can be at least partly explained by her career coinciding with the rise of feminism—and the ensuing backlash. “For a long time, Alice [Munro] got the ‘just a housewife’ label,” Atwood says of her fellow Canadian writer. “So you’re that, or you’re a 10-ton menace with snakes in your hair. Either way, it’s a way of not taking you seriously as a writer.”
Then there is the Canadian tendency to undermine its successful artists. Some journalists, she says, “come with that so-Canadian thing, ‘Oh, who does she think she is? I’m going to poke her with a sharp stick.’ And then they feel quite bright” Nonetheless, despite the evident irritation she still harbors, Atwood seems almost sanguine, even as she skewers the press. “I’ve been through several incarnations,” she says in her unmistakable nasal deadpan. “You’d be surprised at how Madonna-like I became as soon as I had an infant [her daughter, Jess, now 20]. That lasted for about four years. I practically had a halo. Alas, it is no longer with me. Pretty soon I’ll be old and wrinkly and safe.”
A brilliant new historical novel confirms her status at the top of her craft
But on the evidence of Alias Grace, Atwood’s virtuosity and vigor are only increasing with age. The novel is the author’s triumphant first foray into historical fiction—in a year when two other noteworthy authors, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Katherine Govier, have also successfully mined the past (page 46). Alias Grace is the brightest light of a particularly strong Canadian fall publishing list (page 48). But it also seems destined to become her greatest international success, more popular than The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988) or The Robber Bride (1993). Alias Grace has made the preliminary list of contenders for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for fiction (as did another Canadian work, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance).
An advance review in Booklist, the influential American Library Association periodical, calls Alias Grace “a stupendous performance . . . bound to win Atwood even greater acclaim.” Greg Gatenby, artistic director of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, says that after reading the book, he sent Atwood—who happens to be a personal friend—a fan letter. “I was so moved that I wanted her to know, in writing, just how impressed I was.” Gatenby, now travelling in Scandinavia to prepare a Nordic authors festival, says that everywhere he goes in the region, “people speak of Atwood as the obvious writer from Canada to win the Nobel. Most people in the book trade here consider her a likely winner in due course.”
In the meantime, publishers are pulling out all the stops for Alias Grace. The promotional wheels have been gearing up for months in the United States towards the book’s December launch. Alias Grace is a U.S. Book-of-theMonth Club main selection—a first for the author. And Doubleday, Atwood’s U.S. publisher, will initially print 175,000 to 200,000 hardcover copies, a phenomenally large number for “serious” fiction. As well, 25,000 copies of an Alias Grace “Reader’s Companion” are in the pipeline, and last month, Doubleday shot a promotional video for the U.S. market, featuring Atwood reading from the novel and explaining how she researched her book. Says Doubleday’s Nan Tálese, who has been Atwood’s American editor for 20 years: “We’re very confident with this book, and you only have to look at superb advance reviews to know why.” Atwood’s British publisher, Bloomsbury, is going into its third printing to satisfy advance orders from booksellers.
In Canada, McClelland & Stewart does not release information about print runs, but several previous Atwood titles have sold 50,000 hardcover copies. Next month—after returning from British and German launches of her book, and before doing promotion in the United States—Atwood will embark on a 17-city domestic tour. Canadian celebration of the new book will culminate in a gala tribute to Atwood in Toronto on Nov. 2, part of the annual International Festival of Authors at the city’s Harbourfront Centre.
But does that qualify her as a “literary icon”? During an appearance on Pamela Wallin Live last week, Atwood rejected that description, noting that the really heavy hitters in the celebrity game are “rock stars, Elizabeth Taylor.” And she is right about the degree of her fame. After all, it is still possible for her to live fairly anonymously in downtown Toronto with her partner of 23 years, writer Graeme Gibson. She is strict about maintaining the privacy of her daughter, now away at university, and her stepsons, Matthew and Graeme, who are both in their early 30s. When she eats out at a few local restaurants, people sometimes interrupt her meal, but most just turn their heads for a second look—and pretend not to. And she makes frequent public appearances on behalf of various writer-related causes. (She has a strong record of activism in The Writers Union of Canada,
Amnesty International and the Canadian chapter of PEN, which helps free imprisoned writers. “I should never have been a Brownie in childhood,” Atwood says drolly. “I was told to go out and sell those cookies. It was a good cause, but it ruined me for life.”)
Atwood thinks the insatiable curiosity that some readers have about authors is misguided. She gently parodies their questions in an introduction that she has written for an upcoming Paris Review issue devoted to women writers: ‘What road did you travel on, and whom did you meet on the way, and who helped you across the river where the water was deepest? Do you have to suffer to be an artist, and if so, how much, and what kind of suffering would you recommend? Should you use—do you use—a pencil or a pen or your finger dipped in blood? Are there any special foods? What kind of chair?” But those
questions are beside the point, she maintains, the answers to them unrevealing. “Why ruin the memory of a night of magic by sneaking a look backstage, where the magician is wiping off the grimy makeup and the rabbits are born in hutches, instead of, miraculously, out of silk hats?”
The latest rabbit to emerge from Atwood’s hat, Alias Grace, transports the reader to 1840s Canada quicker than you can say virtual reality. Dense with layers of detail, it illuminates everything from the New World class system and the charnel-house conditions of asylums to
how women of little means acquired a wardrobe in bygone days. But it is the voice of Grace—maid, talented seamstress and prison inmate for almost 20 years—that compels. Grace insists that she is innocent and has no recollection of the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, for which McDermott, her co-accused, was hanged, and for which she is serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary.
Wry, observant and plainspoken, Grace is both the narrator and the lens through which Victorian hypocrisies are mercilessly exposed as she gradually unravels the story of her life to Dr. Simon Jordan. Jordan, a well-intentioned American doctor with a passionate interest in the emerging field of psychiatry, has been hired by a group of reformers who believe in Grace’s innocence to help obtain her release. But in a clever twist of storytelling, it is Jordan’s unconscious that gets stirred up as he becomes entangled in an unsavory sexual affair.
As Jordan and Grace sit in the prison governor’s house, where she performs day labor as a seamstress and cook’s helper, she relates a mesmerizing narrative tracing her impoverished childhood in Ireland, the physical horrors of her family’s ill-fated crossing to Upper Canada, and her life of domestic servitude from the age of 12. There is a wealth of fascinating detail about contemporary life and customs—at one point, Grace discovers that real ladies are never supposed to sit on a chair just vacated by a gentleman. (“Because, you silly goose, it’s still warm from their bums,” another maid had explained to her in exasperation.)
A voice from the past
Margaret Atwood tells much of Alias Grace in the voice of its protagonist, Grace Marks, a young domestic worker from Ireland incarcerated in Kingston Penitentiary in the 1850s for the murder of her employer and his mistress.
Grace spends part of her time helping out in the prison governor’s home. An excerpt:
he governor’s wife cuts these crimes out of the newspapers and pastes them in; she will even write away for old newspapers with crimes that were done before her time. It is her collection, she is a lady and they are all collecting things these days, and so she must collect something, and she does this instead of pulling up ferns or pressing flowers, and in any case she likes to horrify her acquaintances.
So I have read what they put in about me. She showed the scrapbook to me herself, I suppose she wanted to see what I would do; but I’ve learnt how to keep my face still, I made my eyes wide and flat, like an owl’s in torchlight, and I said I had repented in bitter tears, and was now a changed person, and would she wish me to remove the tea things now; but I’ve looked in there since,
many times, when I’ve been in the parlor by myself.
A lot of it is lies. They said in the newspaper that I was it literate, but I could read some even then. I was taught early by my mother, before she got too tired for it, and I did my sampler with leftover thread, A is for Apple, B is for Bee; and also Mary Whitney used to read with me, at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s, when we were doing the mending; and Fve learnt a lot more since being here, as they teach you on purpose. They wantyou to be able to read the Bible, and also tracts, as religion and thrashing aíre the only remedies for a depraved nature and our immortal souls must be considered. It is shocking how many crimes the Bible contains. The governor’s wife should cut them all out and paste them into her scrapbook.
They did say some true things. They said I had a good character; and that was so, because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried. But 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, its 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.
Reprinted with permission from Alias Grace, copyright Margaret Atwood, published by McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto.
Atwood sustains the mystery about Grace’s culpability to the end. Was she the sly temptress who promised sexual favors to McDermott if he would kill Montgomery, the housekeeper with whom she competed for the affections of Kinnear? Or was she an innocent girl whose unfortunate life culminated in a violent episode of which she has no memory? Atwood has threaded her tale with ambiguity, rich metaphor and startling images.
Just as the fictional Grace will haunt readers long afterward, the real Grace Marks has dwelled in Atwood’s imagination for decades. She first encountered the historical figure in Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings (1853), an immigrant Englishwoman’s chronicle of Upper Canada society. Moodie describes her visits to Kingston Penitentiary and to the new Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where Marks spent a brief period. Her account of seeing the notorious woman at both establishments planted a seed. In 1974, Atwood wrote a CBC television play called The Servant Girl based on the events. Then 20 years later, while Atwood was in a Zurich hotel room looking out the window, the author had a vision of Grace in the prison yard. “I sat down and wrote the opening scene [of the novel] on the hotel stationery,” Atwood recalls.
More than two years of diligent research and writing followed the initial burst. Atwood—who had the help of two researchers, one of whom was her younger sister, Ruth—discovered that Moodie’s tale was inaccurate in many respects. Historical documentation was sometimes incomplete: handwritten prison logs and medical records were often illegible, and newspaper accounts were wildly contradictory. Meanwhile, far from being influenced by the modern-day Homolka-Bernardo crime, Atwood says that she deliberately avoided it, instead burying herself “in the papers of 1843, seeing how that crime was being played out in the press.”
The notion of Margaret Atwood writing a historical true-crime work at first seems surprising. Her eight previous novels, which
Alias Grace is at the centre of a dizzying international hubbub
have steadily propelled her to ever greater heights of literary and commercial success, have been notable for their deft illumination of contemporary women’s lives. From the mordantly funny tale of a young woman rebelling against the conventional marriage set out for her in The Edible Woman (1969) to the urban fable of a femme fatale wreaking havoc on three female friends in The Robber Bride, Atwood has probed the modern female psyche with irony, insight and a double-sided vision that does not easily lend itself to labels. Even the futuristic setting of The Handmaid’s Tale, a cautionary story of religious totalitarianism, contained recognizable elements of the present in its exploration of state control of women’s bodies.
Yet as different in tone and setting as it is, Grace is remarkably consistent with the ideas Atwood has explored in her other works. Her novels have often been biting satires of the shifting notions of women’s moral nature. And she has dissected, in alternately harrowing and hilarious detail, the exercise of power between men and women, and among women themselves.
Still, her editors—McClelland & Stewart’s Ellen Seligman, Bloomsbury’s Liz Calder and Doubleday’s Tálese—expressed initial surprise at the path to which Atwood’s muse had led her. They had had no inkling because the author is protective about her writing: the first person to see a new work is her Los Angeles-based agent, Phoebe Larmore. Once Larmore had looked at Alias Grace, she joined British agent Vivienne Schuster, Calder, Tálese and Seligman in Toronto to read and analyze the new work. “It’s fun, it’s a bit like a pyjama party,” said Larmore, who explains that for Atwood’s last three books, the out-of-towners have checked into the Park Plaza Hotel for several days to read, discuss and analyze the manuscript in meetings and over dinners. The arrangement is unusual—not least because it brings together so many high-powered publishing executives to pay exclusive attention to one novel. But Larmore’s strategy was to have a unified voice providing feedback to Atwood, who joins the group afterward.
Nine months later, Atwood was receiving plenty of positive feedback at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, 60 km west of Toronto, where she did her first public reading from Grace, the day after the book’s Canadian launch on Sept. 7. The audience—middle-aged
matrons, young men with shaved heads and pierced eyebrows, gentlemen in cardigans—chuckled, fell silent and clapped. In the lineup later for autographs, one 50ish woman told Atwood that her books had had an influence on her now-grown children. The author looked slightly surprised. “No, really,” the woman insisted. “They changed their thinking about some things after reading you. And they’re aware of their Canadian-ness in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t have been.”
A publicist’s dream had just walked up and uttered an almost perfect sound bite to promote a Canadian author. But the TV cameras had been shut off, and barely anyone heard. Atwood smiled and signed, murmuring her thanks. Most likely, she will hear variations on that comment as her tour swings into high gear. There will be more questions about where she finds her ideas, how much her material reflects events in her own life. But Atwood will not tell. Like Grace Marks, she knows how to keep her secrets secret. □