Thursday, November 2, 2017

Alias Grace: My take on the Margaret Atwood classic

Grace Marks is a fascinating real life woman from Canada’s history. As the publisher describes the story:
Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes readers into the life of one of the most notorious women of the nineteenth century. 
It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders. 
An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? 
Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases bestselling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.
I  was equally fascinated because Grace (via Margaret Atwood’s pen) is a wonderful storyteller, capturing our hearts right out of the gate as we hear her tales of her impoverished childhood, how she emigrated with her family to Canada and went into service. Like the ladies and gentlemen who get a thrill being in the same room as Grace the murderer/murderess, it is a vicarious thrill to read her story from the safety of my reading chair.



The story is ostensibly about the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Dr. Jordan is the handsome expert on mental illness who tries to get to the truth of the matter by letting Grace, one of the world’s most unreliable narrators—who supposedly has blocked the actual murder from her mind—tell him her story. The real story, as it was with The Handmaid’s Tale, is women’s struggle to have an equal voice in a man’s world.


What interested me about the novel was seeing how Atwood she took all the narratives she discovered in her research and wove them together giving us a portrait, not of a lady, and not of a murderess, but of an ordinary woman, the downstairs behind the upstairs, the lowbrow that props up the highbrow. I was especially interested in Grace’s commentary on society, from the value it places on things, to the way women are and have always been treated as commodities, especially women from the ‘lower classes’ fighting for a place in a world completely dominated by men. To illustrate, take a look at a few quotes from the novel. I’ve paired them with images from the Netflix series. You’ll notice Atwood herself makes an appearance in the film, playing the role of Disapproving Woman.





 Grace on womens’ crinolines:
I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen’s trousers. The Governor’s wife never says legs although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.’


Grace on being a ‘paramour’: 
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, it’s 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 if they want the answer to be no or yes.’


Author Margaret Atwood as 'Disapproving Woman'

Grace on ‘farting’:
People dressed in a certain kind of clothing are never wrong. Also they never fart. What Mary Whitney used to say was, If there’s farting in a room where they are, you may be sure you done it yourself. And even if you never did, you better not say so or it’s all Damn your insolence, and a boot in the backside and out on the street with you.’ 

Grace on being in service:
and once you are found with a man in your room you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in. As Mary used to say, there are some of the masters who think you owe them service twenty-four hours a day, and should do the main work flat on your back.’ 



Grace on white male entitlement:

‘You will forgive me, says Dr. Jordan. Of what did those duties consist?
I look at him. He is wearing a yellow cravat with small white squares. He is not making a joke. He really does not know. Men such as him do not have to clean up the messes they make, but we have to clean up our own messes, and theirs into the bargain. In that way they are like children, they do not have to think ahead, or worry about the consequences of what they do. But it is not their fault, it is only how they are brought up.’

Those are just a few of the ideas Atwood talks about, ideas as relevant today in the era of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump as they were in the 1800’s. Which is to say it feels fresh, feminist and timely. 

I’m excited to watch the series on Netflix, to see what they’ve done with Atwood’s book. I haven’t decided whether to binge and devour or savor it slowly, like a cultured lady. I’ll have to see where my passion takes me.

Alias Grace was scripted by Sarah Polley—who has wanted to adapt the book since she first read it at age 17—directed by Mary Herron and stars Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks, Edward Holcroft as Dr. Simon Jordan, Rebecca Liddiard as Grace’s beloved friend Mary Whitney, Anna Pacquin as murder victim, housekeeper Nancy Montgomery and Kerr Logan as Grace’s employer and murder victim James McDermott. Zachary Levi is the peddler who later in life becomes a showman. 

Have you read the book? Will you be watching the series?

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