"What does the past tell us? In and of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word, and, even so, listening means telling, and then retelling." --Margaret Atwood
I love Margaret Atwood. In the mid-90's, I read quite a few of her works--Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Lady Oracle, The Handmaiden's Tale.
So it was with a trembling sense of joyous anticipation that I picked up Alias Grace (1997).
I was not disappointed. This novel is now officially My Favorite Margaret Atwood Novel of All Time.
Alias Grace is a novel based on one of the most sensationalized crimes in Canadian history. In July of 1843, two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, murdered their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery.
Nancy Montgomery was also Kinnear's mistress. McDermott ultimately claimed that Marks was in love with her employer and jealous of Nancy Montgomery. He claimed that Grace Marks helped him strangle the housekeeper.
At trial, McDermott claimed that the murders were Grace Marks' idea, and that she put him up to it. Marks, who was only 16 at the time of her conviction, claimed she had no memory of committing the murders, that she knew McDermott had killed Kinnear but didn't know that he had also killed Montgomery, and that she played no part in the deaths of either of the two victims.
She claimed that she had been kidnapped by McDermott, and that she feared for her life. According to Marks, this was why she helped McDermott ransack the Kinnear household and fled with him to the United States, where they were arrested.
She denied that she and McDermott were lovers.
Marks and McDermott were found guilty of the murder of Thomas Kinnear and sentenced to death. As a result, they were never tried for the murder of Nancy Montgomery.
James McDermott was hanged in November of 1843. Ultimately, Grace Marks' sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1872, she was pardoned, released from prison, and relocated to upstate New York.
There is no record of her after 1872.
Atwood uses the motif of quilt blocks and quilting to organize her narrative. Needless to say, I LOVED this technique.
Quilts are made by stitching together patterned squares of fabric: each block has a particular design which is named after what it is meant to symbolize.
For example, here is the quilt block for a pattern called "Broken Dishes":
Quilt blocks are typically a simple combination of squares and triangles, in patterns of light and dark. Here is another quilt block pattern, called "Puss in the Corner":
Taken individually, the combination of shapes doesn't seem all that different. Taken as a whole, however, the patterns appear quite different. Here is an entire quilt using the "Broken Dishes" pattern:
This is an example of a quilt made using the "Puss in the Corner" pattern:
As you can see, the overall pattern belies the simplicity of each individual square. Quilts patterns are always double: they look one way if you focus on the light colors, and another way, if you focus on the dark colors.
Quilters not only choose their own colors: in the 19th century, quilts would often be made from scraps of worn-out clothes. So what might simply appear to be a beautiful bedcover would literally be embedded with scraps of the quilter's past--memories associated with clothing worn in another place and at another time.
Quilts were also hand-stiched. The stitching itself testified to the skill and artistry of the quilter, a detail that the general public might not notice but that an experienced quilter would.
Atwood uses this motif to reflect on the narrative complexities inherent in any retelling of Grace Marks' story. While she sticks to the available facts, her novel is nevertheless shaped by the many sensationalized newspaper accounts of the crime (most of which were riddled with inaccuracies and improbabilities) and by the accounts of witnesses who saw Grace in the hours after the murders and said she seemed quite cheerful.
They said that Grace Marks was wearing Nancy Montgomery's clothes.
Atwood's account is also shaped by McDermott's claims and by the various (contradictory) confessions given by Grace Marks herself. McDermott was known locally as an outright liar.
Grace Marks was young, she was Irish, she was a servant, and she was beautiful. Atwood contextualizes the seemingly simply (but ultimately inexplicable) story of the murders against a complex background of gender, social class, and politics.
To accomplish her purposes, Atwood creates the fictional character of Dr. Simon Jordan. A specialist in the newly emerging science of psychology and psychiatry--an "alienist"--Dr. Jordan arrives at the Kingston Penitentiary in 1859 to interview Grace Marks in order to determine whether she is sane or insane, innocent or guilty.
He's there to listen and sort out her story. He's there to arrive at the truth. He's been asked to interview Grace Marks and offer his professional opinion of the case, on the assumption that his judgment might go a long way towards determining whether she deserves to be pardoned.
In creating the fictional character of Dr. Jordan and then piecing the complex true-crime narrative of the Kinnear murders (and its equally complex social and political context) around the figures of the doctor and the prisoner (the novel is told alternately from the perspective of Grace Marks and Dr. Jordan), Atwood is able to reflect upon the position of both the writer and the reader with respect to narratives that purport to tell us the "truth" about events.
Is Grace guilty? Of what? Is she innocent? Is she lying, and if so, when, and why? Is she simply telling the story that the doctor wants to hear? Is she tailoring her story to her audience?
Or has she too fallen victim to the inaccuracies of newspaper accounts and public perception? Is she telling the story that she herself wants to hear and to believe--a story pieced together from her repeated reading of the stories of her own story?
In identifying Dr. Jordan with the figure of the writer who is also, by necessity, a reader and a listener, Atwood questions the interrelationship of listening, telling and retelling in our quest to understand the events of our personal and collective past.
Will we hear only what we want to hear? Or will we hear the truth?
Is there a difference, and if so, how will we know?