Elizabeth Buchan has a double degree in English and History. After a career in publishing, she decided to leave to do what she really wished to do - write. Her novels include the prizewinning Consider the Lily, Light of the Moon, Perfect Love and That Certain Age. A New York Times bestseller, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, has sold all over the world and been made into a CBS Primetime Drama. Elizabeth's latest novel is Separate Beds. Below she discusses Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.
Elizabeth Buchan on Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
'I am certain of nothing,' wrote Keats, 'but... the truth of the imagination.'
Two things emerge from this crowded, intense novel, a fictional reconstruction of the life of a servant girl who was convicted for murder at the age of sixteen. First, the belief that the imagination maps a richer landscape than an array of facts. Second, the truth about any one thing is elusive, never certain and, perhaps, not important. 'When you're in the middle of a story,' Grace warns the reader, 'it isn't a story at all only confusion. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story'. Much as Grace creates patterns out of scraps to sew her quilts and the prison governor's wife pastes pictures of famous criminals into her scrapbook to be pored over by ladies in her plush-encrusted parlour, so the historian and the novelist arrange fragments to create their pictures.
One of the notorious figures of her day, the young and extremely pretty Grace Marks was accused alongside James McDermott of the sensational Montgomery-Kinnear murders in Canada in 1843. After the trial, McDermott was hanged for the murder of Kinnear (their employer) but Grace spent 30 years in prison from where she continued to arouse controversy.
Was she guilty of the killings – which were vicious? Or was she a terrified ingénue in thrall to the violent bully McDermott? To those who took the view that women were either devils or incipient hysterics her guilt was incontrovertible. For others, it was less clear cut.
Taking into account contemporary attitudes and the available facts, the historian studying the case might arrive at one verdict. As the author, Margaret Attwood pushes further. Assembling a fascinating array of domestic and social detail (from which she extracts sharp comedy and ironies), and incorporating poetry and newspaper extracts, she allows Grace to speak for herself.
Narrating her story to Dr Simon Jordon who is studying the nervous diseases of criminals, Grace thus constructs her autobiography – and the word 'constructs' is to be noted. Cool, occasionally acerbic, at times wrenchingly innocent, she describes an Irish childhood, a drunken father, emigration to Canada, her work as a servant and her friendship with Mary Whitney who dies of a botched abortion and whose name she uses when on the run.
How much has Grace chosen to tell us? How reliable is she? In one sense, she is absolutely reliable. Her account, both lyrical and lurid, is germane to her position in the social order. Thus, we read about flounces on a dress, laundering, larder arrangements, patterned china, a great deal about the texture of objects and a spectrum of smells – the staples of an existence defined by drudgery and the constrictions of the servants' quarters. It is a below-the-stairs narrative and vision. (It is, perhaps, no accident that the butchered bodies are consigned to the cellar.) How murder is viewed in the context of this harsh and laborious existence, which has little room for nuance and philosophical niceties, is the question which predominates.
It is not a question of innocence or guilt, Dr Jordon finds himself concluding, merely what you choose to reveal or what can be remembered and, to reiterate a previous point, what the reader chooses to believe depends on their point of view. However, the author being Margaret Attwood, there is more than a dash of feminist politics discernible in her text, plus a passionate political and social identification. Alias Grace gives a voice to one of those who have, throughout history, been dispossessed and traditionally silent – and, in one sense, it is her gift to those who stood no chance in an unequal society. The novel may be a little awkward structurally but it doesn't matter. This is the work of a great novelist whose capacity to surprise, to challenge and to infuse her fictions with the surge and pulse of existence never fails her. Yes, the absolute truth about the murders may be elusive but Alias Grace gives us something better and deeper.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]