Alias Grace retells the tale of a convicted nineteenth-century Canadian murderess and cause célèbre, Grace Marks, who probably killed both her employer Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his lover and housekeeper, with the aid of her own lover, James McDermott. Grace was a poor Irish immigrant, and she could have been cajoled, tricked or seduced into taking part in the murders, or perhaps they were her idea in the first place. As a woman, she was sent to prison, while McDermott was condemned to death. The difficulties of fixing the truth at the time, and then in history, is as much the subject here as Grace Marks’s crimes. Unravelling what might have happened exposes a wealth of Victorian obsessions about women’s innocence, sexuality, and spiritualism. The case of Grace Marks fascinated Susanna Moodie, pioneer, diarist and prison visitor, as it has Atwood since. First Moodie, Atwood and then the reader piece together newspaper reports, ballads and testimonies to try and determine exactly what did happen and how guilty Grace actually was. In Atwood’s novel we match the documentary evidence and response against Grace Marks’s own tale, but still get no nearer to any final truth and, as Atwood frequently reminds us, those who tell stories cannot be trusted.
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