Grace Marks, the famed Canadian murderess, was convicted of the notorious double murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery, alongside stable hand James McDermott in Toronto in 1843. She was just 16.
Although Marks really existed, nobody knows the rest of her story. Following the crime, she was sentenced to death in 1843 but was then commuted to life in prison. She was eventually pardoned in 1872, and all trace of her is lost.
Her conviction sparked debate about whether she was the actual murderer or merely an unwitting accessory of McDermott. Marks’ interesting and confusing story became plotlines of books, TV series and even a stage play.
Margaret Atwood’s historical fiction novel, “Alias Grace”, is considered one of the most significant depiction of Marks.
“Alias Grace” sharply focuses on gender politics and classism. More specifically, Atwood wanted to explore the differences in how society views male and female murderers. Atwood’s novel was turned into a Canadian television miniseries directed by Mary Harron and written by Sarah Polley. It appread on Netflix in November 2017.
One of the biggest reasons why I loved this mini-series so much had to do with how thoroughly it explored different perspectives and questions from every angle from the first episode to the last one.
In true Margret Atwood juxtapose-style of writing, the six-episode adaptation of her 1996 novel “Alias Grace” on Netflix opens with… “I think of all the things that have been written about me. That I am an inhuman female demon; that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard, forced against my will and in danger of my own life.”
Grace (played by Sarah Gadon) studies herself in the mirror, tilting her head to one side and then to the other as she lists her given characteristics all with an uncanny bambie doe-eyed look towards the camera.
“That I was too ignorant to know how to act, and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am of sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all these different things at once?”
The past and the present interweave throughout the series by utilising letters, flashbacks and snippets from real reports of the trial which are presented to the viewers. We are soon introduced to a new age doctor, Simon Jordan (played by Edward Holcroft).
Dr. Jordan is from Massachusetts, and is seen as an unconventional doctor who embraces practices that are considered unorthodox at the time. He deals with illnesses of the mind, and unlike most doctors of his kind, he uses a method that relies on attaching certain memories to certain everyday objects. Dr. Jordan is given the task of helping Grace remember the day of the murder by some spiritualists and reformists who believe in Grace’s innocence.
Grace sews her way through each of her meetings with the doctor, stitching together ladies’ dresses and prisoners’ nightgowns as she pulls together her patchwork tales of her past, constantly making the viewer question just how much control Grace has over how her story is presented.
Grace’s family immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1840 when she was 12. Following her mother’s death during the ship crossing, Grace and her siblings were left in the care of their abusive father before she later found work as a maid.
Her time working as a maid in other people’s homes is met with more abuses and perplexity. She is conditioned to understand that women are to be punished in life in what she comes to call Eve’s curse – from the first drop of her own blood during her first period to the trial of blood from all the other women in her life, which may or may not have led her to commit murderous acts.
“Alias Grace” gives viewers a chance to decide for themselves whether this “celebrated murderess” is guilty or not. As viewers, we are also asked to question the nature of truth itself: what constitutes “proof” and how is it verified, given the intrinsic limitations of all facts and the biases of all perspectives, to say nothing of distortions introduced by the impulses of memory? There is one scene where Grace herself says that just because someone committed the murderous act does not mean they are guilty.
There are three possibilities. One is that Grace is a scheming sociopath, probably as a result of the years-long abuse and neglect she has experienced her whole life. Grace tells herself how easy it is to lead Jaime (a young farm boy she worked with in Thomas Kinnear’s home) and Dr. Jordan.
Second is the possibility that she has developed a kind of split personality, again as a coping mechanism for all of the abuses, horrors and loss she has experienced. This happens as a result of her best friend dying from a botched abortion attempt. The morning after discovering her deceased body, Grace passes out and believes Mary’s (played by Rebecca Liddiard) soul has gone into her.
Mary’s death plays a role in how she judges and views Nancy Montgomery (played by Anna Paquin) – one of the murder victims in the series.
Third, Grace Marks is completely innocent and has been a constant victim throughout her life of the schemes and machinations of those around her, especially the men. She is victimised by her own father, resulting in the death of her mother. She is victimised by male suitors who cannot see a person but a body. Then there is the victimisation that takes place after justice is served by the patriarchal state, sentencing her and giving more men to claim rights over her body.
This is the kind of storytelling that keeps you coming back for more. To see how you would view or react to Grace Marks’ story, binge-watch “Alias Grace”. Fair warning, though, expect each person you watch the miniseries with to have different takes on the lead character’s guilt or innocence.