Mia presents another Book You Must Read: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, great lady of literature and active Twitter user.
There is a little verse I remember from a child:
Needles and pins, needles and pins,
When a man marries his trouble begins.
It doesn’t say when a woman’s trouble begins.
With a line like that, how could I not love this book? Alias Grace was my first Margaret Atwood – and by that, I mean that I just finished it, after years of hearing my mother intermittently recommend it. By the time I reached the second chapter, which opens with an excerpt from the Kingston Penitentiary’s 1843 “Punishment Book,” I was decidedly Team Atwood. (Highlights: the “offence” of “laughing and talking” is punished with “6 lashes; cat-‘o-none-tails” – educational and upsetting!)
Alias Grace is Atwood’s 1996 fictionalized account of the life of Grace Marks, an Irishwoman who was convicted of murdering a fellow housekeeper and their master in 1840s Canada. Grace was sentenced to life in prison, while another convicted (male) servant, James McDermott was hanged for the crime. Atwood reconstructs the story of the murder – and the events leading up to it – from the perspective of Grace, who is, at this point, a mild-mannered, hard-working inmate, whose sewing skills and salacious back story fascinate the governor’s wife and her upper-crust friends:
The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised, because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musty and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.
Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.
Grace’s guilt is, however, a matter of debate. Some say she assisted McDermott with the murders because she was his lover. Others say she killed the other housekeeper because the housekeeper was carrying on an affair with their boss, and Grace was in love with him too. Others maintain that she was merely an accessory to the crimes. And of course, she was beautiful. And she was briefly placed in an insane asylum during her imprisonment. Grace is definite tabloid fodder.
But Atwood, bless her, manages to make Grace’s life, for all of its intrigue and misery, sound so dull. Which isn’t a bad thing. Grace’s accounts of hanging the laundry out to dry or her explanations of the different kinds of quilt patterns are almost hypnotizing and remind us that, yes, even women’s work was complicated, measured, logical. How often do we read great histories that involve a passage about who scrubbed the floors? Or a murder scene in which someone thinks to make the bed and empty the chamber pot afterward?
It’s Atwood’s treatment of the home – that womanly sphere – as significant that struck me. For women like Grace, the issue of who scrubbed the floor was the drama of life. Grace’s entire existence – her very livelihood – revolved around the home. The fact that such a marginalized person – an uneducated, poor female immigrant who was deemed insane – is allowed to tell her story so thoughtfully and completely is pretty amazing.
As Atwood noted in an interview with Salon about the novel, “traditionally, and certainly in the 19th century, women were thought of as being mysterious and unfathomable.” I daresay that sentiment still exists to a degree, and that’s exactly why books like Alias Grace – that give voice to women whose stories are rarely told – are so surprising and so powerful.