It's pretty well known that the new Netflix series Alias Grace is based on Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name (the second televised Atwood adaptation this year). But where did the inspiration behind Atwood's original novel come from? Is Grace Marks from Alias Grace a real person? Though the plot of the story is fictionalized, it is based on a real life maybe-murderess.
Atwood's novels are all brilliant insights into the internal lives of various women, which is of particular fascination in Alias Grace. The main character in the book is the young Irish immigrant Grace Marks who was indeed a real person. The real Grace Marks immigrated to Canada as a young girl and was working as a maid in a rich man's house. At age 16 she was convicted of murdering her boss, Thomas Kinnear, as well as his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. She was tried alongside her fellow servant, James McDermott.
But while McDermott hanged for the crime, Marks was granted mercy due to her age and gender. Instead, she was sentenced to life in prison. However, after 30 years her sentence was commuted. It is still unclear why this is, and goes to the very heart of the question of Atwood's novel. Was Marks actually innocent or guilty?
The details of the real Grace Marks' life are a little unclear, and much of Atwood's book is invention. It is known that she was born in Ireland and immigrated to Canada at age 12 alongside her siblings, abusive alcoholic father, and mother, who unfortunately died on the voyage. Perhaps this early trauma led to a mental disorder that inspired her to commit the murders. Perhaps she was an innocent victim all along. No one knows for sure. But because of her youth and attractiveness, the trial garnered huge attention in the press at the time, while theories about the crimes abounded, each a little weirder and a little wilder than the last. My personal favorite theory is that she was possessed by the evil spirit of her dead friend Mary Whitney.
Atwood was reportedly inspired to write the novel after reading the 1853 book Life in the Clearing by Susanna Moodie, which includes a chapter in which the author visits the real Grace Marks in the asylum. Though many of the details in this account were later questioned, it was enough to pique Atwood's interest and inspire her to write Alias Grace. Atwood tried to stick as close to the known facts of the case as she could, including Marks' stay at Kingston Penitentiary. Though the story was based on a real person, it is definitely a work of fiction. For example, the character Dr. Simon Jordan, who interviews Grace, is not based on a real person at all, but provides an interesting foil for the enigmatic and unreliable Grace herself.
But the real Grace Marks was not the only inspiration for the character in the story. Atwood was reportedly also interested in Karla Homolka. At the time that Atwood was writing Alias Grace, the public was fascinated with the trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, known as the Ken and Barbie killers for their good looks, convicted of torturing and murdering several young girls. Atwood was struck by how people seemed overwhelmingly convinced of the man's guilt, but torn between whether the woman was the evil demon mastermind behind it all or an unwitting pawn in the crimes. This is how the public viewed Grace Marks, and the essential question that Atwood raises in her book.
The world will never really know if Grace Marks was truly evil or if she was someone else's pawn. But it is a fascinating question nonetheless.
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