Serial and Making a Murderer aren't part of a trend: true crime has been popular for a long time. People in the 19th century were just as fascinated by horrible crimes as people are today. One such crime took place in the 1800s, when a teenage girl was sentenced to life in prison for murdering her employer and his mistress. This is the plot of Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace, and the long awaited Netflix adaptation of the same name. One of the victims in the series is Nancy Montgomery. But is Nancy Montgomery from Alias Grace a real person? Other characters are based on real-life figures and this woman is no exception.
The titular Grace refers to Grace Marks, a woman who immigrated to Canada from Ireland back in 1840. She worked for a wealthy farmer named Thomas Kinnear. Both Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery (who was his housekeeper and pregnant mistress), were found tragically murdered shortly thereafter. Both Marks and fellow servant James McDermott were convicted of the killings. While Marks was sentenced to life in prison, McDermott was hanged for the crime. Despite their conviction, the extent of Marks' role in the crime is still murky at best — and its doubtful everything that truly occurred will be somehow uncovered.
This is partly what makes Grace Marks so fascinating and memorable: the mystery. Not only that, but the circumstances made it more tantalizing than most murders (aka, the fact that Marks was a beautiful young woman). As Atwood herself wrote in the afterward for Alias Grace:
The details were sensational: Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young; Kinnear's housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear's mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant.
As if Kinnear impregnating his housekeeper wasn't sensational enough, Marks and McDermott potentially had a relationship of their own. Atwood continued, "Grace and her fellow servant James McDermott had run away to the United States together and were assumed by the press to be lovers. The combination of sex, violence and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes was most attractive to the journalists of the day."
While Marks was sentenced to life, she was released from Kingston Penitentiary after serving 30 years. Afterwards, Marks said she had no recollection of the murder, which caused people to question her involvement: was she the mastermind behind the murders, or was she being manipulated by McDermott? Was she even involved at all and truly didn't know anything, or was she faking her ignorance?
Unfortunately, viewers will never know — but what is known is that the two people murdered were Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. So yes, Nancy Montgomery was indeed a real person. In the series, she's portrayed by Anna Paquin; I primarily remember Paquin as Sookie from True Blood, so she's going a completely different direction in this role. However, the series Alias Grace focuses mostly on Marks, and the ambiguity of her involvement. An early adopter of psychiatry attempts to help Marks remember what really happened; he also tries to find out if Marks is "insane," or was at the time of the killings — which could result in a pardon.
Marks elusiveness pervades the series, but some things are certain: Kinnear and Montgomery actually died in real life. From there, the series delves into historical fiction. Regardless of whether some of the events of Alias Grace really occurred or not, it seems to be a story worthy of praise like The Handmaid's Tale. I'll be watching to see if the fictional Marks reveals her truth.
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