Alias Grace and the Present Past
November 6, 2017 § 3 Comments
On Friday, November 3, Netflix premiered Alias Grace, a six-part miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same title. The pairing of the acclaimed novelist and a major streaming service was bound to generate much interest, not least owing to Netflix’s rival Hulu’s hugely successful small-screen iteration of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year.
Some parallels between the two Atwood adaptations are clear, inevitable, and, one might say, even encouraged. Both Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale concern the plights and oppression of women under patriarchal structures, ideas that strike a particularly sensitive nerve in the wake of recent revelations of an entrenched culture of sexual abuse. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, despite this shared premise, diverge in crucial ways: most importantly, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian future ruled by an authoritarian government that strips women of their rights and forces them into sexual slavery, Alias Grace derives its stories of wronged women from actual historical record. One is speculative, the other historical, and this distinction in genre is rendered visually – for instance, the crimson red of the Handmaids’ gowns stands out amid the muted tones of gray in The Handmaid’s Tale to lend an almost unreal, parable-like quality, and the more subtle and varied color palette of Alias Grace brings to viewers’ minds the style of familiar historical drama pieces that carry the impression of being grounded in specific times and places.
Alias Grace seems to adhere to the facts, or the specific and even irrefutable details of “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “how” that pertain to the true crime case of the real-life figure of Grace Marks. Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada, was convicted alongside a fellow servant, stable-hand James McDermott, of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery, in 1843. McDermott was hanged and Marks sentenced to life imprisonment, later released. These bare facts, however, fall woefully short, as the show illustrates, when tasked to explain the “why” of the case, and account for the 1840s Canadian public’s horror-mingled fascination with this servant girl-turned-“celebrated murderess,” a more specific example of which can be found in the increasing obsession of Grace’s interlocutor, Atwood’s invention Dr. Simon Jordan, whose once-comfortable conviction in the truth-discovering powers of “scientific” methods slowly crumbles. In the end, even the ascertained “facts” mentioned above begin to unravel as viewers start questioning the validity of any single view or narrative. The breakdown in communication and the elusiveness of knowability are underscored by the multiple, never-quite-aligning story-driving threads: the conversations between Grace and Dr. Jordan, Grace’s perspective of the past as shown in flashbacks, and the fleeting emotions that ghost across Grace’s face, the expressions of which range from shy, naïve and innocent to cold, hard, and resentful, and which is at other times sly and coy, never to be pinned down with either surety or exactness.
In a curious and quite ingenious twist, I would say, as Alias Grace progresses, the “why” element emerges as the most constant and perhaps even knowable, if that can be said to be the right word. This is not to say that the show succeeds in spelling out in explicit terms the reasons for the double deaths of Kinnear and Montgomery. Instead, it shifts focus from the “celebrated murderess” to the society that christens her with this name, diffusing viewers’ attention from the gory and sensationalist details of the murder to the yet more grim realities of a world that would drive a young, poor, and helpless woman such as Grace Marks to her breaking point after a lifetime of tragedy, exclusion, and exploitation (the show is at pains to remind us at every turn that Grace has faced unrelenting oppression by virtue of her gender, race, class, nationality, religion, and even family circumstances). It is perhaps fitting that so many scenes take place in domestic spaces that unite the show’s concerns with class and gender, and more so that Grace and Dr. Jordan hold their regular interviews in the sewing room, with Grace engaged in quilting, or an extension of the housework or domestic drudgery to which she is constantly subjected. (It is, however, also worth mentioning here that Grace’s quilt-making carries subversive undertones, as a seemingly mundane household chore that can be imbued with creative vision and the joining together of various parts.) The sewing room, in turn, is part of the home of the Governor of the Kingston Penitentiary in which Grace is employed following her pardon from imprisonment in the facility for her “exemplary” conduct. Throughout the show, Grace trudges from one domestic space to another, and such spaces, as viewers observe, are further stratified according to class and gender, among others.
Set in Canada in the 1840s, Alias Grace offers a glimpse into the pervasiveness of Victorian values as they pertain to women and minority groups in remote settings such as Canada and their specific effects on a character such as Grace Marks. If Alias Grace is descriptive in its depiction of Canada of the 1840s and the wider, far-reaching influences of Victorian values outside England, especially as they pertain to women and minority groups, it is also prescriptive in the sense that it serves as a harrowing reminder of the persistent or lingering presence of the past in the present and the possible directions in which such presences could lead us in the not-so-distant future. In other words, works such as Alias Grace reinvent our memories of the past to weaken or collapse notions of their safe and secure distance from the present or even a dystopian future. To return to matters of genre, the historical and the speculative might perhaps not be so distinct after all.