Alias Grace, a new Netflix drama based off a 1996 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, has everything you could want in a true crime story. There’s a grisly murder with motivations based in class, sexuality, and pent-up emotion. There’s a suspect who is as much of a mystery as the crime itself. Yet Alias Grace defies expectations for the true crime genre. You’ll get a good story, but not an easy solution.
Alias Grace is based around a real crime which took place in 1843, much of what you’ll see in the show is the product of Margaret Atwood’s imagination. Noticing the gaps in Marks’ sparse biography, Atwood "felt [she] was free to invent." Atwood's inventions — including two main characters — are what allow the character of Grace Marks to take on such fascinating dimensions.
actually happened to the real Grace Marks, and what aspects of the story originated in the novel Alias Grace.
That terrible crossing over to Canada? Yeah, that happened to Marks — and to many others.
Marks was born in Ireland, and was one of nine children. In 1840, Marks emigrated to Canada with her family, a time when the Great Famine compelled the Irish to cross the Atlantic in the hundreds of thousands. Ships to Canada were cheaper the ships to the United States, but had the nickname of
because so many passengers died aboard.
By the time she touched shore, Marks was essentially an orphan. Her mother died on the ship, as is depicted in the show. Her father was a violent alcoholic. The transition wasn’t easy, either — Irish people were treated like second-class citizens.
The grisly crime is at the center of Alias Grace is totally and completely real. In the year 1843, a wealthy Ottawa-based landowner, Thomas Kinnear, and his servant, Nancy Montgomery, were brutally murdered. The convicted culprits? Kinnear’s employees, 20-year-old James McDermott and 16-year-old Grace Marks. McDermott was sentenced to death. Marks, for her age and gender, was pardoned and sentenced to thirty years in prison, which she split between the Kingston Penitentiary and the Toronto Lunatic Asylum. In the show, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) interviews Marks in the penitentiary. She flashes back to her traumatic time at the asylum.
The trial was sensational and highly publicized.
This double murder transfixed the Canadian public, much in the same way the
Amanda Knox trial
captured contemporary America's attention. Theories proliferated about Grace Marks’
involvement in the murder. Was she innocent, and manipulated towards murder by her lover, McDermott? Did she suffer from dissociative personality disorder, and pressure McDermott to carry out the murders, as he claimed? Could she actually be possessed by her old friend Mary Whitney?
In the show, Grace describes the trial to Dr. Simon Jordan during their sessions. The elaborate pink bonnet she wears in the trial flashbacks resembles the illustration of Marks from their trial.
What’s the deal with Mary Whitney?
Mary Whitney, played by Rebecca Liddiard in the show, was Marks’ friend from the Alderman Parkinson household. She died following a botched abortion. During the trial, some people thought Marks was “possessed” by Whitney. Others thought that Whitney was actually alive, and impersonating Marks. What gave them that idea?
Marks assumed the name Mary Whitney
when escaping the scene of the crime with McDermott.
Throughout the show, you’ll be guessing as to whether Grace somehow incorporated Whitney’s personality into her own. In the essay “Under/Cover: Strategies of Detection and Evasion in Atwood’s
scholar Marilyn Rose
explains the plausibility of Grace’s split personality: “That the personality of Grace Marks should ‘split,’ absorbing the raw and vindicated anger of Mary Whitney and assigning ‘Mary’ the task of executing a crime in retaliation for the wrongs done to female servants in households such as the Kinnears’, makes some sense.”
Many of the supporting characters are creations, including Dr. Simon Jordan.
In the show, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) earnestly tries to apply his newfangled psychology skills to unravel the mystery that is Grace Marks. Instead, Grace unravels
Simon is entirely an Atwood creation.
guesses why Simon was included in the text. “[Atwood] makes mockery of a particular kind of detective in the figure of Simon Jordan, one who happens to be a positivist, a pioneering man of science — the science of inquiry into the human mind, a science with potential applications in the direction of mind control,” Rose writes.
Consequently, Grace’s elusiveness undercuts Simon’s rigid, rational mindset. She intentionally weaves stories to distract and tantalize Simon. She refused to be classified. Grace upends the detective narrative.
Jeremiah is also an Atwood creation. Jeremiah, played by Zachary Levi in the show, is the foil to Dr. Simon Jordan. He’s a performer, a hypnotist, a peddler — he has no expert trade, but he acts like he knows them all. As you’ll see in the show, there’s also a chance that Jeremiah helps Grace prove her innocence. You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
Alias Grace gives Grace Marks’ life a real ending. Here's what we know about what happened to Grace Marks after she was pardoned: She moved to New York. That's it. In the show, the end of Marks’ life is filled out. She gets married to an old acquaintance from the Kinnear farm, who was actually implicated in her 30-year conviction. She has a serene life on the farm.
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