9 Things You Might Not Know About Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Sabrina Lantos/Netflix
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Just like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood is more ubiquitous than ever in the twilight of her career. Her classic feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale saw a wildly popular television adaptation earlier this year, and her 1996 novel Alias Grace has just hit Netflix as a miniseries.

Atwood is known for her speculative fiction that imagines thought-provoking what-ifs about the near future, but Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction. Here are nine things to know before you start your binge-watch.

1. IT'S ONE OF THREE ATWOOD ADAPTATIONS HITTING THE SMALL SCREEN THIS YEAR.

Atwood's classic 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale of course already came out on Hulu and garnered several Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series. But Alias Grace follows another Atwood adaptation of a children's book she wrote in 2011 called Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery, which aired in Canada this spring as Wandering Wenda. (It will air in the United States in December.)

2. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY. 

Alias Grace tells the story of a young Irish servant named Grace Marks, who kills her employer and his mistress in 1843 Canada with the help of a male servant. The male servant hangs for the crime; Grace is institutionalized for years and becomes an object of societal curiosity as a young and beautiful "murderess." The story follows a young psychologist as he talks to Grace years after the crime, trying to determine her level of culpability. It frequently jumps into the past, following Grace's life leading up to the murders. Although Atwood invented the psychologist character, Grace and her murder victims were very real.

3. NOBODY KNOWS HOW THE STORY ENDS.


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Although Grace Marks really existed, nobody knows the rest of her story. Following the crime, she was sentenced to death in 1843. It was then commuted to life, and eventually she was pardoned in 1873. After that, she disappeared from history. Nobody knows how she spent the rest of her life, which gave Atwood free rein to imagine her ending.

4. EVEN IN THE 1800S, PEOPLE WERE DRAWN TO THE STORY'S SEX AND VIOLENCE.

The stereotype of the 1800s is of a buttoned-up era in which a lady showing her ankle was considered racy. But society had the same interest in sex and violence as it does today. “The details were sensational," Atwood wrote in the novel’s afterword. "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. 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.''

5. MARGARET ATWOOD GOT THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK WHEN SHE WAS STILL IN COLLEGE. 

Although Margaret Atwood was 57 years old when Alias Grace was published, she had been thinking about the idea for many years. She first came across Grace Marks's story in Susanna Moodie's 1853 book Life in the Clearingswhich she read while studying at Harvard, where she got her master’s degree and pursued a doctorate for two years.

6. ATWOOD’S GOAL WAS TO FOCUS ON HOW SOCIETY VIEWS MALE VERSUS FEMALE MURDERERS.

Photo of Margaret Atwood
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

As with all of Atwood’s work, Alias Grace is sharply focused on gender politics. In this case, Atwood wanted to explore the differences in how society views male murderers versus female murderers. Throughout the story, Grace is alternately an object of pity, desire, fascination, fear, revulsion, and mystery. While promoting the series at the Toronto International Film Festival, Atwood explained that she wouldn’t have been interested in Grace if the truth about the murder was absolute.

“There were so many different, contradictory stories about Grace Marks; nobody actually ever knew whether she had killed anybody or not,” Atwood said. “There were four people in the house. Two of them were murdered, the third one was hanged, and she was the one left. And she never told. If I had known the truth, I probably wouldn’t have written a book … The interesting thing is the way everybody projects their ideas onto Grace.”

7. ATWOOD FIRST EXPLORED THE STORY IN A PLAY THAT CAME OUT 22 YEARS BEFORE THE BOOK.

Atwood’s play The Servant Girl also tells a version of Grace Marks’s story. It was filmed for CBC-TV and aired in 1974, more than 20 years before Alias Grace was published.

8. THE NEWSPAPER EXCERPTS IN THE BOOK ARE REAL.

Atwood wanted to stick to the truth as much as possible even in a story with spotty facts. "If you're dealing with things that actually are known, you can't arbitrarily change that to suit yourself," she said. Because of this approach, she didn’t have to invent the newspaper quotes and excerpts that appear in the book; they come from real sources.

9. ATWOOD WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY A MORE RECENT FEMALE MURDERER WHO IS STILL ALIVE.

Between 1990 and 1992, Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo raped and murdered at least three young women—including Karla's sister, Tammy. Though both were convicted of the crimes, Karla struck a plea bargain and was only charged with manslaughter; she was released from prison in 2005. Atwood has mentioned Homolka when talking about Alias Grace.

"In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman," Atwood explained in an interview with CBC. "One side: 'She instigated it all. She's the female demon.' The other side: 'She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear.' That's how it split on Karla and it was certainly how it split on Grace."

This App Lets You Download Free E-Books, Magazines, Comic Books, and Audiobooks From Your Library

boggy22, iStock via Getty Images
boggy22, iStock via Getty Images

Even if your local library is closed during the novel coronavirus outbreak, you can still use your library card in quarantine. As Thrillist reports, Libby is an app that works with local libraries to give you free access to audiobooks, e-books, comic books, and magazines wherever you are.

Libby, an app from the digital reading company Overdrive, is connected to 90 percent of public libraries in North America. To use the app, just enter the information from your library card and start browsing digital titles available through your local branches. If you don't have a library card yet, some participating libraries will allow you to sign up for a digital card in the app. That way, you don't have to leave home to start reading.

As more people are looking for e-books and audiobooks to pass the time at home, Overdrive has made it possible for multiple users to check out the same title at once. That means as more libraries shift to a 100 percent online loan system for the time being, it will be easier to meet their patrons' needs.

No matter what your current literary mood may be, you should have no trouble finding something to read on Libby. Downloadable titles from the New York Public Library currently available through the app include the e-book of Becoming by Michelle Obama, the e-book of Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, and the audiobook of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. After you download a book, you can send it to your Kindle device, and all items are automatically returned on their due date. Download the free app today to start browsing.

[h/t Thrillist]

5 People Who Were Amazingly Productive In Quarantine

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Life has changed rapidly since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the novel coronavirus that causes the disease has spread across the U.S., offices have closed, public spaces have emptied, and officials have urged people to stay home as much as possible. Many Americans have suddenly found themselves with more free time (at least the ones without kids home from school to take care of) and limited ways to spend it. Isolation or quarantine is a great time to prioritize your mental and physical well-being, but if you also want to use it to be productive, you have plenty of historical role models to choose from. William Shakespeare wasn’t the only person who produced some of his best work during a pandemic—here are some other great thinkers and artists who used social distancing to their advantage.

1. William Shakespeare

“William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine” is exactly the type of exaggerated story you’d expect to see spread during a wild news cycle, but this is one viral tidbit that’s rooted in truth. Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder with The King’s Men theater troupe when the bubonic plague forced London theaters to close in the early 17th century. The official rule was that after weeks, when the death toll exceeded 30, public playhouses had to shut down. This meant that the theater industry was paralyzed for much of 1606 when the plague returned to the city. After suddenly finding himself without a steady job and lots of free time, Shakespeare got to writing. He composed King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra before the year was over.

2. Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.
Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.
Apic/Getty Images

A few decades after an isolated Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays, Isaac Newton found himself having to avoid disease in England. In 1665, when Newton was in his early 20s, one of the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague hit the country. Classes at Cambridge University were canceled, so Newton retreated to his family estate roughly 60 miles away to continue his studies there. He didn’t have to worry about responding to professors' emails or video conferencing into classes, and with zero structure, he excelled. The young mathematician produced some of his best work during his year in quarantine, writing the papers that would become early calculus and developing his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom. This was also the time when his theory of gravity germinated. While an apple likely didn’t hit Newton on the head, there was an apple tree outside his window that may have inspired his revelation.

3. Edvard Munch

The Scream painter Edvard Munch didn’t just witness the Spanish Flu pandemic change the world around him—he contracted the disease around the beginning of 1919, while living in Norway. But instead of becoming one of its many victims, Munch lived to continue making great art. As soon as he felt physically capable, he gathered his painting supplies and began capturing his physical state. Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu shows him with thinning hair and a gaunt face sitting in front of his sickbed.

4. Thomas Nashe

Engraving of Thomas Nashe.
Engraving of Thomas Nashe.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Nashe was an Elizabethan playwright who gained fame around the same time as William Shakespeare. When the bubonic plague hit London in 1592, Nashe fled to the English countryside to avoid infection. This was the same time he wrote Summers' Last Will and Testament, a play that reflects his experiences living through the pandemic. One famous passage reads:

Adieu, farewell earths blisse,
This world uncertaine is,
Fond are lifes lustful joyes,
Death proves them all but toyes,
None from his darts can flye;
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on us.

5. Giovanni Boccaccio

Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Florentine writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio was personally affected by the bubonic plague. When it hit Florence in 1348, both his father and stepmother succumbed to the disease. Boccaccio survived the outbreak by fleeing the city and hiding out in the Tuscan countryside. During this period, he wrote The Decameron [PDF], a collection of novellas framed as stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa during the plague.

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