by Bryan Caswell & Heather Clancy
Long-time readers of Concerning History will know that we have a perennial eye out for new period pieces or other historical fare in Heather’s Netflix queue. When a trailer for a mid-19th century murder mystery popped up this summer, it was an easy choice given our shared specialty in the period. The miniseries Alias Grace certainly delivered on its thrilling premise and, as befits a show based on a Margaret Atwood novel, proved so much more.
Set in 1859, Alias Grace follows the story of Grace Marks, a Canadian housekeeper convicted of murdering her employers and sentenced to life in prison. This story is told largely in flashbacks, as the American Dr. Jordan visits her in prison 15 years after her conviction at the request of the town’s mayor, who is eager to rehabilitate Grace’s image and ultimately secure her release. Grace herself claims no memory of the murders, and even though Dr. Jordan’s various methods of therapy and psychological exercises reveal more details, Grace’s story gets stranger and stranger.
While Atwood’s story has been heavily fictionalized, Grace Marks and her murders are indeed historical, and it is only fitting that the history in this gripping tale is outstanding. Material culture is impeccable, and we were particularly appreciative of oft-overlooked elements of feminine costume and hygiene from the period, including mention of red petticoats and pads for menstruation. The differences between Canadian and American social structure is also welcome, and indeed plays a large role in Grace’s story.
Atwood’s most famous work is The Handmaid’s Tale, and it should come as no surprise to any familiar with that work that themes of gender and class division should form the centerpiece of Alias Grace as well. In short, Alias Grace is a story about what it meant to be a woman and working class in the mid-nineteenth century. In short, it meant a dangerous, treacherous world. Grace’s mental break is the direct result of years of abuse at her father’s hands, witnessing a dear friend’s abuse and ultimate death at the hands of a country gentleman, and then viewed as an object of jealous suspicion by the similarly lower-class mistress of her final employer. Indeed, only one man in the entire narrative ever cares for Grace as a person, and every other values her as an object for their own gratification, from her employers’ unwelcome advances to the mayor’s desire to polish his Liberal party credentials to even Dr. Jordan’s infatuation with saving her. Grace finds herself powerless in the face of most of these desires as well due to her position as an Irish immigrant, and it is only the promise of her friend Mary’s revolutionary ideals that ultimately give Grace the agency to attempt to pull free.
If we had any criticisms of this show, they would lie with its ending. After so much build-up, it might have been inevitable that Alias Grace’s conclusion would fall short, and while the answer to the mystery of her murders may satisfy, the resolution of Grace and Dr. Jordan’s stories seems rushed and unfinished. Aside from this narrative hiccup, however, we cannot recommend Alias Grace highly enough for those interested in the early Victorian period in the Americas. It is rare to see such an entirely domestic story realized so triumphantly, let alone with such strong messages not only for the history of gender norms, but with typically Atwoodian relevance for the present.