Warning: this article contains spoilers
Following the recent success of the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, a second Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace, has recently aired – this time courtesy of Netflix. It sets a new benchmark in female-led and orientated period drama. Unusually for costume dramas on television, Alias Grace presents an unvarnished picture of systematic male abuse of female servants that echoes the collective voice of the #metoo movement.
Alias Grace is based on the true crime story of Grace Marks, an Irish servant in mid 19th-century Canada. It is set in the years following the spread of radical ideas and a failed rebellion against British rule. Alongside fellow servant, James McDermott, Marks was convicted of the double murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Both servants accused the other of masterminding the crime, but McDermott was hanged shortly after conviction – while doubts continued to surround the young woman’s role in the murders. She was eventually pardoned after many years in Ontario’s notoriously brutal Kingston penitentiary.
Sarah Polley’s screen adaptation of Alias Grace reproduces the complex structure of Atwood’s narrative. The series uses repeated images of Grace hand stitching a patchwork quilt to highlight the fragmented story that she offers Simon Jordan, the handsome doctor who supports the campaign for her release. Shown in flashbacks, Grace’s story includes many scenes and reflections that are either absent from or conflict with the narrative that she constructs for Jordan. Grace tells the doctor that “a girl should not ever let her guard down” – hinting that she will not disclose the whole truth.
The series leaves the viewer uncertain as to whether she was involved in the crimes, but wholly convinced of the sociohistorical context of class exploitation and virulent misogyny that the murders took place within.
Grace’s father tyrannises his wife and attempts to molest the teenage Grace. When Grace is forced to find work to support her younger siblings, she is befriended by a lively, politically minded servant girl, Mary Whitney, who tutors Grace in the rhetoric of class rebellion and gender equality. Mary dies tragically after being seduced by the spoiled son of their employer and undergoing a backstreet abortion. Seeking alternative employment to avoid the “young gentleman’s” predatory behaviour, she arrives at Kinnear’s house. She is quickly aware that the housekeeper, Nancy, has also been impregnated by the master of the house. The arrogant and patronising Kinnear soon turns his attentions towards Grace instead.
Alias Grace thus differs from the standard format of female-led and orientated costume drama in two significant ways. First, reflecting their basis in the novels of 19th-century authors such as Jane Austen, George Eliot or the Brontës, mainstream costume dramas rarely feature women below the lower middle-class. By contrast, Alias Grace focuses throughout on the grim lives of domestic servants. Perhaps more significantly, it presents them as intelligent characters who resent their “betters” and perceive class and gender inequality as arbitrary and unfair.
Second, popular costume dramas tend to conclude with the heroine’s marriage to a more affluent man. Although educated, privileged men might initially appear stuffy or difficult (such as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre) but they eventually show their softer side by falling in love with the heroine and offering her a better life. This generic pattern is so insistent that even costume dramas written more recently, such as Jane Campion’s widely acclaimed film, The Piano (1993), depict the heroine’s rescue by a dominant but caring male.
In Alias Grace, there are two male figures that initially appear as potential “rescuers”: Dr Jordan and James, a sweet young farm boy that Grace meets at the Kinnear household. Both are clearly attracted to Grace and seem sympathetic towards her. However, Grace is immediately suspicious of Jordan, inwardly observing that “you want to open up my body and peer inside” and mocking his ignorance of the basic domestic tasks that have always been performed for him by women.
As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Grace’s instincts are right. Jordan takes an increasingly prurient interest in the abuse that she has suffered and is clearly titillated by her narrative. Unbeknown to her, he also “rescues” his impoverished landlady with additional funds. Jordan exploits the besotted woman’s gratitude by having sex with her while fantasising about Grace. He then cruelly rejects her.
When James appears after Grace’s release, he offers marriage and a degree of financial stability. Grace accepts but is not surprised when he too pleads for – and is aroused by – repeated accounts of her ill-treatment at the hands of other men.
The only significant male figure who does not attempt either to molest her or press her for lurid details of past abuse is her friend Jeremiah the peddler. Despite his humble origins, as a man, Jeremiah can rise in society without fear of rape or the disgrace of an unwanted pregnancy.
Although few Western women now experience the extreme vulnerability of the live-in domestic servant, the #metoo movement has revealed the ongoing sexual exploitation of working women in a variety of high-profile industries and institutions. In its bold depiction of the systematic sexual harassment and abuse of women by powerful men, Alias Grace adds historical weight to the exposure of such abuse in our own time.
Through its depiction of Grace’s interactions with those eager to hear such stories, it also warns us against perpetuating the exploitation of women by sensationalising their suffering and offering it up as public entertainment.