One thing we always get wrong about the Victorians: They weren’t all terrified of the specter of sex. Just as history belongs to the victors, it also belongs to the wealthy, and so our vision of 19th-century fair maidens in white frocks is one that tilts toward the wives and daughters of railroad barons and coal magnates. The majority of Victorian women screwed, screamed, and schemed, just as we do now. Oppressed in their time, their stories have simply been lost, or some might say suppressed, by the inherently biased nature of narrative.
In the opening shot of Alias Grace — the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s tale of female oppression and rebellion, which seeks to rectify that skewed perception of Victorian womanhood — it’s 1859 in Ontario and a 31-year-old Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is gazing in a mirror, trying out faces to fit the various personae bestowed on her by the media. “An inhuman female demon,” “an innocent victim of a blaguard,” “too ignorant to know how to act,” “of a sullen disposition and a quarrelsome temper,” “a good girl with a pliable nature,” “cunning and devious.” Within seconds, we see that Grace can play all these parts with aplomb. With the flutter of her lashes or the dip of her chin, Grace’s wide cornflower eyes and pale lips reflect back anything the observer wants to see in her. But she’s not a blank slate; each personality is a piece of herself that is called into service when needed. It’s intentional and, as we see over the course of the six-part mini-series directed by Mary Harron and written by Sarah Polley, it’s a deliberate form of empowerment. Grace is conniving and possibly a murderer, but her subtle mastery of men is also intoxicating.
Like its protagonist’s personality, Alias Grace’s narrative is multifaceted. We observe Grace’s interviews with Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) in which she, at turns frank, indignant, and emotional, recounts various bits of her life. Then the history of her life itself: her family’s stormy transatlantic voyage from Ireland to Canada and her mother’s death at sea, Grace’s subsequent domestic service and friendship with the vivacious and ill-fated Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), and then her time employed by amiable Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper-slash-mistress, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). And, of course, her voice-overs, which eventually take the shape of a long letter Grace has written to Dr. Jordan many years in the future. Grace controls every strand — none is objective — and so there is both a telling and a retelling of her life happening simultaneously. No story is trustworthy and yet all are believable.
The big narrative question of Alias Grace is an obvious one: Did Grace help murder Mr. Kinnear and Nancy? As the clock ticks down, the matter of whether Grace will reveal whether she tightened the kerchief around Nancy’s neck grows more pressing. But there is a more important, yet elusive concern: Who is Grace Marks? Is she the seductress or the seduced? Is she the victim of a plot by an aggressive pursuer who wanted his domineering bosses out of the way? Is she really a “murderess,” (a term she both loves and loathes) who willingly pulled the handkerchief tighter around Nancy’s throat, who then found herself overwhelmed by McDermott’s demands for sex? Was Grace a conniver from the start, or did her time in prison teach her the art of patient and subtle retribution?
Her gender and its boundless limitations certainly make her a victim. Beaten and nearly molested by her father, a poor young woman like Grace can only escape life under his thumb by entering into service. As a maid, since any contact with young men is forbidden and a fireable offense, she can only find pleasure in her female friendships — in this case, she says, with Mary, the bright-eyed, slightly saucy girl with whom she shares a bedroom. Another man denies Grace the comfort of that bosom friendship when the son of the house impregnates Mary and refuses to marry her, leaving her ruined. Soon after, an abortion kills Mary and any sense of kinship and love that Grace felt in the world. It’s easy to see why she tells Dr. Jordan, “You may think a bed is a peaceful thing sir … but it isn’t so for everyone.”
Shushed and compressed into a tinier and tinier existence, Grace hones the fine skill of working every man she meets like a piece of soft clay, using the more traditional Victorian aspects of her femininity (delicateness, submission, innocence), dosing them out along with the less tasteful (spunk, ambition, vivacity). She titillates with her naïveté, which allows men like her grotesque attorney to believe they’ve gotten the better of her. She alternately plays stern and coy with men like the farmhand James McDermott (Kerr Logan), leaving it unclear whether or not she is feeding his fantasy or stringing him just far enough along to keep his fancy without making any promises.
With Dr. Jordan, to whom Grace delivers a version of her life story like tiny bits of baited meat laid out along a path, she is her most manipulative. This is no surprise: Grace has had 15 years in prison to develop an understanding of who and what she needs to be in order to be believed. She lies to Dr. Jordan instantly, telling him she doesn’t recall a single minute of the murders; meanwhile, we see Nancy’s body tumbling through Grace’s memory down the stairs. It’s safer and wiser to plead ignorance, and to let Dr. Jordan believe he’s slowly unraveling a knot in the string, when in reality Grace is the one holding the needle and thread.
Dr. Jordan wants to believe that any woman so polite and so pretty could hardly be a murderer. As a result, he falls for a false equivalence and Grace beautifully keeps him hovering in that space. Sex — or more accurately, men’s power over sex — has been the proximal cause of Grace’s unhappiness: from her father to Mary’s ruin and death to Nancy’s jealous behavior in Kinnear’s home. Sex has ruined too much of Grace’s life so she takes control of it, and not as a simple seductress bent on dominating a man’s affections, but as a feminist imperative.
She shares her naughtiness with Dr. Jordan, but always offers an explanation for it. (“Those were Mary’s words, not mine.”) She exposes skin as a way to include him in her suffering, undoing her top button to reveal the scar received at the moment of her murder conviction. She parts her lips and turns her head and sucks the tip of a needle, domestic in her attention to the quilt she stitches, but certainly aware of her tongue’s allure. In a society that won’t recognize Grace’s desires — for freedom, for open expression — because of her gender, she sets about quietly dismantling the bits of the patriarchy she encounters.
It all crescendos in the finale’s hypnosis scene, when Dr. DuPont (Zachary Levi) — who may or may not be Jeremiah the peddler, who or may not have ever existed — allegedly puts Grace to sleep and questions her about the day of the murders. It’s dead Mary’s spirit lurking inside her mind, we’re told, hidden underneath Grace’s memory. As Mary, Grace can say precisely what she wants. When questioned about McDermott, she replies, “I’d press up against him and let his kiss me and touch me all over, Doctor, in all the same places you’d like to touch me,” shocking the ladies present in the room. Eyes open, staring directly at the governor’s daughter — who has offered herself as a marriage candidate for Dr. Jordan in all the subtle ways a good girl can — Grace exposes the hypocrisy implicit in using one set of tactics to lure a man over another. Moaning and twisting in ecstasy in her seat, she finally gets to let loose in front of the old biddies and stiff-mustached men whose supposed propriety has kept them in power and women like herself oppressed.
Because Grace is wearing the mask of another woman — a woman known for her “mischievous talk,” whose reputation has already been sullied by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy — she can say whatever she pleases. Grace can even expose the especially dirty secret that women enjoy sex too. Of course, because she is the one who established Mary’s reputation in the first place, we never know if Grace fabricated this other woman or her attributes. It’s possible that Grace designs and creates Mary as a helpful effigy, something she can later use to burn away the deviances and misdeeds Mary so helpfully supplied to Grace’s narrative.
Grace even plays us, denying viewers any firm grasp on what she’s manufactured. But what should we believe about Grace’s role in the murders? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The murders, in this case, are a stand-in for feminine aberration. In a world designed to keep her down, Grace subverts the narrative that the empowered have been using for years. She adopts their methods, scheming and lying if need be, but never letting those around her see just how handily she pulls their puppet strings. “I may have changed some of the details of my stories to suit what I thought you wanted to hear,” she admits to Dr. Jordan in the letter. But even that is a lie. She didn’t change the details to please him. She offered up the story that would get her what she felt she deserved: a reprieve from a life spent under the thumb of men.
Conniving has never been a compliment, especially in regards to women. Just like that other dirty word — ambitious — it implies more forethought and calculation than society wants to see in its latter-day fair maidens. And like its cousin, manipulative, the word brings to mind gold diggers and two-timers: Women who worked men over for whatever they wanted and then left them high and dry. But Grace connives in the service of justice — not necessarily the judicial variety, although her conviction is in the end overturned, but the type that brings a tiny hint of balance to a world so out of whack that 150 years after Alias Grace is set, we’re still fighting to reconcile the massive disparities in power.
The disturbingly resonant Handmaid’s Tale may have made the bigger splash, as Margaret Atwood adaptations go. But in Alias Grace, there’s an even more galvanizing heroine for our time. Of course the system is rigged against us, Grace says, so don’t try to bring it down. Use it to our own ends.