Thursday, 30 August 2007

"Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood: The Historical Context

Toronto Penitentiary around 1871. Click on the picture for its full size.
The Victorian and Canadian Context AO5ii

Grace on the Governer’s wife: “They are all collecting things these days, and so she must collect something”. 29

Attitudes to punishment and crime:
Penetentiary. See 29 on its purposes, well known by Grace. She is expected “to repent”. 37 Matron.

Grace is “Caged in a dreary prison. Deliberately dreary, for if a prison were not dreary, where would be the punishment?” (Simon Jordan on Grace’s prison)216

Dr. Bannerling “ . . .the strict regime of the Penitentiary, where she (Grace) has been placed as a just punishment for her atrocious crimes . .. “
See also the early page on the Punishment Book form Kingston Penetentiary 1843.

Bodies of prisoners hanged were given over to medical experiments. McDermott was dissected. 31 Crowds turned up to see him hanged: Victorian morbid curiosity with hangings. (See Hardy on this too.) Grace distrusts doctors and this may have been widely prevalent.

Measuring craniums was all in vogue, too. 31. Phrenology 33-4. Grace fears this and fights against it.

Women locked up in asylums who were not mad, “No madder than the Queen of England”. G. 34 Some women were driven mad by suffering, by poverty and through the trauma of loss during emigration. G. 34.

The food in the Penitentiary is poor. Self serving attitudes with prejudice and hypocrisy. Grace informs us:

“A hunk of bread, a mug of weak tea, meat at dinner but not much of it, because overfeeding on rich foods stimulates the criminal organs of the brain, or so say the doctors, and the guards and keepers repeat it to us.” . . . “ It is my opinion that they sometimes take what is intended for us.” 72

The Victorian interest in doctors/medicine/ research/ hidden knowledge
As a doctor, women “of the better classes” are “drawn” to Dr Jordan, “married ladies especially, with blameless reputations. They seemed drawn to him as if he possessed some priceless but infernal treasure” 94

“It was knowledge that they craved; yet they could not admit to craving it, because it was forbidden knowledge” 94 (The Tree of Knowledge is linked with this, perhaps.)

Dr. Jordan to the Governor’s wife reform group: “The nineteenth century, he concluded, would be the study of the Mind” 348 Jordan is interested in “the investigation of dreams as a key to diagnosis, and their relation to amnesia, to which he himself hoped in time to make a modest contribution. 348

The Rebellion of 1837 and its effect on servants
Grace: “At Dixon’s I was paid more, as I was now trained and with a reference. Dependable servants were scarce, as many had left for the States after the Rebellion”. 230 (Freedom and equality in the USA and an escape from a rigid class system.)

Grace gives contextual information on McKenzie, The Rebellion and its after effects 238

The servant/master-mistress world is graphically presented in the novel.

The Tory establishment feared rebellious servants. Servants who fall into this category are:

· Dora - note that this surly servant, a “large person with strong arms” (351) works in two place’s: Mrs Humphries’ and the Prison. Grace says that Dora is “untrustworthy, as she is always telling tales of her former mistress and master”. 352 She does not behave like a servant because to Simon “Her manners are as democratic as ever”. 375
· James McDermott (To Grace on learning of Nancy’s wish to sack them: “We should demand our rights”. 298
· Nancy (Tries to cross over)
· Grace (as a convicted murderer although she was not in the country during The Rebellion.
· The 1837 Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie, a notable public figure who owned radical newspapers and pamphlets in Toronto. The Rebellion was put down brutally with deportations, deaths and ruined lives. 171 (Grace: “many of the Radicals were transported or hanged”.)

Grace on McDermott: “he’d enlisted again for a soldier, with the Glengarry Light Infantry, which had got such a bad reputation among the farmers, as I knew from Mary Whitney, having burnt a good many farmhouses during the Rebellion, and turned women and children out into the snow, and done worse to them besides, that was never printed in the newspapers. 264 (Not only is he presented as a bad egg the newspapers did not publicize the crimes of his military outfit.)

Many masters were sexual predators on young servants. “As Mary used to say, there are some masters who think you owe them service twenty-four hours a day, and should do the main work flat on your back. 231

The gentlemen who visit Kinnear at Richmond Hill (without their disapproving wives) “tell stories about the fine deeds they’d done in the Rebellion”. 288 (Kinnear was obviously on the winning side – the side of the reactionaries who wanted to maintain the status quo with their servants. To those who have more will be given!) Also it seems as if these “worthies” gave themselves fine titles after the Rebellion. Nancy is critical of them:

“She said that she did not think Captain Boyd was a real Captain, as some of them had taken up such titles just for having got their two legs around a horse on the day of the Rebellion”. 291 (Nancy resents the Government side’s actions during the Rebellion. In this she is siding with the servants!)

Feelings of the employing classes ran high during and after the Rebellion

Context of Grace’s conviction
Verringer: “ ‘There is still a widespread feeling against Grace; and this is a most partisan country. The Tories appear to have confused Grace with the Irish Question, although she is a protestant; and to consider the murder of a single Tory gentleman – however worthy the gentleman, and however regrettable the murder – to be the same thing as the insurrection of an entire race’”. 91

Remember that Grace’s trial took place only six years after The Rebellion and the Lawyer (no relation to the rebel, as he says,) claims this too: “The old boy (McKenzie) has long been pardoned, and is seen as the father of reforms. But feeling ran high against him in those days; that alone could have put a noose around Grace Marks’ neck” 432 The supporters of the rebel (Lyon) “Mr McKenzie and his cause wre the only ones to say a good word for Grace”. 432 (Remember that Mr Kinnear was a Tory and fought against The Rebellion. This contributed towards Grace’s long term in prison!) “Jurisprudence”, according to MacKenzie, as also “much laxer then.” 433

Grace was also “seized on American soil, without a warrant” (An illegal arrest!) 435

Lyon MacKenzie took the part of the poor Scots and Irish, and emigrant settlers generally.

Jeremiah on hypocrisy and self-righteousness
Jeremiah, commenting on the hypocritical self righteousness of those who exercise power in Canada and the USA. He passes between both borders as a peddler and recognises hypocrisy and cant under whichever flag it appears:
“But when you cross over the border, it is like passing through air, you wouldn’t know you’d done it; as the trees on both sides of it are the same.
(Jeremiah is a free spirit in the novel and he is not hedged in by class or boundries.) He recognises that:
“Laws are made to be broken, he said, and these laws were not made by me or mine, but by the powers that be, and for their own profit” 309

“In many ways it is the same as here, but they use a different sort of language to excuse themselves; and there they pay a great lip service to democracy, just as here they rant on about the right order of society and loyalty to the Queen; though the poor man is poor on every shore.” 309

Jeremiah suggests that most of the preachers in the USA are like Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry”: “Many of the preachers there have no more faith in God than a stone”. Still, he admits that for preachers that “below the border there’s a great demand for it”. 310 (Much of what he says is still applicable today. Atwood is using this character for direct criticisms on aspects of life in the USA.)

Spiritualism
(Thinks Jordan) Spiritualism is the craze of the middle classes, the women especially. 95 (Mrs Quennell, the Governor’s wife is later revealed as a medium who hold séances.)

Mrs Quennell moves on the “Mesmerism” which is regarded as “much more scientific”. She has Dr. Jerome Du Pont (Jeremiah the Peddler) staying as her guest and expert on mesmerism. 283-4

‘You are staying with Mrs. Quennell, I believe,’, says Simon.
‘A most generous hostess. But infatuated with the Spiritualists, as are many these days.” (Du Pont 350)

Jeremiah the Peddler knows the popularity of “Mesmerism and Magnetism which is always a draw”. 309

Victorian Hypocrisy
Grace is not allowed scissors but is allowed scissors but is given access to knives and skewers in the kitchen when acting as a servant in the Governess’s house. 75

Servant/Master-Mistress world in which the monied seem to be quite helpless without servants
Grace on Lydia and Marianne’s dirty washing, although “not dirty at all”. 75

Mrs Humphries breaks the “crockery” and “ruins the food” when she fills in for Dora. 161. (When she falls over after fainting through lack of food, etc.) 161

The rich educated at Harvard (Boston)
Mrs Alderman-Parkinson’s sons, “r George and Mr Richard”. 196

Women and prostitution
Grace relates the desperate situation many women had to contend with in and around Toronto. (Good contextual information) Some women “were often found floating around in the harbour”. 176 (An important page for context on the position of women during the 1840s)

When Nancy falls pregnant she knows that a similar fate could befall her.

Toronto is a place of both wealth as well as poverty
After leaving the station on his return to Toronto after investigating Grace: Everything is new and brisk, bustling and bright, vulgar and complacent, with a smell of fresh money and fresh paint about it. Fortunes have been made here in a very short time, with more in the making. There are the usual shops and commercial buildings, and a surprising number of banks.” 426

Harsh weather Conditions
The harsh winter of Toronto is described on pages 194-5.
On the mania for collecting, etc.
Grace “cut off a piece of the back of her hair to remember her by, and tied it together with a thread”. (Grace on Mary Whitney) 229

©

No comments:

About Me

I teach Film, Media and English Lit.