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."

10 Things You Might Not Know About Dorothy Parker

Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

As a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table—a circle of writers that also included Harpo Marx and Robert Benchley—Dorothy Parker was renowned for her scathing wit. Here are 10 fascinating facts about the legendary wordsmith.

1. Dorothy Parker was born in New Jersey.

Dorothy Parker was born at her parents' beach cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey on August 22, 1893. She liked to say they rushed back to Manhattan after Labor Day so she could be a "true" New Yorker.

2. Dorothy Parker's mother died when she was just a child.

Parker's mother died when Dorothy was just four years old. Her father remarried two years later, but Dorothy was not a fan of her stepmother and refused to call her anything but "the housekeeper." Ouch.

3. Dorothy Parker married the same man twice.

Parker and Alan Campbell were great writing partners, but were perhaps no more than that; she often (affectionately) described him as "queer as a billy goat."

4. Dorothy Parker could be sentimental when a job called for it.

You know Parker came up with plenty of sarcastic quips and biting observations, but she also wrote some rather treacly stuff: She was an uncredited screenwriter for It's a Wonderful Life and wrote lyrics for the Bing Crosby song "I Wished on the Moon."

5. Dorothy Parker's uncle was on the Titanic.

Parker's uncle, Martin Rothschild, died in the great Titanic disaster of 1912.

6. Dorothy Parker reviewed books for The New Yorker.

Parker wrote book reviews for The New Yorker under the pseudonym "Constant Reader." She hated Winnie the Pooh and wrote of The House on Pooh Corner, "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up."

7. Dorothy Parker was tiny.

Parker might have been an enormous presence, but she was only 4'11".

8. Dorothy Parker was a staunch civil rights activist.

When Parker died in 1967, she left her entire estate to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation, and then to the NAACP when King was assassinated.

9. Dorothy Parker's ashes went unclaimed for years.

While she left her money to the causes she cared about, Parker left her ashes to playwright Lillian Hellman, who never bothered to collect them. They went unclaimed for years and were passed around rather unceremoniously, spending about 17 years in her lawyer's filing cabinet. The NAACP finally claimed what was left of Ms. Parker and erected a memorial garden in her honor. You can visit her there and read what she suggested for her own epitaph: "Excuse my dust."

10. There is no shortage of great Dorothy Parker quotes.

But as a writer, I think this one might be my favorite: "I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money."

9 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history.

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad.

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain's childhood friend.

Twain once said that Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” Twain wrote in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain said it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Mark Twain seven years to write the book.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi. In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal, Missouri. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn.

“I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days,” Twain wrote in August 1883. “I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884.

4. Like Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s view on slavery changed.

Huck, who grows up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, but his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.” At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery.

5. Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be the character of Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her ‘tribute’ before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. Many consider Huckleberry Finn the first American novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn ,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote.

7. Many people consider the end of the book to be a bit of a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured. To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many critics, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

8. The book is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books. The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist. In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at the University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offending word with slave. Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with hipster. The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

9. Twain had some thoughts about the book's censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as a librarian wrote to Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply :

DEAR SIR: I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so. Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours, S. L. Clemens

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

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