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The terrifyingly true story that inspired Netflix’s Alias Grace

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Susan Devaney
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Netflix’s latest drama, Alias Grace, is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel from 1996 and it’s following in the footsteps of The Handmaid’s Tale with its terrifying mix of truth, reality and fiction. 

Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is in prison for the double murder of her employer, the wealthy Ontario-based Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and lover, Nancy Montgomery. But is she truly guilty – or is it a case of wrong place, wrong time?

You’ll keep on guessing throughout the series because Marks - the drama’s protagonist - has the storytelling skills of a gifted writer.

But it’s the true backstory to Netflix’s new drama that’s most compelling. Inspired by real-life events that took place in Canada in the 1843, Margaret Atwood (of The Handmaid’s Tale) created her own version in her novel Alias Grace, published in 1996.

Writing in the afterword, Atwood recounted just how much attention the case drew at the time:

“The details were sensational: 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.”

Marks was pardoned and released from prison in 1873, shortly afterwards she left Canada for New York.

And it was a case that continued to hold people’s attention as Marks “continued to be written about over the course of the century, and she continued to polarise opinion.”

Kinnear’s servants, 20-year-old James McDermott and 16-year-old Grace Marks were accused of double murder at the time. As young lovers, the case could be said to echo that of similarities with Amanda Knox.

As a result, Marks was sentenced to 30 years in prison (and spared death due to her gender and age), and McDermott was hanged.

But what remains unclear is how much Marks actually had to do with the real event. 

We know from her backstory that she came to Canada from Ireland at the age of 12 in 1840. As one of nine children, she had to take over mothering duties when her mother died at sea when they were making the journey over. And her father was apparently a violent alcoholic. As an immigrant it was a trying time, as she was pretty much an orphan.

In a court statement, McDermott said: “She told me if I would assist her, she would poison both the Housekeeper and Mr. Kinnear by mixing poison with porridge.”

Marks said in her confession: “I ran into the kitchen and saw Mr. Kinnear lying dead on the floor, and McDermott standing over him.”

And the murder was awful. Apparently, Montgomery was hit in the back of the head with an axe, and then her body was put in the cellar. And they then strangled her with a scarf.

Kinnear then returned home and was shot dead in the kitchen as he enquired after Montgomery.

Marks was pardoned and released from prison in 1873, shortly afterwards she left Canada for New York.

The six-part compelling drama focuses on what Atwood does best: discussing and interpreting women’s identity and the relations between the sexes.

But you’ll need to watch it and decide the truth for yourself.

Images: Netflix

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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