Blood and Laundry

Margaret Atwood on famous Victorian murderesses, her claim to Connecticut, and the deep satisfaction of a clean, folded towel

Published January 20, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

an interview with Margaret Atwood is a bit like an audience with a duchess  a wickedly amused and amusing duchess. If the prolific Canadian novelist, poet and critic  perhaps best known for the 1984 novel "The Handmaid's Tale," made into a film in 1990  was not born with her regal demeanor, she has certainly earned it by now, and her formidable talents only seem to be growing stronger. Her new book, "Alias Grace," is her first historical novel, based on a famous Torontonian maidservant, Grace Marks, who, in 1843, may or may not have participated in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. It's a pointed, satirical view of Victorian society  from the bottom rung looking up, dirty underwear and all. Atwood's life-long penchant for misbehaving female characters takes a more mysterious turn with Grace, however; the servant's actual guilt remains maddeningly hard to pin down. In fact, trying to establish her role in the crime nearly drives Atwood's fictional psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan, over the edge.
Salon met up with Atwood during her recent visit to San Francisco, where she professed to be able to guess how many servants it took to maintain the city's various Victorian mansions, just by looking.

You've written about Grace Marks before.

Yes, a TV scenario, produced in 1974 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but it used only one version of the story, which was the only version that I knew at that time. That was [journalist] Susanna Moodie's rather theatrical and Dickensian write-up of the case. I was young and I thought non-fiction meant "true," and I believed her mostly. I didn't believe the part where she had Nancy being cut up into four pieces before being placed underneath the wash-tub, because I thought, "Why would they do that? Wouldn't it take a lot of time? And which four pieces? Why four and why do it at all?"

So, that gave you a germ of suspicion.

Somewhat. I didn't put the cutting up into four pieces into the television play.

What was it like to come back to writing about Grace?

I came back probably 20 years later. Somebody suggested I do a play based on the television thing, a theatrical play, but I didn't like my incarnation as a theater writer. So off it went into the cupboard where we put things when we're not thinking about them. As the Victorians would say, "beneath the threshold of consciousness." Then it made a reappearance, and I started going back to the newspaper accounts of the time, once I had figured out where it had taken place, because Susanna Moodie didn't tell us, and she got some of the names wrong. Then it became a much more ambiguous story than Moodie's was.

So, your decision to write a different version of Grace's story was based on ...

It was based on the discrepancies among the different accounts. Believe me, if there had been cut-up bodies, it would have been in the newspapers; they wouldn't have missed that part. They didn't agree with one another. And the witnesses couldn't agree at the trial. But that is standard, isn't it?

When you were working on the original television play, were you convinced that she was actually guilty?


What attracted you to that story? That version?

It is a fascinating and theatrical story, even Susanna Moodie's version, which gets so many things wrong. Four people in a house. The gentleman has a mistress, Nancy, who is also the housekeeper. The housekeeper and the two servants are from the same class. The servants deeply resent the fact that this woman, who is in their class, is set above them. Grace fancies Thomas Kinnear [the master]; she likes him, and she wants to get her rival out of the way. In Susanna Moodie's version, she wheedles and bullies and taunts [hired hand] James McDermott into killing [the housekeeper/mistress] with the promise of herself as the reward. It's "If you kill Nancy, you can have me." That kind of set-up.

Not until after McDermott has killed Nancy, and has then said, "Well of course we will have to kill Thomas Kinnear," does the other shoe drop. Grace says, "Oh no, not him." Then McDermott realizes that he's been set up. He is furious; it is not him that Grace loves, but the other man. So, he says, "Either I am going to kill him, and you are going to help me, or I am going to kill him and you." Even that story is pretty interesting. What then made it much more interesting to me, as a novelist, is the fact that Susanna Moodie was wrong! Other people were just making the story up from the moment it happened. They were all fictionalizing. They were all projecting their own views onto these various people. It is a real study in how the perception of reality is shaped.

The thing that makes it particularly charged is the class tension.

There was quite a lot of class tension, but I don't think it's the kind of story in which servants kill employers out of some well-developed sense of class injustice. I think the resentment was directed more at Nancy than at Thomas Kinnear, because, number one, she had moved out of her class, and number two, she was very inconsistent. It's like Captain Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty"; one day she's your pal and best friend, and wants to have a party and everybody's going to dance, and play the flute. The next minute she's giving you your notice, or bossing you around, or bawling you out for not having done something right, and "coming the lady." She couldn't make up her mind who she was, whose side she was on.

How does your characterization of Grace in this book change from the original?

I give the reader the benefit of both versions. I also pick her up at a much later point in her story, in 1859. She's 31 years old and she has already spent half of her life in the penitentiary. She is a different person, more ambiguous than the original character that I wrote, of course.

How much of her character did you get from the different accounts that you were reading, and how much did you have to conjure up?

There was a great deal missing, but I didn't feel that I could be completely inconsistent with those other accounts. On the other hand, the other accounts are inconsistent. One person, having seen her, says "She is malicious, she's conniving, she's manipulative, she's evil," and all of these things. Another person might say, "Actually she is quite amiable, she's very nice." These are people who claimed to have known her. You usually get conflicting testimony, especially when there is a violent crime involving both a man and a woman. The questions are always raised, you know, is this Bonnie and Clyde? Was she egging him on, or was she, on the contrary, drawn into it through weakness of will, not being able to say no? Who was the real instigator? This comes about time and again. Opinion is generally undivided about the man and divided about the woman.

Why do you think that is?

Well, I don't know. We could come up with lots of theories. I think that traditionally, and certainly in the 19th century, women were thought of as being mysterious and unfathomable. So, we have a person who is by nature mysterious and unfathomable involved in a crime. That feeling of mystery is going to be multiplied tenfold. There is a book called "Victorian Murderesses," which goes back over some of the hot trials of the 19th century. It's pretty obvious that some of these women killed people and got off because we didn't like the people they killed — the people they killed were not approved of. It is also pretty obvious that some of them didn't kill anybody, but got convicted because they were doing other things that were not approved of, usually having an affair.

So, if a woman was involved in a case, and letters were produced, adulterers' love letters, her chances for beating the rap went plummeting downwards. Two things that told very much against Grace, are, number one, she was found at an inn with a man — and if you have read "The Mill on the Floss," you know that this is almost automatically a fallen woman; if you're in a structure together, overnight, even if it was separate bedrooms, which it was, you're reputation is very severely damaged. Number two, she wore Nancy's dress to the trial, and Nancy's bonnet and a few other items as well. This told very much against her and produced a sensation in the courtroom. When that testimony came out, everybody went [gasps dramatically] in shock and horror.

Why do you think she wore Nancy's dress?

It was a good, serviceable dress. You wouldn't leave something like that behind. Nancy had no more use for it. Waste not, want not.

She doesn't seem to have a morbid imagination at all.

Well, she doesn't have a middle-class, genteel imagination, which would have said, "I couldn't wear that dress, that's the dress the dead person ..." She doesn't have that kind of sensibility. A shawl is a shawl, a dress is a dress. You don't just throw something like that away. Shoes are shoes. When you travel in India, you find that everything is used, just everything. You don't find any plastic bags blowing around because nobody would let a plastic bag go to waste. It would be used for this and that, and when finally it can't hold anything anymore, it would be cut up into decorations. This is where the patchwork quilt came from; you don't throw things out, you make them into something else.

Grace is like a camera, she sees things so clearly. Then she has this sardonic side that she conceals.

Wouldn't you? Especially if you were in prison.

Her reaction to the murder suggests that it was never real to her.

I read a very interesting article by a prison psychiatrist in England. He was talking about people who have been put in there for murder and so forth. He interviews them. Often they say things like, "Well I just gave her a little tap. I don't know why she fell down." Or "I don't know how all those cuts and stabs got on there, I just sort of pushed them against the wall, I wasn't doing anything that bad." There is a definite psychological withdrawal. Whether it is real or lying, this guy said that you can't always tell. Getting people to admit the full extent of what it appears that they have done is frequently quite difficult.

Equally intriguing is the character of Dr. Simon Jordan. Some of the most interesting parts of the book describe how the idea of the grateful woman, or the wilting, helpless woman, is powerfully eroticized for him.

It is very eroticized in the art of the period, in the painting, in the operas, in the poetry. It was really a very attractive thing to the male artist of the period, rescuing the fainting woman, the crazy, fainting woman. Just the image of Ophelia drifting downstream with her flowers. Flowers, singing, the hair down, state of derangement — all a central image for the period. In opera, think of how many mad scenes with women there are in the 19th century. The famous ones are "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Marguerite in "Faust." Again, the flowers, the singing, the hair down, the nightgown, the dishevelment, the prison, in the case of Marguerite. Lots of them drown. It's a much more romantic image for the imagination than, for instance, blowing out your brains. It's kind of a mermaid or swan image, pretty to watch as they subside slowly. It would be on his mind. It's there if you read the period novels, including the trashy ones, or even read the comic books of today. Isn't there even a Nintendo game in which you have to rescue a damsel?

Was it difficult to imagine being a man, and attracted to that?

No, because I was an Victorianist once upon a time. I don't know whether imagining yourself is quite the way of putting it. But was it hard for me to understand that? No, it is all over the Victorian period.

In an odd way, he imagines himself as both victimizer and rescuer.

People are strange. They are people. I don't think it is necessarily sadism. I think it is that part in yourself that thinks, well if the plane crashed in the Alps, and I was alive and the other people were dead, would I eat them? Those questions you are always asking yourself: would I have behaved that way? Or how would I behave if suddenly there were two dead people in the cellar and this guy who doesn't seem very well pulled-together is stronger than me, is the only one left in the house. What am I going to do? Am I going to go along with it? Am I going to try to run away? What is my position at this moment?

Another remarkable thing about this book is the sensual immediacy of it; it really feels as though you know what it was what like to do laundry in 1840. You acknowledge "Beeton's Book of Household Management" as a source.

Also, some of it is just using your own imagination. Subtract the automatic washer, subtract the ringer washer, and what is left? [solemnly] It is the tub. And the washboard. There is the bar of soap.

In some ways, this is a book about laundry, as much as a book about murder.

It is quite a bit about laundry, but of course, the Bible is about laundry. There's a lot about washing in the Bible and having snowy white garments and shining raiment. Clean and dirty is a primary human set of categories, like old/young and dark/light. Very primary.

The book actually makes laundry sound quite appealing.

There is something deeply satisfying about a nice, clean, folded towel.

Or sheets on the line.

Yes, sheets on the line are much more appealing than sheets in the dryer.

I 'm wondering how you personally feel about housework.

It is nice to do the kinds of it that you like, and it is not nice to do the kinds of it that you don't like.

You mentioned somewhere that your mother hated housework.

She wasn't keen on it.

It's ironic that you have written this book about a woman whose life is consumed with housework, and yet you grew up in a house ...

Where the idea was to get it over with. One of the reasons my mother liked it up north is that you just swept the dirt out the door. You didn't have a vacuum cleaner. The more objects, doo-dads and shining things you have, the more cleaning you have to do. If you don't have silverware, then you don't have to polish it. She was a minimalist in that respect. But as for me, I was always a bit more interested in it than she was, which was just as well, because I ended up doing some of it. She didn't like it, and in that generation, kids helped out.

Do you start out wanting to write about someone who does a lot of housework?

No! If you are writing about a servant, well, that is what they did all day. If you read "Mrs. Beeton," they get up at some ungodly hour in the morning. She lists all the different things the "maid of all work" has to do. It is extensive, a lot of stuff to be got through in a day. She gets up, she makes the fire, she boils the water, she cleans the grate, she lights the fire if it is winter, she sets the breakfast table, she brings in the breakfast. They eat the breakfast, she takes it away. She cleans off that. She takes off the table cloth, she does the dishes, she makes the lunch, she sets the lunch, she takes the dishes away, she washes the dishes, in addition to making the bread and making this and that ... polishing the lamps, doing the laundry, making the beds. And the dusting, polishing the stove — all of this had to be done at a time when there were no screens on the windows. So, not only were you doing all of this, you were contending with all of these flies.

Mrs. Beeton says "a brisk, smart girl, who is good at her work," will of course be able to get everything done in time, so that she has a couple of hours in the afternoon — and you think, for herself. But then she says, "To make her own clothes!" So, she is just not ever getting any time off. They finally did get a half day off every week. But this was dawn-to-dusk, back-breaking work.

How was it to try to write about that?

I have one chapter that is sort of Grace's day, but it is not even Grace's full day; we don't even get to breakfast, and there are already all of these things that she has done. I think it is pretty interesting, but you can get too immersed in it, which I had to look out for. I took out some of the detail that I'd put in because the story must move forward. But it would have meant that she had been a pretty practical, down-to-earth person. She did say, to McDermott, "Don't kill her in the room; you'll get blood on the floor." At first that sounds like a very callous thing to say. Then you think of course she had to clean those floors, and she doesn't want to have to clean up a bunch of blood.

Which is one of the hardest things to clean.

It is hard to get out.

Did you do much research, beyond "Mrs. Beeton"?

I am old. I have accumulated piles of things in my head over the years. My grandmother lived in a farmhouse without electricity or running water, they had a pump in the kitchen. Those were very tactile places. Made all the bread, the butter, smoked the fish, you know, kitchen garden, the chickens. No broadloom carpets. No vacuum cleaner.

One thing that has happened to Western women in the 20th century — North American women, Western European women — is that cleaning devices have made it unnecessary to have a lot of servants. They don't need to spend all day doing housework anymore. That is what has made it possible, really, for women to have outside jobs. What has made it necessary is the way the economy has moved around. A lot of families need to have two incomes. But if the whole day were housework and caring for children, the women wouldn't be able to have jobs. Even quite poor people in the 1840s would have one servant, because they couldn't run the house without them. Even Susanna Moodie, when she was living in her log cabin in the woods, had a servant.

Since you started writing critically about Canadian literature, acting as a spokesperson on behalf of Canadian writers, have you felt that there's been a lot of change?

A tremendous amount of change in a great many areas.

Are there some recognizable qualities about Canadian literature now?

It's not American, that's for sure. There is a very great difference coming from a country that only has about 30 million people in it, and one that has 280 million. When Americans travel, they buy little maple leaves and sew it on their luggage, because then people won't accuse them of being imperialist aggressors or yellow-dog capitalist pigs. It's just these nice Canadians. The other thing is, of course, a certain amount of invisibility. Americans usually stand out from the crowd. The Canadians frequently blend in. I would say we are much more outward looking than you, because we are a trading nation to a much greater extent than you are. If you look at the total of GNP that comes from trading with other countries, a lot more of ours does than yours. So, like Grace, we have to know about you. You don't have to know about us. We are not really affecting you to any astonishing extent.

One of the interesting things going on now for us is the degree to which foreign policy has diverged, particularly about Cuba. The United States is somewhat isolated on this issue. Canada, Mexico and Europe and just about everybody else thinks the Helms-Burton law is really a very bad precedent to set.

And so do a lot of Americans.

I am sure they do. I, on the other hand — having descended from United Empire loyalists — am quite looking forward to getting back those parts of New Hampshire and Connecticut that were stolen from my family by the bad revolutionaries in 1776, and I'll take the interest as well.

You figure if that style of reparation has come back ...

You could make a lot of money! A lot of people everywhere would be very interested in getting back these portions of things that were lost in governments that were overthrown. Let us not forget who did the first overthrowing in these parts. It was the U.S.

I found more academic articles about your work than I found interviews with you. Do you read those?

[mouths a long, silent "nooo"] I'd be driven quite thoroughly around the twist if I tried to read them. I can't really. Maybe in the afterlife I will, but not at the moment.

This struck me as being unusual for a writer as young as yourself to be the subject of so many academic papers.

I think it is somewhat unreasonable. Have you researched anybody else? Toni Morrison, she generates a lot.

But not someone like John Updike, who many other writers also revere. It's like a fan club.

It is kind of odd. Not exactly a fan club. Do you know about the Margaret Atwood Society? They're really academics going back and forth, exchanging information on what they are doing. I don't know. I try to stay more or less out of it. I think of it as a kind of job-creation project. They must secretly hate you if they have had to pick all of your writing apart to get something published.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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