'Alias Grace' Is Based On A True Story, Which Makes It Much, Much Creepier

by Ani Bundel

Netflix's newest original series offering for November comes out Friday, Nov. 3rd, 2017. Based on Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel of the same name, Alias Grace is set in the 1840s in Canada, along Ontario's southern border, in and around the areas of Kingston and Toronto. With the novel's adaptation by writer and director Sarah Polley, and actress Sarah Gadon's role as the titular Grace, the historical setting of the novels has fans wondering: Is Alias Grace based on a true story? Or, is it just a fantasy set in the past, instead of in the near future, like Atwood's other novel adapted for streaming, The Handmaid's Tale?

Unlike The Handmaid's Tale, which is a complete fantasy marketed under what used to be referred to as "speculative fiction" but nowadays finds itself shelved in the "dystopian" section, Alias Grace is, in fact, based on historical events.

Here's the full synopsis:

The story of Alias Grace follows Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a poor, young Irish immigrant and domestic servant in Upper Canada who, along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan), was convicted of the brutal murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), in 1843. James was hanged while Grace was sentenced to life imprisonment. Grace became one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of 1840s Canada for her supposed role in the sensational double murder, and was eventually exonerated after 30 years in jail. Her conviction was controversial, and sparked much debate about whether Grace was actually involved in the murder, or merely an unwitting accessory.

Thomas Kinnear was an actual person who lived in Toronto, Canada, in the 1800s. A wealthy Ontario farmer in what was then referred to as "the Province of Upper Canada," the murders, which took place on July 23, 1843, were, at the time, the equivalent of the 1990s Menendez Murders or the OJ trial. As Atwood puts in the novel's postscript:

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.

Here's a short YouTube video on the murder and subsequent trial.

Marks' life before entering into the service of the Kinnear household had not been an easy one:

Marks was born and raised in Ulster, Ireland, had eight siblings, with another three who were stillborn. Marks' father John Marks, a stonemason, was an alcoholic and abusive person. The family emigrated to Canada in 1840 when she was 12. Her mother died on the ship en route to Canada, and was buried at sea.

Most people nowadays accept Irish people to be as European as any other nationality. But back in the 1800s, during a time when "racial theory" was considered a serious science instead of just a polite way to be racist in public, to be Irish was to be considered inferior, which is why Grace Marks did her best to never mention it.

This opinion of the Irish as some sort of automatic underclass became an increasing problem as the Great Irish Famine of the 1800s got worse and immigrants crossed the seas to the Americas in search of a new life.


All that being said, the actual story shown on screen, of Dr. Simon Jordan and his research into the case, and into Marks' psychological state, is all fictionalized. Even though (spoiler alert!) Marks was eventually pardoned in real life, none of what happened in Jordan's study actually occurred.

Still, as a storytelling conceit, and a way to examine one of the most notorious murders of the time period, it is an excellent read and an excellent miniseries.

All six episode of Alias Grace will be available starting Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. The novel is available at bookstores and on Amazon.