Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace, and the adaptation of it that debuts on Netflix on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, is billed as a work of "historical fiction." So, it is a story that is fictionalized, but it takes it base from true events. The story is based on Grace Marks. She was accused of murder along with James McDermott at the age of 16. She was convicted of killing Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. A man named Simon Jordan began to study her. But what about him? Is Dr. Jordan based on a real person in Alias Grace?
No, Dr. Simon Jordan is not a real person. Much of the work that we see him do is based on papers of the time. His conversations with the Reverend are based in real theories about Grace Marks's innocence. There was a group of do-gooder Christians who went around trying to get her released all throughout her 30 year sentence.
But as for there being an American doctor who was studying the budding field of mental health in the 1850s who came to interview her, that never happened. Simon Jordan is a complete construct by Atwood, in order to both have Grace tell her story to someone, as well as discuss the theories that were popular at the time about her guilt or innocence.
While we're at it, we should also talk about Dr. Jordan's rival for Grace's attention, Dr. Jerome. He too is a conceit invented for the story.
We actually don't know if Grace worked anywhere before the Kinnear house. We know she used the name "Mary Whitney" when she and James tried to escape to America, but we don't know if Mary was a real person who Grace was friends with or not.
Both of these are plot seeds to explain Grace's use of the name and to introduce the concept of the hypnotist.
What is true is that there were theories at the time of Marks' trial that she was "possessed" by a spirit that went by the name of "Mary Whitney." Marks insists at the trial that she remembered nothing of that night, leading some to theorize she had "multiple personality disorder" with Mary being the "split personality." Others thought that Mary was a dead spirit who had possessed her (hence the dead friend story line) and was driving her to do evil.
By having Dr. Jordan wrestle with these theories, and see Grace show "Mary" to him in her trance, it gives the story a way to debate the merits of why Grace might do this. As Jordan says, is it simply driven by a madness that comes from deep repression of rage? Is this "Mary" side the only way she feels free to speak candidly? Is she faking it all, just to get out of jail? Or is she really insane?
Since there was no Dr. Jordan, having him decide he cannot help Grace, and he cannot write the documents those who hired him want is a convenient excuse to explain why they don't exist in the public record. It also gives Jordan a moment to be right. He tells the Reverend to use this "hypnotist stuff" and the suggestion that Grace was "possessed by a spirit" as an argument to get her released is a non starter.
Marks served out almost all 30 years of her commuted sentence. She only received a pardon a few months before she would have been released.
As for the fictional Dr. Jordan going off to fight in the Civil War, only to come back catatonic? That too is a nice way of keeping him from ever going to find her once she was released. As it is, she did move to the United States once freed. But after that, all traces of her were lost.