Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most decorated and beloved authors. Despite having published several books of poetry and critical essays, Atwood remains best known for her many novels, two of which have received one of fiction's most prestigious honors: the Booker Prize. Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and she spent much of her childhood in the heavily forested areas of northern Quebec. An insatiable reader from childhood, Atwood felt inclined to a writing career from an early age. She pursued literary studies at the University of Toronto, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1961, and then later at Harvard University, where she completed a master’s degree in 1962. Although Atwood began work on a doctoral degree, her dissertation, which she never finished, took a backseat to her burgeoning career as a writer. She published her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, in 1961, and her first novel, The Edible Woman, eight years later. Atwood has since published a number of significant novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), The Testaments (2019), and a trio of dystopian novels known collectively as the MaddAddam Trilogy (2003–2013).
Throughout her long and prolific career, Atwood has depicted a diverse range of female characters, often portraying their struggles to survive the harsh and constricting conditions of a patriarchal society. In The Edible Woman, for instance, Atwood’s protagonist Marian comes to suspect that men have little real respect for her and would simply prefer to “consume” her before moving on to the next woman. Atwood takes her critique of patriarchal attitudes further in The Handmaid’s Tale. In that novel, Atwood explores the possibility of a near-future dystopia in which a totalitarian state replaces the United States government and institutes a repressive regime that strips women of all their rights. Many of Atwood’s subsequent novels continue to explore the lives of a variety of women. For example, Cat’s Eye concerns a mid-twentieth-century painter named Elaine and her difficult relationships with other women. The Blind Assassin weaves a mystery out of the lives of two sisters. The Penelopiad (2005) offers a feminist revision of Greek mythology told from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who looks back on her life from the land of the dead.
Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace echoes her other work with its focus on the life and point of view of a fascinating woman. However, this novel is markedly different from the others in that it is a fictionalized account of a true story. Atwood based the novel on the real-life sensational murders of a wealthy landowner named Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery, which took place in a village near Toronto in 1843. Two of Kinnear’s servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were convicted of the murders and sentenced to death. McDermott was executed, but a judge commuted Marks’s sentence to life in prison, where she remained for thirty years until she received a pardon. The case drew a lot of public attention at the time, and the fact that Marks was a woman had a polarizing effect. Whereas some demonized Marks as an evil temptress, others presumed her to be an innocent victim who must have been coerced. In an interview for CBC News, Atwood noticed a similarly polarized perception of another Canadian female killer, Karla Homolka, who stood trial for multiple murders at the same time Atwood was writing Alias Grace.
Atwood first learned about Grace Marks in the 1960s. As a student at Harvard she came across a work titled Life in the Clearings (1853), written by the English-born Canadian author Susanna Moodie. Moodie’s book appeared a decade after the Kinnear–Montgomery murders, and it included a third-hand account of the events. Moodie claimed that Marks instigated the murders, motivated by her infatuation with Kinnear and her jealousy of Nancy. Marks allegedly manipulated McDermott into helping her by promising him sex. As Atwood reflects in her afterword to Alias Grace, Moodie’s account of the murders is suspiciously sensational and clearly influenced by melodramatic literary conventions. Although Atwood claims not to have changed any known facts about Marks’s life and the Kinnear–Montgomery murders in her retelling, Alias Grace is undoubtedly a work of fiction. In addition to providing fictionalized accounts of the historical characters and events involved, Atwood also introduces a cast of completely fictional characters, most notably Dr. Simon Jordan and Mary Whitney. Even so, the ambiguities of Atwood’s novel reflect the ambiguities of the history that the novel recounts. As Atwood herself concludes: “The true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma.”