The Real Alias Grace


Grace Marks

The other day I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace”, after thoroughly enjoying the Netflix adaptation – I hadn’t realised before I a) started reading and b) started watching, that the story is based on a real double murder and that Grace Marks was a real woman. I was immediately intrigued by this and began having a dig around for the real story behind Grace Marks and the gruesome double murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery.


Grace Marks was a servant of Thomas Kinnear, living in his house just outside of Toronto. James McDermott, also a servant of Kinnear’s, also lived in the property. Both Grace and McDermott were Irish Immigrants – Grace had travelled to Canada with her alcoholic father and multiple siblings, whilst her mother had died on the trip over and had been buried at sea.

Following the murders – Kinnear had been shot twice in the chest whilst Montgomery had been struck in the head with an axe and then strangled – Grace and McDermott fled the house having stolen a number of Kinnear’s possessions. Montgomery’s body was found crammed beneath a tub in the basement of Kinnear’s home and it was later found that she was pregnant at the time of her death.

Their disappearance from the Kinnear home was immediately treated as suspicious. The two were found in Lewiston, New York, not long after the murders had taken place and were arrested. The two were taken back to Toronto where they were put on trial – McDermott was found guilty of first degree murder whilst Grace was found guilty of being an accessory to murder.

They were both sentenced to death.

Grace and James

Grace and McDermott at the time of their trial

Grace was spared the hangman’s noose, however and her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. But whilst many of the witnesses at the trial gave differing statements, neither Grace nor McDermott confessed to being totally innocent of the crime. Grace insisted however that McDermott had forced her into helping him kill Kinnear and Montgomery and said that she had tried to run away from the house – McDermott shot at her and witnesses testified to finding a bullet from a pistol lodged in the kitchen door. McDermott, whilst standing on the scaffold where he would meet his maker, made out that Grace had been happy to help him and had even been the one to strangle Montgomery with a piece of cloth.

Grace Marks was imprisoned for a total of 29 years. 15 months of that were spent in the Lunatic Asylum before she was returned to Kingston Penitentiary. During her incarceration, many petitioned for Marks’ release. She was released from prison in 1872 and moved to New York – however after that point, Grace Marks disappears completely from the historical record. Perhaps she changed her name, got married and let herself fade into obscurity – after all, she had been the subject of much discussion and spent a good portion of her life locked away in a prison – the conditions of which can’t have been very nice.

One last question was asked of her before she was released back into the world – what has been the cause of the crime for which you have been sent to the Penitentiary? She answered clearly, and in my mind gave an answer that showed her innocence – “Having been employed in the same house with a villain.”

Atwood’s “Alias Grace” is of course a work of fiction – there is much about Marks’ life that is unknown and so Atwood has had some room to manoeuvre with artistic license. The book is absolutely wonderful, with a narrative that truly hooks you and reels you in. I lost many hours of sleep, just wanting to read that little bit more and know more of Grace’s story. Atwood gives us a character who you can truly sympathise with – Grace’s story is a sad one, her life full of awful events that have shaped her, and Atwood shows us a young woman who has been manipulated into helping with a crime so awful that it hardly bears thinking about. The Netflix series also shows this and is a wonderful adaptation of Atwood’s work.

Further reading:

George Watson, The Trials of James McDermott and Grace Marks for the Murder of Thomas Kinnear and his Housekeeper Nancy Montgomery

[Review] Jane Austen At Home – Lucy Worsley


On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the world in which our best-loved novelist lived.

This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the rooms, spaces and possessions which mattered to her, and the way in which home is used in her novels to mean both a place of pleasure and a prison. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, in fact her life was often a painful struggle.

Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.

I’m sure many of my readers can recall sitting in English Literature at school, reading one of Jane Austen’s novels. And I’m sure many of you can recall finding them (at that age), incredibly dull, not helped by the fact that you had to pick them apart to find every single hidden meaning within every single sentence. I certainly did. But after I left school, I found a new found appreciation for Jane Austen and her novels. The romance and normality of her work was something I found to be incredibly comforting. But what I never really knew that much about was Jane Austen’s life – I knew that she’d spent some time in Bath, having been past the Jane Austen museum there time and time again as a youngster and I knew that she’d spent a few years in both Southampton and Winchester. So when I found out that Lucy Worsley was writing a biography on Jane Austen’s life, I was intrigued to read it.

From the moment I opened this book I was entranced. To start with, Worsley’s style made this an incredibly easy read and thus I ended up losing hours to this book without even realising it. Worsley’s style really didn’t make this book seem like a heavy historical biography, but rather injected a lot of her quirky pizzazz that I adore about her television programmes. It’s not often that I find any sort of historical biography to be a page turner, but this one is an exception!

When thinking about Jane Austen living in Georgian England, I at least always imagined her life to be rather dull. But Worsley shows this to be completely untrue. I was particularly surprised to read about just how many marriage proposals Jane had throughout her life. She never married, holding out perhaps for the romances that she wrote about in her novels, which I find to be incredibly brave in an era when it was expected that women would marry and bear children. Jane Austen cherished her freedom – marriage may well have caged her and thus not allowed her the freedom to write.

Jane’s struggle to get her work published initially is something that many authors will sympathise with. Her initial work, Susan (which later became Northanger Abbey) was submitted to a publisher in Bath but nothing ever came of it until she brought back the copyright. It was never published in her lifetime, however. Jane never gave up with her writing – something that authors can really learn from. It’s so easy to become downhearted and refuse to carry on if a piece of work is rejected, something which Jane never did. Yes, she had bouts where she seemingly didn’t write at all. But, after all, writers block affects even the greatest writers.

I was particularly keen to read about Jane’s time spent in Southampton, especially as I regularly walk past the Dolphin Hotel and its blue plaque stating that Jane danced there for her eighteenth birthday. It was incredibly interesting to read about what the city was like then and compare it to now – Worsley even mentions the army recruitment centre and takeaway’s that are opposite the Dolphin these days! I’ve even had a pint (or three) in the pub that was built over the site of Jane’s house in Castle Square. Southampton, these days a bustling city full of history, certainly seems to have been much more picturesque in the Georgian era when Jane lived there. The city walls that lay at the end of her garden (and are still there!) once looked directly over the water which lapped against its walls. These days, though, the land has been reclaimed. If you walk along the bottom of the walls towards the old water gate, you can see a line in the pavement which marks where the shore used to be. Very interesting indeed.

The end of Jane’s life, although sad, certainly wasn’t lonely. She was surrounded by her loved ones and still had her beloved sister Cassandra at her side. The relationship between the two sisters is incredibly heartwarming – the two really seemed as if they were best friends as well as family, right up until the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it made a nice change from the heavy biographies of the Italian Renaissance that I normally have my nose in. It has certainly opened my eyes and given me a greater understanding of much of the meaning behind Jane’s novels – the loss of a home, the use of naval careers for many of her male characters etc, and in particular the idea of romance and the very idea of home being more personal than just bricks and mortar. Not only that but the research that has gone into this work is absolutely impeccable. It has made me want to sit down and re-read my Jane Austen collection, in all honesty, something that I am very much looking forward to. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the wonderful Authoress and her life.

A huge thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a review copy of this work. 

Jane Austen At Home is released in May and available for pre-order on Amazon now.