In 1843 a murder case shocked Canadian society. A young servant girl and a stable boy
were accused to have taken their masters life in a very cruel and unscrupulous manner. The unlucky master was Thomas Kinnear who had a farm near the town of Toronto and a secret liaison with his first servant girl Nancy Montgomery who also died through the hands of the accused. The stable boy was called James McDermott, and he was thought to be the leader of the two. Consequently, he was hanged in result of his trial. The young servant girl was an immigrant from the British Islands, to be exactly from Northern Ireland. During her trial the public became to know her as a serious and cold, attentious and clever woman and soon she was the focus of various stereotypes of the murderess and an image for the social conflicts of the time. Her name was Grace Marks alias Mary Whitney. In 1996 the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood published her version of the Grace Marks murder case with her novel “Alias Grace”. According to her afterword she collected very intensely as much writings (like newspaper articles, witness papers and even literary works) about the case as possible and tried to present the facts as they were, only the existing gaps were filled with her imagination. The result of it is not just a story about a murder with the fates of both victims and murderers presented or discussed. It is rather a novel about the society of Canada in the mid-19 th century and its problems - viewed from the point of a member of the lower class. Over long parts of the novel, Grace Marks herself is the narrator. Due to her intelligence and the - for her age - high amount of life experience, she can give very good descriptions of the society as well as elaborated analyses of certain mechanisms underlying. But on the other hand, the reader has to be very alert because Grace is also able to cheat and lead us on a wrong path regarding the circumstances of the murder. Nevertheless, the reader gets a rather precise image of the Canadian (and especially the Upper Canadian) society in the mid-19 th century. To compare this image with other - nonfictional - historical descriptions of this subject, to be more precise to find certain characteristics of this society as presented by historians represented in Atwood’s novel, is the subject of this paper. To achieve this I will do the following: At first I want to give a brief overview over the course of events that led to the existence of Upper Canada as Grace experienced it in order to make clear the historical background. In the second part of this paper I will analyse three features of the (Upper) Canadian society at that time and their appearance in the novel. Consequently, the aim of this paper is to give the reader of Atwood’s novel a background knowledge of the society in which Grace and her deeds were embedded and so understand the social dimension of this case much better.
2. The History of Upper Canada
The story of “Alias Grace” is settled in the British North-American Provinces of the mid- th century. Thus, to understand the historical background of the story it is necessary to briefly outline the major events that shaped Colonial Canada and its society at that time. The first part of this paper will therefore be dedicated to the history of Upper Canada from 1763 to 1867.
2.1. The Founding of Quebec
The existence of the first predecessors of Upper Canada started in 1763 when France ceded its North-American colonies to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris. This treaty was signed by France and Great Britain at the end of the French and Indian War (1754 - 63) and led directly to the Proclamation of 1763 which regulated the dividing of the land between settlers and Indians. Simultaneously, what was the territory of “New France” under French rule became the “Province of Quebec” with a royal governor as head. Nevertheless, most of the population in Quebec was still of French origin and British settlers did move very slowly into the province. So, about 65.000 French-speaking Canadians under British rule aimed to preserve their culture and language which consequently led to emerging troubles. One major problem was the fact that although the majority of Quebec’s population was of French origin, it was not allowed to hold office, vote or sit in the assembly. The reason for this was their Roman Catholicism, because of which they were excluded from official responsibility according to the “Test Acts” 1 . To achieve some stability in the province, the British parliament enacted the Quebec Act in 1774 which was to regulate the legislative problems of the Province of Quebec. It officially recognized the Roman Catholic Church, the French civil law and the seigneurial land-tenure system and set up an appointed council to the governor. The “Test Act” was repealed and so French Canadians were allowed to hold office. Was this act a stabilizing factor inside the province, it became on the other hand a threat for the relationship to the American colonists. They did not agree with the many rights granted to the French which made the Quebec Act a major cause of the American Revolution. First-hand experience with this implication of the Quebec Act the province became in 1775 when it got directly involved in the American Revolution and colonist troops seized Montreal. Later on they also tried to enter Quebec which - happily for the Canadians - failed in the end. But from that time on Canada functioned as a base for Loyalist and Indian attacks
against the colonists and was seen as this as well. When the revolution had come to an end, about half of the Loyalists who went into exile chose the North-American Provinces, mostly New Brunswick or Upper Canada. Therefore, more than ever it became the foe and troublemaker in the eyes of the American colonists, who wanted to finally erase the British North-American colonies from the surface of the New World.
2.2. The Birth of Upper Canada
After the troubling years of the American Revolution the Loyalists coming to Upper Canada caused yet another problem that the British government thought to have solved some years ago. The Quebec Act, built in former times to calm down the French population, was now not bearable for the Loyalists because they did not want to live under a Frenchorigin council and civil law and without representative government. But to withdraw the act was also not possible without annoying the French-Canadians. The simplest solution was then to divide the Province of Quebec into two sections, one - as established - under French-Canadian rule and one for the Loyalists according to the British governmental system. This was done with the Constitutional Act (also called Canada Bill) in 1791. The former Quebec broke down into Lower Canada with a French-speaking majority and Upper Canada 2 inhabited mostly by British Loyalists. In Lower Canada all rights the people had gained in the Quebec Act were preserved. But against all expectations the British parliament established the British governmental system - based on a lieutenant governor with an executive as well as a legislative council and a legislative assembly which was voted by a limited number of male voters - for both of the territories. The next major incident in Upper Canadian history emerged in 1812 when the ongoing trade and border conflicts between American colonists and British government led into the War of 1812. This second armed conflict to be fought in Upper Canada was on American side mainly a conquest of Canada as a means to eliminate British influence in North America. Both sides were not really prepared for the war and so it ended in 1914 3 without any major outcome. Only the U.S.-Canadian border was confirmed as it was at that time.
2.3. The Coming of the Immigrants
After the end of this war Canada changed its state when the first immigration wave reached the country. Most of the people coming to the British North American colonies at that time were Englanders, Scots, Welsh and Irish. The number of immigrants rose in the 1830s and reached its peak in 1847, in sum there were about half a million people coming to Canada during this period. After 1850 the stream of immigrants again focused on the United
States. I will go into detail with this subject in one of the next paragraphs when I come to the features of Canadian society at that time. With those immigrants a number of new problems reached the continent and Canada. One of them was the mixture of Protestants and Catholics, another one were the class conflicts already existing in Great Britain which were then imported to Canada. Consequently, a new ruling class established in both Upper and Lower Canada which tried to govern the provinces according to their own rules. Those strong ruling oligarchies were very closed against the rest of the society so that the power remained within those circles. In Upper Canada the members of this oligarchy were mainly from the landed gentry and they were called the Family Compact 4 . This “family” arose about 1920 and tried to establish a Britsh-like class society in the province as well as to preserve an irresponsible government. They had a strong Anti-American attitude which was very helpful because this was what almost everyone in the province had and so it was a good means to tie the people to the Family Compact. The British government also supported such a strong ruling oligarchy because it felt that so the provinces remained stable and would not get loose as the American colonies did. But after some time the people in Upper Canada became more and more annoyed about this selfish ruling class. The displeasure accumulated and so did the group of citizens who wanted to counteract against this government. A newly developed professional middle-class, consisting for instance of lawyers and journalists, was the pool for those activists. They arranged themselves around a former major of Toronto, William Lloyd Mackenzie, and started what became known as the Rebellion of 1837. But things did not go that well for the rebels and so they had to give up after a short time. All in all, this rebellion was a rather weak effort to destroy the British class society in the Canadian provinces but despite its failure the ruling oligarchies declined afterwards.
2.4. The Preparation of the Dominion
But the rebellion had another important result: the Canadian question became important to the British government. Therefore, a British inquirer - the Lord of Durham - was sent to the North American colonies to find out in what state they were. He returned to Great Britain with two suggestions: firstly, only a Canadian Union could lead the colonies out of the stagnation they were in at that time. Because the time for a complete Canadian Union was not yet come, in a first step only Ontario and Quebec should unite to open up the St. Lawrence River valley for economic use and force the assimilation of the French-Canadian population. Secondly, Lord Durham recommended the establishing of a responsible government to make the colonies more self-responsible.
Whereas the British government rejected the last point, it did accept the union of the two “Canadas” and so in 1841 the Act of Union sealed the unification of Ontario and Quebec to the new Province of Canada. Later on, in 1848, also the responsible government was virtually implemented with the abolishment of the British Corn Laws. Once one the track, there was no stopping the train to the Canadian Union - though it was a long and winding way. In 1864 the Conference of Quebec decided the confederation of the British North American colonies. This step was highly approved by the British government which had too much trouble with these colonies and wanted to get rid of this them as fast as possible. But the colonies had all their own ideas on how this confederation should look like and what it should bring them. And so it lasted until 1867 that the foundation of the Dominion of Canada took place, written down in the British North America Act. This act united the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Canadas (former Ontario and Quebec), furthermore the latter were again divided into two provinces. The British North America Act functioned as Canada’s constitution until 1982. It was then renamed into the Constitution Act of 1867 and lives on as the basis of today’s Constitution Act of 1982. Broadly, the British North America Act regulated the division of power between the federal government and the provinces. It provided a constitution “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom” 5 , with an executive government vested in Queen Victoria and her successors. Furthermore it was arranged that in the beginning more power should lie in the federal government to force the expansion of the Dominion and to build the economically important railway to the Pacific. With the Dominion of Canada, a new period in Canadian history begins and the “genesis” of Upper Canada was more or less finished. Similarly, Grace Marks leaves the Canadian provinces in U.S. direction and starts her new life in New York State. Thus, the events of the Grace Marks murder case take place on the tabloid of the outlined historical events. The interrelation of both “groups of events” is shown in the timeline. Having now in mind the historical background of the novel, in the following part of this paper I will describe three main features of the Upper Canadian society in the mid-19 th century to make clear the social background of Atwood’s story.
Timeline of the events in the British North American provinces and the events in “Alias Grace”
3. Features of the Upper Canadian Society
For a better understanding of the story of “Alias Grace” it is - as with any other piece of literature - useful to look at the time it is set in. And to understand a story like “Alias Grace”, which deals a lot with the society and its problems, it is especially important to look at the rules and underlying principles on which the social order and life in general is based at that time. In order to do this I will try to point out main features of the society which Grace lived in because it makes the situation of her and how she got there clearer for the readers and we are able to understand some remarks in the story which demand a background knowledge to recognize their importance. While dealing with the Upper Canadian society of the mid-19 th century I found three major points which distilled out of the various historical descriptions. Firstly, an - if not the - important feature of Upper Canada at that time was the stream of immigrants coming to the British North American colonies. A second complex which was a strong tie holding all the various groups of society together was the high Anti-Americanism - a feature still existing today. And thirdly, Canada resembled the British class society at its best, thus establishing a clone of the Old World in the New World. These three features of the (not only Upper) Canadian society will be the focus of this paragraph, as I will outline every single one of them with regard to their influence on and occurrence in Atwood’s “Alias Grace”.
3.1. Upper Canada - an Immigration Province
Just like the United States of America, Canada is an immigration state. Though there were peoples in the New World long before the explorers and settlers from countries of the Old World came to get hold of the land. They called - and still they do, in places they are allowed to - themselves the First Nations. But after the massive settlement of British and French colonialists in the northern part of North America they were by and by driven out of their territories and the white men became the owners of the land.
3.1.1. The Coming of the Empire
At first mostly US-Loyalists, frontier settlers and Quakers or Mennonites from Pennsylvania settled in what later becomes Upper Canada (or Ontario). They either - in the case of the Loyalists - wanted to separate themselves from the American colonists or - as the sects did - just tried to establish a community in a territory that provided space enough to spread out freely. But both of them did not remain the only owners of the land for a long time. Since the end of the War of 1812 the first immigration wave entered the British North American colonies, starting in 1815 and lasting until about 1850. 6 It reached its peak in 1847 and washed approximately 500.000 people to Canada. Among them was Grace Marks - the heroine of our story - together with her sisters and brothers as well as her father. Her mother died unfortunately on the more than undermining voyage across the ocean. “My name is Grace Marks, and I am the daughter of John Marks, who lives in the Township of Toronto, he is a Stonemason by trade; we came to this country from 7 the North of Ireland about three years ago; I have four sisters and four brothers […]”
From this voluntary confession of Grace we learn the most important facts about her origin and family. Undoubtedly, she probably comes from a rather poor family, as her father is a stonemason, a profession with poor waging, and she as no less than eight siblings. We also learn that Grace is from Northern Ireland - a mother country where many immigrants came from, as well as from other parts of the British Islands. And later we become to know that she is, as most of the immigrants were but against any suspicions concerning Northern Irish, a Protestant - a detail she attached great importance to: “What it says at the beginning of my Confession is true enough. I did indeed come from the North of Ireland; though I though it very unjust when they wrote down that both of the accused were from Ireland by their own admission. That made it sound like a crime, and I don’t know that being from Ireland is a crime; although I have often seen it treated as such. But of course our family were Protestants, and that is different.” 8
This quote shows that Grace is very lucky to be a Protestant and with her we recognize that being a Catholic in Upper Canada was not the best of all possibilities. Indeed, the people who already lived in Canada looked very suspicious at their new neighbors, especially if they were Catholics, who also came from Scotland and Ireland during the first immigration period. It is already here that we can see how the British social structure and conflicts were transported to the North American colonies - a fact I will discuss later. The incoming immigrants normally arrived at the harbor of Toronto, the prospering metropolis of Upper Canada. Many of them stayed there for a while either because they had not enough money to go further west or because they wanted to try their luck as merchants or day-laborers in the town. By and by, Toronto became a very multicultural city, as Grace Marks recognizes at her arrival: “The people appeared to be very mixed as to the kinds of them, with many Scots and some Irish, and of course the English, and many Americans, and a few French; and Red Indians, although they had no feathers; and some Germans; with skins of all hues, which was very new to me; and you never could tell what sort of speech you were going to hear. There were many taverns, and much drunkenness around 9 the harbour, because of the sailors, and altogether it was just like the Tower of Babel.”
3.1.2. Different Background - Different Chances
Basically, we can distinguish two distinct streams during this immigration period: the genteel English and Anglo-Irish on the one side, the working class English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh on the other side. The first group mostly established a good living on large farms or in town (for instance in Toronto). Thomas Kinnear, the landlord and master of Grace Marks was one of them. They had enough money to buy as much land as was needed to lead a good life and they could afford servants to do the work for them. That way they also functioned as employers for the poor masses who came to Canada. Those masses came from Britain or Ireland because they were not able to survive there and their only chance was to set out on the undermining and dangerous journey over the Atlantic Ocean to North America. Once there, the only thing they still possessed was their physical strength and ability to work - if it was not washed away by the sea - because the little property they had at home was mostly needed to pay the shipping. That was why many of them stayed in the towns, especially Toronto, to have a constant look for day-labor or hard jobs in the factories, saving every Dollar for a farm in the West. Usually, half the family earned money somewhere, the boys and men for instance as day-laborers on farms and grown-up girls, like Grace Marks, for instance as live-in helps. This way the family saved the
8 Atwood 1996, p.114 9 ibd., p. 139
costs for food and bed and they were somehow able to make their living. When they had saved enough money to leave the towns and head towards the frontier in the West they did so and built a little farm somewhere in the rural areas of Ontario. But compared to the “majestic” farms of the upper-class Britons those were just a few acres of land around a single-room cottage and that was not enough to feed the family. So, the men were still forced to go to the cities and look for their jobs while the women and children tended the land. Nevertheless, such a tiny farm was the dream of many immigrants, including Grace’s father: “She said that our father had found no steady work, only odd jobs, but had the prospect of going north that winter, to cut trees; and had news of some free land further west, and would go there once the spring had come. Which he did, and suddenly too, […].” 10
Naturally, this unstable work and poor payment in a life between agriculture, industry and commerce as well as the dream to possess own land led to a high mobility of the poorer immigrants. Over a ten-years period only one third to one half of the people who lived at a given place at the beginning still lived there at the end. In this way they could not establish strong communities that took over the control over their citizens and represent them in the clash of interests that is to fight out in the society. As a result, the remained mostly fending for themselves without any chance to give voice to their rights.
3.1.3. The Canadian Immigration Characterized
Looking at the character of Canadian immigration, there are two basic features that distinguish it especially from the one happening in the American colonies. At first, I would describe it rather as a push- than a pull-immigration. Whereas in the American colonies the pull-factors - the great idea of a new society, the myth of the land of the free - led many people to move there, in Canada this was not the case. People who came here did so because they had not really any other chance. Their situation in the Old World, and this was especially the case with the Irish, was that poor that anything they would find in the new one would be better. So they came to Canada not because they had any ideal to strive for but simply to survive. Seen this way, they did not come to Canada but from their home countries. “None of the men and women was engaged in a project of nation-building but they evaluated economic growth in terms of benefits to themselves and were ready to contribute. They did build their own lives and the sum of lives built and relationships 11 established created a society.”
The second feature in a way derives from the above mentioned. The immigrants who came to the Canadian provinces did not form an overall community with common values and principles and the understanding of unity. Rather they remained in their nation-specific
groups and cultures and built up their new lives besides each other. So, they did not come together in a “melting pot” but they created the Canadian mosaic of different people and cultures. One reason for this phenomenon is the famous “quest for identity”. Canada had no ready-made identity which could be assumed by the immigrants once they settled down. Contrary to the United States, where the “land of the free” and the “leading democracy” awaited the newcomers, in Canada there was nothing except the Anti-Americanism which I will come to in the next paragraph. And the quest is not yet finished. Margaret Atwood describes this difference in her book “Survival” by use of the plot structure of novels: “In a typical American plot, the immigrant throws away his old values (usually hierarchical and paternalistic) and espouses egalitarian democracy. The price America demands is a leap into the melting pot: he must attempt - and often he desires - to efface all traces of his ethnic origins in order to become a real “American”, to take on a new identity. […] A typical Canadian plot has certain important differences. First, Canada does not demand a leap into the melting pot […] Secondly, if he does wipe away his ethnic origin, there is no new ‘Canadian’ identity ready for him to step into: he is confronted only by a nebulosity, a blank; no ready-made ideology is provided for him.” 12
3.1.4. To Sum It Up …
… immigration was an important force for the development of the British North American Colonies and especially Upper Canada. But as it mostly is, it brought some conflicts to the provinces as well, especially the poorness of many immigrants and the emerging class or culture conflicts. The case was even hardened by the missing common identity of what should become “Canadians”. And because Grace Marks is an Irish immigrant she can describe this situation very well from the newcomer’s point of view and so gives the reader a comprehensive picture of the immigration process in the mid-19 th century.
3.2. Upper Canada - based on Anti-Americanism
“The Americans are our best friends - whether we like it or not.” 13 This ambivalent and ironic quote describes in one sentence a state of mind which has been - and still is - fundamental in Canadian society: the Anti-Americanism. The basis for this phenomenon seems to be obvious and has been outlined in the previous chapter. In the beginning mostly US-Loyalists came to Upper Canada to settle down in exile and even found a home base for their attacks against American colonists. So the roots had been laid. The second basic reason for the anti-American position of the British North American colonies and later Canada is obvious as well. The British government itself wanted these colonies to be a counterweight to the disloyal American settlers and through the Canadian provinces it sought to establish its role in the New World. “The purposes of the Fathers [of Confederation] were political and social as well as economic. Their primary object had been the establishment of a separate British-American nation and an independent northern economy based on a transcontinental east-west-axis. From the first they had been acutely aware of the fact that the preponderating power of the United States and its instinct for continental domination represented 14 the greatest danger to their main ambition; […]”
But apart from that there are other factors and reasons that can explain the animosities and even hostility that even today still exists in both countries against each other and that led the Canadian historian F. H. Underhill to the exclamatian: “The Canadian is the first Anti-American, the ideal Anti-American, the Anti-American 15 as he exists in the mind of God.”
3.2.1. The Dangers of Neighborhood
In general, neighbors - be it persons or states - tend to react suspicious against each other. One reason for this is the local vicinity that demands a more or less good arrangement of relationships but can also create a diffuse fear of getting victimized by the other. And when the neighbor is even bigger than oneself, as it is the case with Canada and the USA, this fear grows. Indeed, the Canadians felt always threatened by American conquest - not without reason. As I already mentioned, American colonists did enter Canadian territory two times (until the mid 19 th century), at first during the American revolution and then in the War of 1812. Such interferences are not very helpful for establishing a friendship. They rather create prejudices, and so they did in Canada. Generally, Americans were for the Canadian people
always “barbarians”, that means slaveholders and belligerent folks. This argument was very well known to Dr. Jordan, the American psychologist in “Alias Grace”: “’Where do you stand on the Abolitionist question, Dr. Jordan?’ says Mrs. Quennell. Now the woman is turning intellectual, and will insist on a belligerent discussion of politics, and will doubtless order him to abolish slavery in the South at once. Simon finds it tiresome to be constantly accused, in his individual person, of all the sins of his country, and especially by these Britishers, who seem to think that a conscience recently discovered excuses them for not having had any conscience at all at an earlier period. On what was their present wealth founded, but on the slave trade; and where would their great mill towns be without southern cotton?” 16
But the gibes and prejudices were (and still are) to be found on both sides of the border. This way, the border between Canada and the United States with its almost not existing physical manifestation is the higher in the heads of both peoples. In “Alias Grace” we have Dr. Simon Jordan as one American who plays a center role in the story. When he comes to Kingston to visit Grace he writes to a friend in his home country: “As for society, I must report that there are pretty girls here as elsewhere, albeit dressed in the Paris fashions of three years ago, which is to say the New York fashions of two. Despite the reforming tendencies of the countries present government, the town abounds 17 both in disgruntled Tories, and also in pretty provincial snobberies; […]”
And later on, when Simon is preparing for a meeting with Reverend Verringer, a member of the Established Church and therefore a prototype of the anti-American Canadian, he thinks of provoking him a little bit with his American style: “It will be a trying interview, and Simon will be tempted to start drawling, and saying I reckon, and acting the British Colonial version of the wooden-nutmeg-peddling Yankee, 18 just to annoy.”
These three of many other quotes from “Alias Grace” show how omnipresent those prejudices were on both sides of the border. But these are not only the usual neighborly conflicts but there is another reason lying deeper underground which I will now bring to the surface.
3.2.2. On How Men Should Live Together
Besides these “normal” argues and troubles between neighbours, the marking difference between Canada and the USA - and the subsequent Anti-Americanism which resembles a strong Anti-Canadianism on the other side - are even written down in the two constitutions. Whereas the American Declaration of Independence (1776) stresses “life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness” 19 in the Canadian British North America Act (1867) “peace, order and good government” 20 is central. The roots of these two systems go back to the 17 th century and are the different philosophical principles of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The Canadian society is based on Hobbes’ assumption that men in the natural state of the world are isolated individuals and led only by their will to survive, a situation that is a constant danger for everyone (bellum omnium contra omnes). In order to be able to live together they need a uniting power - the empowered state. The people voluntarily subjugate under the ruling hand of the famous Leviathan and in this way they virtually disappear as individuals. To the contrary, the American society features the thoughts of Locke who contradicts the idea of a belligerent natural world. In his eyes, men can live together just on the basis of socalled “natural rights” that exist from the beginning and thus can prevent conflicts. Those rights are just and understandable by reason. Therefore, it is not necessary to have a power that watches over right and justice. Nevertheless, the people do form a community in the end to prevent their properties, avoid violence and to establish an objective judicial power. The contrast between those two systems is then the extend to which individuals subjugate under the state. In Canada the idea of the community’s welfare is central (the individuals are totally wrapped up in the community) whereas in the United States the individual’s welfare is the most important goal. Bearing this in mind, it is no wonder that the Canadians, who lead a rather law-abiding and down-to-earth live, blame the Americans for their rigorous individualism and “anarchy”. “We were British, we believed in rank and order, and we had developed a government the combined North American democratic forms with the monarchical institutions that had 21 made Britain great. We were better, or so Canadians always claimed.”
On the other side the Americans claimed the Canadian people to be too conservative, dependent on the Crown of England and narrow-minded. Still, it is just a marking difference in the agreements on which the two societies are based and which Dirk Hoerder describes as the following: “No US-style mythology of free land and free institutions developed, but an attachment 22 to low taxes and little government interference emerged.”
Looking at our book, we have Dr. Jordan, the far-travelled medic from a former well- mill owner with high dreams in his mind (his own sanatorium). He comes to the provincial town of Kingston and experiences the aristocratic society of the British North American colonies. The town and its inhabitants on the other side, become to know the more
liberal and open-minded thoughts and behavior of a Yankee gentleman. A clash of cultures - but still there is one small common denominator: “Of course, everything is so different in the United States.” 23
3.2.3. America - the Last Resort
But nevertheless there was a migration stream from Upper Canada to the United States. It gained importance from the 1850’s onwards when the “Go West” movement began and a good number of Canadian immigrants went on further west to find some acres of land to built a farm on. Another important factor for a migration to the American colonies was to escape from the British class structures and start anew as a free individual. This was exactly what Jamie Walsh had done in “Alias Grace”: “And he saved up his money for several years, and then went to the States, as he was of the opinion that there was more opportunity for becoming a self-made man down there 24 - you were what you had, not what you’d come from, and few questions asked.”
Noteworthy enough, even Grace Marks herself goes to New York State after her release from Kingston Penitentiary. Certainly, she did not do this by her own will but because it was arranged for her, but nevertheless it is her possibility to start a second (if not third) life by leaving her past behind in Canada. “But a good home has been provided for you, it is in the United States, and once you have gone there you may leave the sad past behind you, as no one there need ever know about 25 it. It will be a new life. She did not use exactly these words, but that was the gist of it.”
3.2.4. To Sum It Up …
… we can say that the Canadian Anti-Americanism was (and maybe still is) a good means to unite the Canadian people under a quasi-identity. In Upper Canada it was practiced by those who had a good living, that are the middle and upper classes, but for the poor immigrants it also functioned as an escape out of the prison of the class society into the freedom of a country where the ideals to create a better society were high. For Grace Marks it was the only chance to start anew.
3.3. Upper Canada - Class Society and Aristocracy
As we know, Canada - in opposition to the USA - remained under British rule and influence for a long period. Therefore, and this is the third point that characterizes Upper Canada in the mid-19 th century, in Canada established a class society which has been directly imported from the United Kingdom.
3.3.1. Cloning the United Kingdom
The establishment of the old British class society had several reasons. The Canadian government stood for a long time under the head of the British crown. The Canadian constitution, that means the British North America Act (1867) resembled the British one - this was explicitly written down in the act: “WHEREAS the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom: And whereas such a Union would conduce to the Welfare of the Provinces and 26 promote the Interests of the British Empire:”
This circumstance not only means that Canada was for a long time not really independent and self-responsible but also that the immigrants who came here from Europe did not leave their former status. Unlike in the United States where every newcomer was like a blank sheet of paper, in the British North American colonies they had their history written down on them. To fit a quote from the American context: men were not equal. This fact and the experience that the social and cultural problems of the United Kingdom were also imported to Canada describes Reverend Verringer, he himself being a part of this system, while talking with Dr. Simon Jordan: “There is still a widespread feeling against Grace Marks; and this is a most partisan country. The Tories appear to have confused Grace with the Irish Question, although she is a Protestant; and to consider the murder of a single Tory gentleman - however worthy the gentleman, and however regrettable the murder - to be the same thing as 27 the insurrection of an entire race.”
The governmental system of course supported the hierarchical structure of the society, though it had some American - means democratic - influences. The most important one of them was the elected assembly. But - all that glitters is not gold - its influence was very restricted. Firstly, the elections were held publicly which paved the way for controlling and intimidating the voters. Secondly, the head of the government was still a governor appointed by the British Crown. The governor could then pick a council according to his own ideas. The 26 The National Library of Canada 27 Atwood 1996, p. 87
result was a council consisting of the province’s wealthy and pro-British families. To sum it up, the people’s voice was only silently heard in the province’s government.
3.3.2. The Family Government
This system furthered the emergence of those ruling oligarchies which were already mentioned in the first chapter. Two major oligarchic groups developed, one in Lower Canada (Quebec) - called the Château Clique - and the other one in Upper Canada - the Family Compact. Those groups were the prototype of a selfish upper class: they violated any interests of the common people, used the taxes as they liked it and tried to empower their status by excluding certain social groups. William Lyon Mackenzie, a leading critique of the system and leader of the famous Rebellion of 1837 came to the conclusion that: “it is not … to be denied that the government of Upper Canada is a despotism; a government legally existing independent of the will of the governed.” 28
The Family Compact really had the province in its hand. They possessed the religious power, and as many of the members belonged to the Anglican Church, this religion, although only one-fourth of the population shared it, became the established one. Furthermore, the leader of the Family incorporated the General Board of Education. The teaching of the right views and opinions was therefore guaranteed. All in all, there was no important institution in Upper Canada which was not under the control of the Family Compact. Another very successful means to tie the people of Upper Canada to the Family was the use of the wide-spread Anti-Americanism (see also previous paragraph). As the members of the Family were all strictly pro-British and loyal to the crown, it was not hard to establish an atmosphere of anti-American feelings that banished everyone who came under the slightest suspicion of having any contact to the American colonies or their ideas. And finally, even the British parliament supported the Family Compact. They were happy that in their North American provinces such a ruling power had established. This was not the case with the American colonies and therefore the British government thought it to be necessary to have a strong and loyal aristocracy in the Canadian provinces in order to keep them in the Empire.
3.3.3. The Fall of the Family
In the course of their government, three major problems emerged, the solution of which became urgent. Firstly, the Family Compact questioned the rights of former U.S. citizens to hold office or apply for government. Of course, this was a means to exclude the unwanted
American immigrants, be they Loyalists or not. But, also logically, this was very much against the will of the many Loyalists which fled from the American colonies during or after the American Revolution. Therefore, the “alien question” arose and demanded an answer. Secondly, the Family Compact, all of them members of the Anglican Church, reserved a good amount of land for their own use, be it for the Anglican Church, Protestant sects or officials. For these purposes two seventh of the land in Upper Canada were put aside. These land reserves hindered the development of the country because they could not be used for what the people needed. So, the “reserves question” was asked. And thirdly, the Family Compact’s tax management was not designed for the best of the people but for the best of the “family”. Taxes were spent for things that made the upper class happy but not for urgently needed public investments. After some time, the complaints about this governing principles increased and people did no longer believe that their elected assembly steered the province in any way. One of the most courageous critiques of the Family Compact was William Lyon Mackenzie, a former mayor of Toronto. He became the leader of a group of people who wanted to change things in the province. They mainly came from a newly developed middle-class, were mostly lawyers or journalists and had the goal to bring down the Family and to establish a democratic government like in the United States. Finally, they collected a bunch of people around them and started the famous Rebellion of 1837. But as we know, the rebellion was ill prepared and so it only consisted of two incidents, one at Yonge Street (Toronto) and the other at Brantford. Both of them resulted in a defeat for the rebels and many of them fled to the United States where they tried to make plans and preparations to restart the rebellion but again failed. Others were imprisoned or deported to Australia. W.L. Mackenzie, the leader of the rebellion, later returned to Canada and was pardoned. A significant feature of this rebellion was the fact that, besides the failures made with the preparation, the rebels gained very few support from the people in Upper Canada. This way, the chance to overcome the British class society in Upper Canada was given away and the influence of the Victorian Great Britain has been consolidated. “’This powerful organization--this informally-constituted league, ... which for forty years regulated the public policy of the colony, and ruled with an iron hand over the liberties of the inhabitants’ did so by fostering British loyalty and anti-Americanism views, by establishing religious and educational controls, and by maintaining superior political authority. Therefore, through oppression and counter-revolutionary actions the Family Compact was able to maintain the oligarchy and a quasi-aristocracy in the government of Upper Canada.” 29
Grace Marks entered the country after the fall of the Family Compact, but still she had to deal with the consequences of the 1837 Rebellion. At the time her trial was held the division of society on this matter was still existent, and Grace had the doubtful luck to be defended by a lawyer named Mackenzie. He describes his fatal situation to Dr. Jordan: “’You are no relation to the famous rebel?’ Simon asks, by way of beginning. ‘None at all, though I would almost rather claim kin than not; it isn’t the disadvantage now that it once was, and the old boy has long since been pardoned, and is seen as the father of reforms. But feeling ran high against him in those days; that alone could have put a noose around Grace Marks’ neck.” 30
Furthermore, the loyal part of the population mixed up Grace’s case with existing social conflicts between the genteel English and the poor Scots and Irish, and so they wanted to see Grace hang as an example for the whole of the supposedly rebellious immigrants. “If you’ve read back over the newspapers, you’ll have noticed that those which supported Mr. Mackenzie and his cause were the only ones to say a good word for Grace. The others were all for hanging her, and William Lyon Mackenzie as well, and anyone else thought to harbour republican sentiments. […]
Mr. Kinnear was a Tory gentleman, and William Lyon Mackenzie took the part of the poor Scots 31 and Irish, and the emigrant settlers generally.”
Seen the case this way, Grace was surely lucky to not have been hanged together with James McDermott because the ruling class sentiments of the time were - due to the Rebellion - highly against all people from the lower classes who attacked or opposed any of the high-ups.
3.3.4. To Sum It Up …
… the Canadian provinces were an almost exact image of the United Kingdom, and so the class conflict and struggles emerged as they did in the Old World. The class system and the strong support from the British government forced the establishment of a closed group of aristocrats who lead the province of Upper Canada according to their own will, called “Family Compact”. Though the anger about this oligarchy was wide-spread under the common people, the Rebellion of 1837 aiming the overthrow of this regime was unsuccessful, partly because of ill preparations, but to a great extend also due to the lack of support from the Upper Canadians. This way - and though the “Family Compact” ceded after the Rebellion - the British class society was affirmed and held itself strongly for years.
The novel “Alias Grace” is, as I already mentioned in the introduction, not only a crime novel but has a strong focus on social conditions of the time it is set in. From the mid-18 th to the mid-19 th century the British North American provinces experienced various transformations and events that had a great impact on its character. The case of Grace Marks happened in a time where the Rebellion of 1837 still hung in the air, and Grace came free again (and emigrated to the United States) when Upper Canada was on its way to the dominion. Grace Marks has various advantages that allow her to present us a detailed and critical image of the Canadian society in the mid-19 th century. Firstly, she is a relatively clever woman. From her earliest years on she had to look for ways to survive in a large but poor Irish family. Later on her mother died on the passage over the Atlantic Ocean and so she became - along with her drinking father who was no great help - the head of the family and had to care for the other kids. She lived as a servant girl in several households and there she learned much about the Canadian society. If we can trust her - as this is not clear at all - she has a very reflecting viewpoint on this society which she allows the reader to step into. Secondly, her position in the society allows her to speak freely about the problems and failures she recognizes. In opposite to the members of the upper or middle class who on the one hand have to support the system to remain in their status and on the other hand indeed have not much to worry about because the system works for them, Grace’s position at the bottom of society is in a way advantageous. Because she has not much to loose, she is able to speak freely about the problems and failures in the system as she recognizes them. Therefore she is an almost ideal narrator for this story, being involved in a really strong way and having no fear to lower her position. All in all, at the end of the novel we might not know if Grace has her guilt in the murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. But we know the state of (Upper) Canadian society at the time Grace experienced it, seen from the very useful point of a member of the lower class. Together - and in a way “cross-checked - with the descriptions about that period in common historical sources we achieve two things. On the one hand we gain a consistent knowledge about Upper Canada’s society and on the other hand we do understand Atwood’s novel in its full sence. This - at least - was the purpose of this paper.
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1 Test act: “in England, Scotland, and Ireland, any law that made a person's eligibility for public office depend upon his profession of the established religion. […]”. quote from: Encyclopedia Britannica Online <http://www.britannica.com keyword: test acts>. Rev. 2001-03-31 3
13 Robert Thompson (conservative 1960’s Canadian politician), quote taken from Granatstein (without year) 14 Creighton, Donald: Canada’s First Century. Toronto, 1970. p. 352f. cited in Granatstein 1989, p. 5 15 F. H. Underhill, quote taken from Granatstein (without year) 14
28 Mackenzie, W. L.: "The Family Compact Identified". in Earl, D. W. L.: The Family Compact: Aristocracy or Oligarchy? Toronto: The Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1967. p. 12. quoted in: Granatstein (without year) 19