The fictional setting and characters of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t too far off from the author’s historical roots.
Ahead of the season 2 premiere on April 25, Ancestry‘s research team has dug into the past of Atwood and series stars Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel to discover the characters they play have something in common with their real-life ancestors.
Canadian author Atwood only needed to look back into her own family history for inspiration for “The Handmaid’s Tales”‘s puritanical roots.
Tracing her family back to 17th century New England and the origin of Puritanism in America, Atwood’s distant relative William Nickerson was a “disrupter” – much like Offred. Described as a “rabble-rouser and non-conformist,” in 1641 Nickerson was accused of being a “scoffer and jeerer of religion,” something that definitely would have had him under the watch of Gilead’s secret police, The Eyes.
Just like Atwood, Bledel can also trace her roots back to puritanical times. The actress is a direct descendant of Mayflower passengers who set foot in America in 1620.
The religious symbolism in “The Handmaid’s Tale” wouldn’t be lost on Samira Wiley’s family either. The actress, who plays Moira, comes from a long line of Reverends.
Like her co-stars, series lead Moss can also draw parallels to her character of June/Offred through her lineage.
While she presumably wasn’t forced into bearing her boss’ child like Offred, Moss’ great-grandmother, Gertrude Beyer, was living as a “hired girl” and “servant” for a Wisconsin family in 1910. She later moved to Chicago and found work as a clerk and lived in a boarding house. Beyer shunned the typical life of a 20-something at the turn of the century, carving her own career path – similar to pre-revolution June’s resistance to the misogynistic principles of Gilead.
Just like how June is forced into Aunt Lydia’s re-education centre, Moss’ other great-grandmother, Judith Nilson, was detained and tagged as a “likely public charge” when she arrived in the U.S. from Sweden because she was a single woman with a child. She married four days after detainment, which allowed her permission to leave the facility.
As the cruel matron of the re-education centre, Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia is a terrifying beacon of indoctrination. Dowd needs only to look to her grandmother, Marcella Clark, to draw parallels to her “Handmaid’s Tale” character.
Similar to Aunt Lydia, 1940s census records list Clark as an “attendant” at a “sanitarium.” Dowd’s grandmother worked at the Harlem Valley State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in New York.
Canadians can find out if they can trace their roots back to Puritans or Margaret Atwood on Ancestry.ca.