‘Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.’
Or did she? On 4 August 1892 in Falls River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden and his wife Abby are found murdered in their home, savagely attacked with an axe. But what led to the shocking killings. Lizzie, the youngest child of Andrew was tried and acquitted of the crimes. In See What I Have Done Sarah Schmidt reimagines the days leading up to the scandal that shook the United States.
Most people will have heard of Lizzie Borden, a woman tried and acquitted of the vicious murders of her father and stepmother. No one else was ever convicted of the crime and the true version of events remains a mystery to this day. In See What I Have Done Sarah Schmidt reimagines the inhabitants of 92 Second Street and what could have caused the violent deaths. The story flitters between characters to just before the murders to the time both immediately after and some time in the future.
The language used is pared down, often sparse, more often poetic. It is visceral and creates a dissonance, as if there is a way of speaking only understood by the Bordens and their inner circle. It weaves a spell over the reader, almost like a toxic lullaby. The world revolving around the Borden family and those in close proximity to them appears tainted, like the mutton broth and rancid pears that the household feast on. On the surface everything appears perfection. A well to do family, the two grown daughters still at home, unusual for the time, which perhaps hints at trouble under the surface.
The writing is taut, evocative and mesmerising in places. There were times when I thought I wasn’t enjoying the novel, but it lured me back, compelled to read until the end. The threat of violence, of wrongness, is perpetually threatening to boil to the surface. The fate of Mr and Mrs Borden is known from the outset. It is what leads to the violent deaths that pulls the story along. The smells and sights of the house were vivid. The stench of rotting mutton broth virtually wafted from the pages. One could imagine that the book felt almost tacky to the touch, soaked through with juice from the pears so beloved by Lizzie. The stench of the inhabitants, the sticky feeling of the wallpaper wiped with fingers littered with cake crumbs, the metallic scent of spilled blood, the sound of an axe dropping were all conjured for the reader.
None of the characters are particularly likeable. Each have their own peculiarities, their own character quirks, that seem benign but develop into something far more malignant. It’s hard to trust anyone, for all have their own opinions on the murdered couple, and those left behind. Emma is almost brow-beaten, used to being the least favoured, most relied upon. She is there to temper her sister’s whims, to act as a buffer between the tempers of Lizzie and her father. She has had to grow up disguising the dismay at receiving a new mother when she had not been allowed to grieve for the one she had lost. There is a bittersweet slant to the relationship between herself and Lizzie. She both coddles her and pushes her away. She loves her sister but is also disgusted at her actions on occasion. She has glimpsed at what Lizzie is capable of and perhaps fears her slightly as a result. There is a longing to Emma’s character to be free from her family, to escape the confines of the house and she is tarred by the lost chances to do so.
Andrew Borden is portrayed as taciturn, sometimes hard, controlling and set in his ways. He both spoils his younger daughter and rails at her wilfulness. Abby Borden is also given two sides. She appears to have been keen to show love to her two young step daughters. It would appear that it was taken advantage of by one, and rejected by the other so that by the time of her death Abby appears to be a contradiction of herself. She is kind to her maid, Bridget, but then turns on a knife edge to be controlling and almost manic in her attempts to keep Bridget in the household. Bridget saw the Borden house as her chance to make something of herself, to free her family back home in Ireland of one more mouth to feed. The years at the Bordens has worn away at Bridget, the taut relationships between the family marring the house, bringing its weight down to bear upon Bridget. She longs to run away but all she sees are blocked pathways. The girls Uncle Jonathan has his own role to play, invading the house to ensure the memory of his long dead sister does not fade, but with motivation other than his nieces welfare fuelling the visits. He brings with him an unknown quantity in Benjamin, a boy on the cusp of being a man and with his own baggage driving his actions and propelling him to visit Falls River with Jonathan.
And then there is Lizzie. She is petulant and charming, forthright and secretive, spoiled, conniving and narcissistic. Whenever she appears on the page, or is described by others there is a contradiction in her demeanour and manner that leaves the reader unsure as to her true nature.
I had some minor issues with the story, though not enough to deter me from reading until the end. The language takes some getting used to and there is a lot of wanting to climb into people to see what they are really feeling. But these are minor issues that didn’t detract from the novel.
This is an all encompassing novel, one that wraps itself around the reader. Not always an easy read, it is a study of family, of the toxicity that can arise from passed slights. Of how a woman was still subject to the whims of a man, be it a husband or a father. And of how some may go to any lengths to free themselves of the ties that bind.