Above left to right: Australian cover and UK cover
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one
Myra Hindley, Mary Bell, Lizzie Borden: history is positively brimming with murderous women. Of course, there are plenty of male butchers too, but nothing quite fascinates us like a woman who has killed. Why should it be any different? Surely male and female murderers should have equal rights, and equal gruesome obsession attributed to them? But they don’t*: it is Hindley on whom an artwork is based, and it is Lizzie Borden who is the subject of Sarah Schmidt’s disturbing debut novel.
Something is rotten in the state of Fall River, and it isn’t just the pears Lizzie Borden is devouring. No, murder most foul has been committed; ‘Someone’s killed father’, as Lizzie shouts to the maid. But, oh no, it isn’t just Mr Borden lying ‘cut’ on the sofa, with an axe, as the old rhyme goes, for Mrs Borden has also been murdered. Whodunnit? The maid, Bridget? The uncle, John Morse? For no one was ever convicted of the killings (only Lizzie was ever on trial), giving writers and directors ripe material for novels and television adaptations.
Madness is as compelling to watch as murder, and it plays a huge part in See What I Have Done. Lizzie is clearly suffering from attachment disorder, as she misses obsessively not only her long dead mother, but also her sister Emma, who has moved elsewhere to escape the oppressive 92 Second Street. Moreover, her behaviour is not typical of a recently bereaved daughter or innocent woman; Bridget testified that she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs around the time of Abby’s murder, and she was reported by police as being calm and confident when questioned. Schmidt plays on these facts, and presents to us a Lizzie who is both eerily girlish for a woman in her thirties, and clearly suffocating her elder sister with her need for love and company. In her defence, however, the Borden household is anything but a happy one, and I wonder if the historical allegation that Andrew Borden abused Lizzie may well be true. What’s more, Bridget is saving her salary to find a new employer, and Abby is evidently reliant on her for emotional support as well as household duties.
So do we find out who killed the Bordens? Well, of course not, dear reader, but that’s not the point. What we do get from the novel is the confirmation that Andrew Borden was both thrifty to a fault and greatly envied in Fall River for his wealth. We also get a good flavour of Lizzie (hopefully not reeking of rotten pears and mutton stew, for all of you with weak stomachs) and perhaps that’s all we can ever get, given that she said so little herself about the murders.
I found See What I Have Done an immensely compelling read, full to bursting with blood, guts, weirdos and rotting food. As Georgina said to me, you will never eat mutton stew again!
Many thanks to Georgina at Headline for the proof copy.
*Yes, yes, I know, people are fixated on Jack the Ripper too.