See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden and the Borden Murders

The story of Lizzie Borden has a whiff of folklore about it, it feels hazy to me, apocryphal perhaps, something half known and uncertain like Washington and the cherry tree or the ride of Paul Revere. Shamefully, I had to Google both the latter two examples to double check they were the events I thought I was referring to. I choose them deliberately though – is it my Englishness that makes these events fuzzy to me? Do these stories live in the American psyche the way Magna Carta, Henry VIII and his six wives, and Jack the Ripper (to select three almost at random) live in mine? 
I remember a book we stocked when I was a very young bookseller at Waterstones in Watford that looked at the psychology of children who murder their parents. The copy on the back of the book talked of Lizzie Borden. I remember half wondering about the case, then shelving the book away and moving onto the next armful. But it stuck in my mind (I remember distinctly having the book in my hand and exactly where it was shelved). Since being seduced by the gorgeous advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Lizzie Borden and the horrific Borden murders have become in increasingly sharper focus.
The Bordens lived in Fall River, Massachusetts in the late nineteenth century. Lizzie and her sister Emma lived with their father Andrew and step-mother Abby at 92 Second Street. On a stifling hot August day in 1892, Andrew and Abby were found dead at the house, having been brutally murdered. It’s no spoiler to say that Lizzie was chief suspect and the only person ever charged with the murders. She was acquitted of the crimes by a jury who spent a scant half hour on their deliberations, but not before she had spent ten months in prison awaiting trial. On the evidence available, Lizzie’s arrest is not unreasonable. Whether she was actually guilty will most likely never be known definitively (although most people have their very strong suspicions on the matter).
Sarah Schmidt has a theory, one she crafts brilliantly, twisting a tale through multiple narratives. In See What I Have Done, we hear from Lizzie and Emma, from the family maid Bridget and from a stranger who interacts with the family at one remove, observing, biding his time. It’s a device that works well here, increasing the room for doubt in some ways, confirming things in others. They all add up to a household of considerable discord, held together by sniping, necessity, need and casual emotional negligence and cruelty.

What’s known about the family supports this portrayal. Lizzie had some time before stopped addressing Abby as mother, referring to her as Mrs Borden, a distancing quite pronounced compared to the affection apparent when Lizzie was a young girl. And this leads me to one of the biggest misapprehensions I had about Lizzie – she was no child in 1892. She was 32, a grown woman, an adult far beyond marriageable age. I’m not sure whether I find it reassuring that she was not actually a child, but rather the child of the victims. Her status as a dependent and the way her behaviour is described makes it harder to fix her in my mind as an adult, not-a-child is as far as I can realistically get. In the novel, her attitude reinforces my idea of her as young; she’s capricious, changeable, child-like. I could also add spiteful, selfish and sullen. She’s a hard character to like. But she is fascinating.

See What I Have Done is a visceral experience, it’s full of sights and sounds, smells and tastes. The air is heavy with kerosene or pipe smoke, meaty smelling bodies and sour milk breath. Lizzie breathes in the aroma of mutton broth, sinks her teeth into pears, sucks blood from her fingers. I was immersed in the story, in the house. Since reading the book I’ve felt compelled to find out more – Lizzie gets under your skin. There’s no shortage of information about the case and about Lizzie once you get started, and this year marks the 125th anniversary of the murders. Over the years there have been novels, musicals, a ballet, there’s a podcast by Richard Behrens, who also writes a series of books with Lizzie as a young detective. You can visit Fall River and partake of the Borden B&B experience, and there’s a new film due out this year to join several previous versions.

See What I Have Done led me to two other quite different works inspired by the Bordens: The Lizzie Borden Chronicles TV series (2015) and Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ (collected in Black Venus, 1985). The TV series stars Christina Ricci as Lizzie, and is an off-shoot of the previous year’s film Lizzie Borden Took An Ax. It’s a bloody, entertaining, and often quite funny affair that bears little resemblance to any historical accuracy but is generally enjoyable most of the way through. Carter’s story is, unsurprisingly, very different in tone. It makes you sticky with the heat and humidity, queasy in the morning air as it builds towards tragedy.
I hugely recommend reading See What I Have Done. It’s claustrophobic and absorbing, is written with immense composure and skill. It’s a remarkable debut. If you want to read more about the case and its legacy, there are some links below, and there’s a Q&A I did with Sarah Schmidt over on the Foyles website, in which she gives some amazing insight into her thoughts and process in writing the book. And, if you want to read the book, it’s half price this month at Foyles too!
Further reading:

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