Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally murdered in their own home where they lived with Andrew’s daughters Lizzie and Emma and their housemaid Bridget. Lizzie was put on trial for their murder but was exonerated of the crime at her trial three months later.
Sarah Schmidt has recreated the scene on the morning of the murder, and in the months leading up to it using four different narrators: Lizzie, Bridget, Emma and the mystery character Benjamin. These four give us different views of a household which was undoubtedly full of tension with Lizzie and Emma only deigning to call Abby, Mrs Borden.
The thing that struck me most was how young Lizzie’s character seemed to be. The voice is actually a woman in her thirties, unmarried in an age where that was unusual, but she sounds far more like a petulant child. This just adds to the weird atmosphere recreated by Sarah Schmidt with many references to smells and tastes, particularly of the mutton stew which was endlessly reheated. Was this the cause of the sickness that all the members of the household, bar Lizzie were afflicted with? Or was the cause something more sinister? The stickiness of the day, the juiciness of the endless pears that were consumed from the arbour and the meticulous locking of the doors even during the daytime all add to the feeling of claustrophobia that set this household in Fall River, Massachusetts from the rest of the world.
All the best known details of the investigation into the brutal slaying of Mr and Mrs Borden are included, some in the present day narrative which runs throughout the book, some in the flashbacks that give the background to past conflicts that are still running, no doubt because the two daughters should have left long ago. We are given some insight as to why Emma stayed, which was due to the unnaturally symbiotic relationship with Lizzie, but no clue was offered as to why none of the local men had asked for Lizzie’s hand in marriage.
The style of writing took a little while to acclimatise to, but once I got into the stride of the book I was eager to see what theories as to what happened on that fateful day the author would propose and I’m glad to say that no single theory held sway over another, with Sarah Schmidt giving the reader the chance to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence produced.
I have to admit I only really sympathised with one of the characters who narrates this story and that was Bridget, the Irish housemaid who crossed the ocean for a better life and has been saving money to return home to her family but maybe that was because she had the most ‘normal’ of voices. Andrew is presented through the eyes of all of the characters as a harsh father and Abby as a spiteful and bitter step-mother. The undercurrents of distrust and outright hostility are then thrown into focus by the appearance of John Morse, the brother of the Sarah, Andrew Borden’s first wife and mother to Emma and Lizzie. In some ways by the time I completed the book, whoever the murderer was, the deaths seem almost inevitable.
In conclusion See What I Have Done is an unusual and fascinating read, but far from a comfortably one; the writing so vivid I feared sensory overload and as a result I foretell a pearless future for this reader!