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Forty Whacks: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt book cover
See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
Hachette
336pp
$32.99 AU
Published March, 2017
ISBN 9780733636882

My daughter is eight years old and has started to ignore us when she is reading. ‘Time to brush your teeth!’ No answer. ‘Can you put your PJs on?’ Nothing. ‘Just to the end of the chapter, OK?’ We give up and close the door. We don’t push her because we know what she has found: an experience that is independent of her family and school, and an absorption that belongs only to her. Soon enough she’ll have plenty such experiences, and will make her own decisions about how large a part we, her family, play in her life. Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done takes an interesting stance on the question of women’s agency. It is about a woman who is, in many ways, terrible and strange, but it positions her within the context of a number of grown women who struggle to have experiences they can call their own, and for whom the family seems inescapable. This in itself is nothing new: a whole genre of contemporary fiction set in the nineteenth century deals with the straightjacket of Victorian gender norms and family structures. Nor is it new to reimagine the case of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in Massachusetts in 1892. Even if you don’t know the details of the case you are likely to have heard the nursery rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

This rhyme is one of many reinterpretations of Borden’s story. Like that of Jack the Ripper, it is a case whose lack of resolution has allowed an industry of speculation, salacious rumour, websites, and re-enactments to flourish. There have been films, telemovies and TV series; operas and musicals, plays, stories and novels. It takes a certain courage, as a writer, to go where so many have gone before, especially when they are still going there. Schmidt’s novel is part of a recent resurgence in versions of Lizzie Borden: a telemovie and TV series starring Christina Ricci was screened in 2014 and 2015, and a bio-pic starring Chloë Sevigny is due for release in 2018.

To tell the Lizzie Borden story again is to enter into a conversation with history: not just the history of the murders themselves but ever since, as popular adaptations of the story respond to the concerns of their own times. The central features of this story include two adult sisters, Lizzie and Emma, unmarried and living with their father and stepmother, the dramatic murders, and a high profile court case in which Lizzie Borden was charged and acquitted. Legal historians have pondered how far her acquittal depended on gender stereotypes that meant that the jury simply could not imagine a lady committing such violence. The fact that this crime was committed within the family home, against her father and step-mother, of course has focused attention on relationships between the family members. Theories suggest a range of perpetrators, and of motives: incest, finance, opportunity, an uncovered lesbian tryst.

Schmidt enters this conversation with remarkable confidence and no sense of being burdened by its history. Perhaps it is the existence of so many earlier adaptations that give Schmidt’s project such fearlessness. She can sweep the record aside, and push blithely into the world of fiction. There is little play between fiction and historical document here: apart from brief excerpts from the inquest testimony and the wills of Lizzie and her sister that bookend the novel, See What I Have Done tells its own story. And on its own, it manages to make something new of this very well-worn tale. In the coffin-shaped Borden house, a family and their maid live in uncomfortably close proximity to one another, and to us. We are close to these characters because the chapters shift between the first-person accounts of Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and an outsider to the family, Benjamin, who is a vector of his own familial violence.

For all that it propels the reader along by providing clues and plotting mysteries as all good whodunits do, this is also a deeply discomforting novel. It opens in the awkward aftermath of the crime, immediately after it has taken place but before any figure of authority has arrived. This is a moment usually left out of fictional accounts of crime. We often arrive with the detective, ready to assess the evidence. Or when we do discover the body, it is in a moment of extreme reaction – a woman screams, a man staggers out of the room with his hand to his mouth – and then we cut to a point much later in the narrative. Here, these reactions are much delayed, as we experience the aftermath of Andrew Borden’s murder through the perspective of the woman who may have perpetrated it. Lizzie does not give us any clues about whether she has in fact done so, and is responding in a strange, slow, and thoroughly mystifying way to the body of her recently butchered father.

‘I looked at father again, watched blood river down his neck and disappear into suit cloth. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked.’ The temporality of this passage is near-intolerable, as where we might expect drama and catharsis instead we have awkwardness and delay. Bridget doesn’t understand what Lizzie is saying, then she can’t find the doctor, and we are left in the house with Lizzie and the body, wondering what on earth is going on. This static, thwarted temporality, and a willingness to leave the reader stranded in a very uncomfortable place, are marks of Schmidt’s approach to this narrative and her courage as a writer.

This is a discomfort born not only of narrative tension (although it is there), or of violence itself (there, and threatened). It is also a physical discomfort: throughout the novel a pot of mutton broth simmers on the stove, is reheated and eaten for every meal. Pieces of it get stuck in Andrew Borden’s beard. His wife, Abby, dips her finger in it. The stranger, Benjamin, takes a scoop of it in his hand and dribbles it down his chin and onto the floor, thinking, ‘Meat shouldn’t taste like that.’ It is a metaphor for family relations gone bad that might take its cue from the simmering marlin in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and it places us in gut-churning proximity to the bodies of these characters and their visceral responses to their lives together. And these characters are close – too close – to one another. They breathe each other’s air and smell each other’s chamber pots. Emma remembers ‘the putrid smell of trapped breath each morning before the house was aired.’ Mouths smell ‘of half-digested chicken and damp yeast.’  They can hear the workings of each others’ stomachs as the poisoned-or-bad mutton broth takes its effect.

The real discomfort of the novel, however, figured through the terrible repetition of the mutton broth and the too-close bodies, is a set of relationships marked by deeply unpleasant entanglements of attachment and disgust. The intensity of familial domesticity is literally inescapable in this house: at one point the family are snowed-in, at others the doors are locked and the heat inside is stifling. The grown sisters’ relationship is a complex and terrible mix of dependence, love, responsibility, sacrifice, jealousy and fear. Emma has plenty of reason to hate Lizzie and earn our sympathy but instead she is abuzz with what Sianne Ngai calls ‘ugly feelings’ – envy, irritation, anxiety – that rather than providing us with any sort of cathartic release, register a maddening sense of obstructed agency, an inability to act. The Irish maid Bridget is similarly stuck: her relationship with Abby Borden, her employer, a sickening mix of need and dominance which results in a very Victorian kind of financial imprisonment. John Morse, the brother of Andrew’s first wife, is playing out his own narrative of revenge against Andrew via both an uncomfortably close relationship to Lizzie and his employment of the violent stranger, Benjamin. The relationship that has been at the centre of most speculation about the murders – that between Andrew and Lizzie Borden – emerges as what might be expected from a Neo-Victorian novel (domestic tyrant, thwarted women), as well as a much stickier amalgam of hatred and a desire to be acknowledged or understood.

On the Readings Bookshop website, See What I Have Done is included on a list of ‘Historical Fiction for Feminists’. This is at once an oddly specific and annoyingly general classification, but it is a good indication of the cultural context in which Schmidt’s version of Lizzie Borden has landed. Booksellers and readers alike might approach this novel as part of the well-established field of Neo-Victorian fiction and group it with books from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea to Sarah Waters’ more recent queer romances. Much Neo-Victorian fiction is written by women with a feminist imperative to reevaluate women’s roles in the nineteenth century, or to tell submerged stories of women’s lives. In the Australian context, See What I Have Done comes hot on the heels of the success of Hannah Kent who, like Schmidt, is an Australian who writes historical novels set in other countries, who rethinks real crimes perpetrated by women. Kent’s novel has been used by reviewers, publicists and bloggers to give readers a sense of what to expect from Schmidt. Robin Elizabeth writes, ‘Currently Sarah is most famous for pulling a Hannah Kent. What’s pulling a Hannah Kent? Having publishers worldwide go completely ape-shit clamouring for your first novel.’ Schmidt and Kent’s novels occupy the same field in the sense that they both offer complex stories of women and violence in the past to what publishers hope will be a wide readership in Australia and internationally. There are indications that feminist literary activism in Australia may have shifted the behaviour of publishers, editors and readers in recent years: in the reception afforded to novels so clearly engaged with feminist imperatives – such as Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things – the changing gender balance of Miles Franklin award shortlists and in the increasing access given to books by women in the reviews pages of Australian periodicals.

Situated in its marketing materials alongside Kent’s novels and appearing in what might appear to be a new wave of possibility for women writers in Australia, See What I Have Done revisits a story with its own complicated history in relation to the feminist movements of its own time and those since.  Schmidt, like many other re-tellers of the Lizzie Borden story, does to an extent position Lizzie (and Emma, and Bridget) as victims of Victorian social restrictions on women. The question this raises for me is: how do we read this now? Are we relieved that things have changed? Or enraged at how far such constructions of gender, family life and domesticity still constrain us? The 1975 telemovie The Legend of Lizzie Borden depicts women outside the courtroom where Lizzie is being tried, bearing aloft placards reading ‘Sisters Together’ and ‘Equal Rights for Women,’ presenting this nineteenth-century trial very much in the form of a 1970s feminist protest. Stephanie Miller considers this mid-1970s version of Lizzie Borden in light of the new prominence of the women’s liberation movement in the popular media of the period, but also the de-radicalisation of feminism that came along with it: by 1975, ‘it was becoming clear that the version of feminism that was to dominate popular media thereafter was one more easily reconciled with the mainstream values of liberal individualism than versions advocated by more radical strands in the earlier years of the movement.’ I wonder whether we are seeing a reprise of this situation now. The internet activism around women’s literature that forms the backdrop of Schmidt’s reception in Australia is part of a popularisation of feminism that has seen feminist discussion boom online and in print. Much of this feminist discussion, as Zora Simic and others have argued, focuses on individual women’s experiences, rather than broader structural change, much like that of the mainstreamed feminism of the mid 1970s. The Lizzie Borden case continues to raise these questions because she is, on one hand, trapped by Victorian gender restrictions in her family home but she is, on the other hand, acquitted of the murder partly due to Victorian stereotypes about women being incapable of such violence.

This question of how to understand the violence of women is central to retellings of the Borden case. Miller describes the 1975 telemovie as offering an ‘absurd proliferation’ of explanatory narratives for the murder, managing to ‘suggest both that every woman has reason to kill and that Lizzie is a monster unlike any other woman’. The literary precursor who seems most relevant to Schmidt’s novel in this respect is Angela Carter, who retold the story of Lizzie Borden in two stories, ‘Mise-en-Scène for a Parricide’ (1981) (later published as ’The Fall River Axe Murders’) and ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’ (1991). In the former story, Carter takes for granted that Lizzie perpetrated the murder and examines the house’s inhabitants in the period preceding it. See What I Have Done seems to have taken up some aspects of the narrative that are suggested in Carter’s story, and fills them out: the emphasis on heat, smells, and bodies, and Lizzie’s imagining of a ‘dark man’ lurking outside the house.

More than this, she ventures further than Carter into, indeed starts the novel in, a really uncomfortable place: Lizzie Borden’s inner world. Schmidt’s Lizzie is extremely odd, as is the language used to describe her sense of the world. ‘Bridget began to cry and strange feelings popped across my bones’, ‘pear skin crisped in my mouth’, ‘Bridget looked me over, her caterpillar eyebrows cracked like earth.’  These descriptions of Lizzie’s interior world jarred for me: it’s not just that they don’t make sense (Lizzie doesn’t make sense, that is the point), but rather the sense is of an attempted lyricism that doesn’t quite hit its mark.

Angela Carter was long interested in women’s violence, and argued against the unwillingness of women’s fiction to apportion blame to women who commit violence. She writes, ‘We tend to see the extenuating circumstances, so that it is difficult to apportion blame, impossible to judge — or, indeed, to acknowledge responsibility’ for women’s violent crimes, suggesting that this is part of a broader unwillingness to grant women agency in their actions.’ I wonder if we could see the spate of recently successful novels about past-women’s crimes as involved in this kind of exculpation or explanation for the causes of women’s violence? I should say that in Kent’s case, as I’ve written elsewhere, this act of explanation seems motored by a feminist impulse against  particular ways of stereotyping women – the femme fatale, the witch.

See What I Have Done does not fully engage with this kind of project because it leaves the question of Lizzie’s guilt at least partially open. Proceeding with no assumption of her guilt, or any acknowledgement that the reader might bring assumptions about it to the novel, Schmidt allows the unsolved mystery of the crime to drive the narrative along, to a point. Other motives and suspects are canvassed: the terrible uncle, his new acquaintance, the maid.  See What I Have Done does offer some possible explanation for the murder, but stops short of making this explanation the end (as in the purpose) of the narrative.  The invention of Benjamin – a stranger to the family, motivated by his father’s violence and abandonment to his own acts of violence – provides Schmidt with a way of drawing links between Andrew Borden’s relationship to his daughters and other, more explicit, forms of familial violence. These links are also enabled by the ways in which Schmidt’s novel looks back to earlier Australian fiction of paternal violence and control.

There is a moment in See What I Have Done which strongly echoes Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story (1985). In Schmidt’s novel Emma recalls a rare instance, twenty years ago, when she had the house to herself.

Then I was left alone in the house. I waited a few moments before shrieking, before filling the house with my voice and body until the glass tumblers chinked inside the dining room cabinet. Father would have severely disapproved of this childish outburst. But there was no one to tell me to act my age and so I did what felt best.

She removes her skirt and stockings, ‘sat on Father’s sofa, rested my head on the backboard and widened my legs, a mimic of manhood.’

A small pigeon flew into the closed window, its breast bone slamming hard before its beak tapped on the glass. I pulled my legs together, sat up straight, calmed my heart. I looked down at my half-nakedness. Should I be ashamed? The day for being myself was over.

In Grenville’s novel, the young Lilian likewise finds herself alone in her father’s house and responds by undressing in front of a mirror and spreading her legs. She

filled the rooms with sounds like a storm in tree-tops, like rivers, like horses galloping, and was preparing for the moment when flesh would be transformed.

But father could not let me achieve that, and filled the doorway before I could break apart and fly free of my body.

This is the precursor to a terrible act of violence by the father against his daughter in Grenville’s novel; in Schmidt’s, the father’s violence is represented in the killing of Lizzie’s pet pigeons. In so closely mirroring this scene of Grenville’s, Schmidt brings the figure of Albion Singer to shadow the real but long-fictionalised Andrew Borden. Lilian is deeply and terribly shaped by her family, and by expectations about how women should behave. But at the same time, like Lizzie Borden in Schmidt’s account, she is so very peculiar, so very much her own self, that it is hard in the end to read her simply as a woman pushed beyond endurance by male oppression. Schmidt’s Lizzie Borden is, like other versions before her, both a victim of her circumstances and a strange and terrible person. The oddness, and the interest, of See What I Have Done is its ability to inveigle the reader to spend so much time with the Borden family. These characters are, almost without exception, each strange and terrible in their own ways, and their struggles to have lives they can call their own raise for us enduring questions about autonomy and family attachment.

Works cited

Angela Carter, ‘Mise-en-Scène for a Parricide’ London Review of Books Vol. 3, No. 16, 3 September 1981.
Carter, Wayward Girls and Wicked Women.

Kate Grenville, Lilian’s Story (Allen and Unwin, 1985)
Julieanne Lamond, ‘Believing in Fairies: The Good People by Hannah Kent.’ Sydney Review of Books 30 November 2016.
Stephanie Miller, ‘How Unbearably Heavy these Skirts can be’: Popular Feminism in 1970s America and The Legend of Lizzie Borden.’ Women: A Cultural Review. Vol. 21, 2010.
Anja Muller-Wood, ‘Disconcerting Mirrors: Angela Carter’s Lizzie Borden Stories’, Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 15:3, 277-297
Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard UP, 2007)
Zora Simic, ‘Reading Feminist Killjoys.’ Sydney Review of Books 1 September 2017
‘First Person Feminism: Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford.’ Sydney Review of Books 12 December 2016.
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children.