In her debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt offers an original take on a familiar story. Here’s the familiar version:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
The murders of Abby and Andrew Borden, which occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4th, 1892, provide the historical basis for this macabre rhyme. But the gory children’s rhyme distorts and oversimplifies this history. For instance, Abby was not Lizzie’s mother but her stepmother, and neither Lizzie nor anyone else was ever convicted of the crimes. The short rhyme also shirks the question of why any of this might have happened, leaving us with an unearned sense of certainty about who Lizzie was and what she did.
Schmidt’s novel, published to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the killings, weaves a powerful narrative around the gaps and inconsistencies in the historical record. That said, the novel succeeds largely by resisting tropes of the “whodunit” thriller; rather than invent easy answers to unsolved mysteries, it probes the complex inner lives of its major figures. The novel shifts between the perspectives of four different narrators: Lizzie; her older sister Emma; the family’s live-in Irish maid, Bridget; and Benjamin, a combative drifter in the employ of Lizzie’s uncle. In captivating, finely crafted prose, Schmidt offers rich renderings of psychological interiority that remind us of why we read this sort of fiction in the first place, and why it stands as a necessary complement to history. Articulating internal conflicts and secret ambitions, the novel takes up the provocative question that Lizzie asks her sister: “Emma, what do you think we look like on the inside?”
The novel depicts Lizzie's attempts to remain outwardly composed against the tumult of her private thoughts. Consider this early conversation in which Lizzie exhorts Bridget to look at Andrew Borden’s body:
‘He’s in the sitting room.’ I pointed through thick, wallpapered walls.
‘Who is?’ …
‘I thought he looked hurt but I wasn’t sure how badly until I got close,’ I said. Summer heat ran up my neck like a knife. …
‘Miss Lizzie, yer scarin’ me.’
‘Father’s in the sitting room.’ It was difficult to say anything else.
Bridget ran … to the sitting room door, put her hand on the door knob, turn it, turn it.
‘His face has been cut.’ There was a part of me that wanted to push Bridget into the room, make her see what I had found.
Even as it represents her consciousness, the novel carefully establishes a sense of ambiguity as to whether or not Lizzie is actually the culprit. It opens with her standing over her father’s corpse, and she struggles to offer a clear account—even to herself—of how she has ended up in this position. In one enigmatic description of her whereabouts, Lizzie thinks, “I was in the house this morning, and then I was out of it. Bridget made noise, Mrs. Borden made noise. I walked through the house and then father came home.” Since evidence suggests Abby was dead by the time Andrew got home, the passage proves unsettlingly elusive about what Lizzie means by saying her stepmother “made noise.”
Emma’s sections of narration add a great deal to the novel’s reimagining of Lizzie’s story, allowing Schmidt to shed light on what it might have been like for these two adult daughters to continue living under the roof of their controlling father. Schmidt presents Emma as torn between her desire for independence and her deep-seated commitment to her younger, less mature sister. Whenever Lizzie is away from home, Emma feels “relief and loneliness” at once, “happiness and loss hitched together.” In Schmidt’s rendering, Emma becomes an aspiring visual artist who desperately needs a room of her own, since hers is basically a closet that adjoins her sister’s (and Lizzie refuses to shut the door).
The novel is at its best when it illustrates the complex mixtures of loyalty and resentment that all residents of the Borden household—Bridget included—harbor toward one another. The fourth narrator, Benjamin, is not a historical person, though theories of the murders that posit Lizzie’s innocence often shift the blame to some such skulking, disreputable figure. So Schmidt could have taken whatever creative liberties she wanted in portraying him. Yet such freedom proves to be aesthetically constricting: Benjamin has no emotional ties to the Bordens; he and Lizzie’s uncle John meet by chance during a violent run-in with a police officer, at which point John enlists Benjamin to help him—as the cliché goes—“take care of a problem.” The novel does heighten the parallel between Lizzie and Benjamin by showing that the latter has serious daddy issues of his own. Still, Benjamin’s psychological development never feels essential to the interpersonal tensions at the novel’s core—tensions that Schmidt chronicles with admirable insight and force.