The idea that murder and pleasure are intertwined – horribly, yet inescapably – has become an important part of modern life. It was a drug-addled, indebted, unreliable dropout who first revealedthis to us … Thomas De Quincey had put his finger upon an entirely new type of behaviour and skewered it to the page, and, in satirizing it, completely condemned it.” (Lucy Worsley, 2013, p.18).
In the nineteenth century there was a new attitude towards bloody murder and its punishment both in Great Britain, and across the pond. Set in Fall River, Massachusetts, this true story of the axe murders of Andrew and Abby Borden woven through with fictional and speculative family life, brings all the media entertainment of murder, and all its bloody brutal makings to the fore. With very little in the way of police or detectives, the place of a murder was not a crime scene that we think of today –nothing was left untouched or preserved for investigation. By stark contrast to today’s attitude, tours of the house or place of the murder including footsteps through any blood were in fact commonplace. So with this picture of the nineteenth century in mind, the reader is introduced to Lizzie Borden on 4th August 1892, spattered in blood, disorientated, and calling for help because
“Someone has killed Father!”
My overwhelming emotion about reading this book is awe: The eloquent simplicity of the chapters,the delivery of the underlying disturbing atmosphere, the subtle inference of psychotic behaviour and the tangled mess of a dysfunctional family.
We are separately introduced to Lizzie, Emma, Bridget and Benjamin in subsequent chapters. Woven throughout are the personalities of Abby (Mrs Borden), Andrew (Mr Borden), and John (Lizzie’s Uncle), although they are all inextricably intertwined. The reader hits the ground running –the opening bloody murder scene, and the ineptitude, ignorance, and the innocence of nineteenth century police. In a century when visiting a murder scene was, for the people, much like watching soap operas is for society today, the ensuing drama in inevitable. The author rather cleverly takes us not just back in time to the day before the murders, but to a young Lizzie, to a time of a living mother, and to the trauma of losing her. As the book is set in the moment or the day of 4th August 1892, it is a shrewd author who can develop their characters through flashbacks and recollections.
In 1892, Lizzie Borden is 32 years old. Everything is ‘rotten’ – the family relationships, the food (a continuous rank bubbling mutton broth), the fruit (the rotten pears they all devour), and their love. The varying descriptions of this give the reader the overwhelming eerie and sickening setting, not just within the Borden home, but of American society in the nineteenth century. Despite this however, the story is set in a kind of bubble, which for this type of focus, is adequate and synonymous with Lizzie’s inferred ‘fugue state’.
This is a compelling, atmospheric, and unequivocally sinister tale, and one to dive right into.
You can watch the ‘rotting pear’ here. I purchased my copy at Waterstones in Gloucester, and the book bears the ticket “Exclusive to Waterstones, Sarah Schmidt takes you inside Lizzie Borden’s home.”
Worsley, Lucy (2013). A Very British Murder. London: BBC Books