Story #23 for the Deal Me In 2014 short story challenge does double duty, crossing over nicely with Angela Carter Week – June 8-15, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia at Postcards from Asia.
I draw my Deal Me In stories several weeks in advance so that I have time to get a collection from the library if a story isn’t available online. This week’s story is actually scheduled for a couple of weeks down the road, but in light of the Angela Carter event taking place this week, I couldn’t resist swapping stories #23 and #25 so Ms. Carter’s story would feel at home nestled among all the other reviews of her work that will be popping up around the blog-o-sphere this week. Angela Carter is linked in my Deal Me In list with the Queen of Hearts – which is oddly and darkly appropriate.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” can be found in the 1985 collection Saints and Strangers, which retells the stories of four different women from history and folklore. “The Fall River Axe Murders” approaches the story of Lizzie Borden and her infamous axe from a different perspective. Long enough to perhaps more accurately be called a novelette or novella rather than a short story, the story did much to create a sense of empathy for Lizzie, and while I wasn’t necessarily rooting for her to succeed at her grisly task, I could certainly sympathize with why she might have done it.
Lizzie is in her mid-30s and unmarried. She lives in a large, soulless home with her older, also unmarried sister, their father and step-mother and the housemaid. The “girls” live a sheltered, joyless life.
“The girls stayed at home in their rooms, napping on their beds or repairing ripped hems, or sewing loose buttons more securely or writing letters or contemplating acts of charity among the deserving poor or staring vacantly into space.”
“In this city of working women, the most visible sign of the status of the Borden girls is that they toil not.”
“Strange, that endless confinement of these perpetual “girls” who do not labour in the mean house of the rich man. Strange, marginal life that those who lived it believed to be the very printing on the page, to be just exactly why the book was printed in the first place, to be the way all decent folks lived.”
The father is a greedy, miserly slumlord, and his second wife is a glutton with no maternal love in her. From the beginning, Carter conveys the sense of constriction and aimlessness that rules the “girls'” daily life. She uses the heat of high summer to illuminate just how close and stifling is their existence and how it must influence their mental state:
“On this burning morning when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents, she will, on rising, don a simple cotton frock, that, if worn by itself, might be right for the weather. But, underneath, has gone a long, starched cotton petticoat; another starched cotton petticoat, a short one; long drawers; woolen stockings; a chemise; and a whalebone corset that takes her viscera in an unkind hand and squeezes them very tightly.
There is also a heavy linen napkin strapped between her legs because she is menstruating.
In these clothes, out of sorts and nauseous as she is, in this dementing heat, her belly in a vice, she will heat up a flatiron on a stove and press handkerchiefs with the heated iron until it is time for her to go down to the cellar wood-pile to collect the hatchet with which our imagination – “Lizzie Borden with an axe” – always equips her, just as we always visualise Saint Catherine rolling along her wheel, the emblem of her passion.”
In addition to the heat and riot of ridiculously unsuitable garments, Lizzie suffers migraines and visions and blackouts. Her step-mother insists she has a poltergeist and can make the dishes rattle when she wants to. On one occasion, while her father and step-mother are out, Lizzie hears a door slam, which should be impossible as her father insists that all doors, even to each room in the house, be kept locked at all times, regardless if anyone is in a room or not. She discovers that the house has been robbed and vandalized, thievery and destruction compounded by the desecration of the parents’ marriage bed having been defecated upon and the scrawling of filthy words on the kitchen windows in soap. The fact that Lizzie’s sister finds Lizzie standing in the kitchen, having just wakened from one of her “spells,” wearing only her corset and clutching a bar of soap does nothing to stop the father from blaming the “filthy” poor and even “filthier” Portuguese for the crime.
This hatred of the poor and of immigrants is at the core of Lizzie’s father’s nature. He is so full of avarice and so stingy with his vast wealth that he lives in continual fear of it being taken from him. He thinks of his wife and daughters as property, as well. But he absolves himself of any sin for his greed by never spending any money. The curtains in the home are 30 years old, and the “girls” have few and meager clothes.
The step-mother’s chief sin is gluttony. She must have the most delicate and expensive foods, which she eats to excess. But she also absolves herself from any sin by never enjoying a single mouthful. Her eating is for show, only to broadcast her wealth and privilege – not for actual enjoyment. Lizzie desperately needs a loving mother, and this step-mother has no love or motherliness in her and certainly no interest in her step-daughters.
One of the only joys in Lizzie’s life is the care and feeding of pigeons. She channels into them all her feelings of compassion and her desires to help the less fortunate, which her father will not allow. Her father considers the pigeons vermin and one day wrings their necks. The step-mother muses that they would be good in a pie.
All these aspects come together to play hard upon Lizzie’s psyche. She despises her father and step-mother, is disgusted by their greed – both her father’s miserly greed and her step-mother’s gluttonous greed. These two stand as living metaphors for the archetypes of Jack Spratt (who would eat no fat) and his wife (who would eat no lean.) Eventually, Lizzie loses her fragile hold on her sanity, and things come to a head.
Carter suggests that had Lizzie had more freedom, more intellectual stimulation, more opportunities…had she had some love in her life instead of self-absorbed parents who only care for their own concerns, things might have turned out very differently. Had she had the freedom to love and be loved, to develop abilities and to become a real person, perhaps she would not have exploded outward in a fatal, final expression of her frustration. And it is very hard for the reader to disagree.
Angela Carter is a wonder of a writer. Although her writing is often quite dark, few have her level of ability to provide the reader with a new lens through which to view an old tale. If you have never before read her work, I wholeheartedly suggest giving her a try. She is a myth-remaker extraordinaire, a fantasist/social commentator of the highest order.