Immortalized in the grisly economy of a children's rhyme, Lizzie Borden's legend continues to fascinate. Since the axe murders occurred in 1892, Borden's story has been dramatized on stage and screen, in novels, short stories, and poems. She has achieved the status of cult figure and feminist heroine, her name adopted by radical film-makers and rock bands alike. Feminist film-maker Linda Borden, for example, of Working Girls fame, has long adopted Lizzie's first name, and the all-female rock band "Lizzie Borden and the Axes" made the rounds in Boston in the 1980s. Some unknown admirer even left geraniums and silk violets on her tomb upon the 100th anniversary of the crimes, while the tombs of the victims remained bare. On this same centennial, five hundred people attended the first ever Lizzie Borden Conference, hosted by Bristol Community College, in Borden's native Massachusetts.(1)
The story of this officially unsolved crime has also been explored in dozens of nonfiction books and articles, each purporting to deliver up the definitive truth. Working from the same set of historical documents (newspaper accounts, official trial transcripts), Borden historians nonetheless arrive at vastly different conclusions about every aspect of the case. What the mountain of Bordenalia reveals above all is that there is nothing so pliable as a "fact." Each new book that claims to have found the truth (new ones appeared in 1991 and 1992) explains away the ambiguities of the case and creates a seamless narrative. In both fictional and nonfictional accounts, Borden's story becomes a stage upon which particular ideologically motivated dramas are played out. In particular, class and gender are determinate lenses through which commentators (past and present) see and construct the story of Borden's alleged crime. The Borden case allows for the investigation of a fascinating set of class, ethnic, and gender relations in a turn-of-the-century New England mill town. Nonetheless, the sensationalism of the story, and the relative historical insignificance of its major actors, ensures that for academic historians, the case remains little more than a historical footnote. It is in the popular arena that this irresolvable tale thrives, providing a unique opportunity to explore the strategies and politics of popular history writing.
Enter British writer Angela Carter. Her 1986 short story "The Fall River Axe Murders" offers a fundamental challenge to the kind of seamless narrative that has characterized both fictional and historical writing.(2) Her story is not so much a re-telling of the Borden murders as a commentary on past re-tellings. Carter refuses to create a sealed-off fictional world; instead, she repeatedly reminds us of her role as producer of the past. She lampoons the need for single, uncomplicated historical causality as she demonstrates the ways that class and gender influence historical production. In short, through a host of narrative strategies often labeled "postmodern," Carter challenges history and fiction writing that disguises ideology through representational fidelity to the real.
My use of qualifying quotation marks around the term postmodern acknowledges the highly vexed status of the term within both popular and academic arenas. The alleged excesses of "pomo" academicians are a regular target of journalists on both the left and the right--a situation tinged with irony given that understandings of the term differ widely within academia. In his essay "SLIP PAGE: Angela Carter, In/Out/In the Post-Modern Nexus," Robert Rawdon Wilson distinguishes postmodernism as a period term, concerned with the socio-economic analysis of late capitalism (and articulated by people like Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard), from postmodernism as an aesthetic term, "a highly flexible analytic-descriptive term capable of isolating contentions, devices and techniques across the range of all the cultural products" (and explicated by critics such as Ihab Hassan, Linda Hutcheon, and Brian McHale).(3) For her part, Hutcheon, too, separates these registers with the terms postmodernity and postmodernism, arguing for the importance of such a distinction in order to avoid "conflating the two in some sort of transparent causality."(4) My use of the term postmodern owes much to Hutcheon's formulation of postmodernism as a cultural term characterized by "complicitous critique," that is, marked by "... reflexivity and historicity, that at once inscribes and subverts the conventions and ideologies of the dominant cultural and social forces of the twentieth-century western world" (11). While a socio-economic critique of postmodernism as, in Fredric Jameson's familiar phrase, "the cultural logic of late capitalism" offers invaluable insights, I also believe that, with regard to cultural production, Jameson's brush is too broad. With Hutcheon, I would argue that many postmodern works demonstrate not (as Jameson contends) the emptying of historical content, but an active and necessary engagement with historical content. Jameson's observation of postmodernism's disappearance into surfaces maintains a style/content dichotomy that postmodern art would break down.(5) In some cases this breakdown can mean superficial absorption in style/surface that erases ideology and precludes social critique (as in, say, some of David Lynch's films). For those works that qualify as "complicitous critique," however, the style/content breakdown is precisely in service of laying bare the ideological production of knowledge.
I am not alone in considering this ideological unveiling to be a central, and crucially political, project of Carter's fiction. In the previously cited essay, Wilson reads one of the reconceived fairy tales in Carter's 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber as exemplifying his twin axes of postmodernism, offering both an artfully reflexive formality and a cogent political critique. Similarly, Magali Cornier Michael argues that Carter's 1984 novel Nights at the Circus combines postmodern narrative technique with feminist social critique, maintaining, "a firm connection to the historical material situation as a means of securing her novel's feminist political edge and ensuring that her novel remains accessible to most readers."(6) Elaine Jordan also argues for Carter's usefulness for feminism, while celebrating the political efficacy of postmodernist narrative's very lack of fixity. Jordan speaks of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved as "fantastic fiction which re-writes history; not perversely or as an impossible utopia ... but as knowledge and possibility"; this, I would argue, is also Carter's accomplishment in "The Fall River Axe Murders."(7)
On Thursday, August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden (70) and his second wife Abby Durfee Borden (65) were brutally murdered in their home. Between approximately 9:00 and 10:30 a.m., Abby was killed in the upstairs guest room; she received nineteen hatchet blows to the head and shoulders. At approximately 11:00 a.m., Andrew Borden was similarly bludgeoned about the head while lying or sitting on the sofa in the downstairs sitting room. The only people known to be in and about the house at the time of the murders were daughter Lizzie, 32 (her mother died when she was two years old; Andrew re-married about two years later), and the family's Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, 26. Elder daughter Emma, 42, was away visiting friends in Fairhaven. Houseguest John Vinnicum Morse, brother of Andrew's first wife, left the Borden home before …