Taking an Axe to History: The Historical Lizzie Borden and the Postmodern Historiography of Angela Carter

Article excerpt

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 Working from the same set of historical documents (newspaper accounts, official trial transcripts), Borden historians nonetheless arrive at vastly different conclusions about every aspect of the case.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). …