‘They say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.
But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?
The problem that has been plaguing me the last few days is how to encapsulate the many, complex facets that form this novel, and my equally complicated reactions to it, in the form of a few inadequate words. I’m not sure I’ve solved the conundrum completely, but the day has come to plough ahead with my review regardless.
Part of the problem is, this book is too multi-layered and multi-themed to unravel in a single reading, and, reviewing it against the back drop of current events has further muddied my thinking on some of the issues it addresses. I am all too aware that I don’t know enough, I haven’t studied the history in sufficient depth, I don’t feel entitled to discuss some of these topics. All I can give you is my honest reaction to the book on my first reading of it, tempered as it is with all of this knowledge of inadequacy in the background.
This book, is at its heart for me, a gothic horror story, with a mystery and a love story woven in. Horror story, because that is my overwhelming reaction to the events that unfold between the pages. The novel follows the tale of Frannie, born a mulatto, on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, who, through a series of extraordinary events, arrives at a wealthy household in London where she becomes intimately embroiled with the mistress of the house. The book is dark and complicated and rich and thought-provoking. It has echoes of some of my best beloved classic novels of all time; Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to name but a few. The writing is exquisite in detail, placing the reader firmly at the heart of Georgian society, but mining its seedy underbelly, whilst showing us the glossy front that hides these aspects.
The book is ostensibly anchored by the mystery of who murdered Frannie’s English ’employers’, and we meet her while she is on trial for those murders, telling her story for her lawyer. However, the mystery was probably the least diverting part of the book for me and, by the time the true facts of the crime were revealed, I wasn’t really that invested in the outcome. The most stimulating part of the book is the story of Frannie’s journey from slave to her position in the Benham’s household in London, the reactions people have to her transformation and the feelings she has herself about the things she has done to get there. It is not as straight forward as many stories about people ‘escaping’ from slavery are, and Frannie herself resists attempts by abolitionists to co-opt her tragic story to their cause, as she finds these tales of pity and misery boring. Frannie has, to every degree she is all permitted, refused to be fortune’s plaything and attempted to become author of her own future. How far this is actually possible, even in England where slavery is ‘illegal’ is one of the over-arching themes of the novel. In addition, Frannie has to consider at length the things she has been required to do in order to attain even the limited level self-determination she has and whether it could ever truly be freedom at that price.
This book addresses a lot of uncomfortable issues, particularly the matter of the science of race, which is being researched by Frannie’s original owner, using his own slaves as lab rats, including Frannie herself. In fact, the question of her whole life being a continual experiment is at the forefront of the book, and the whole concept if truly horrifying, particularly as we know it is based on true events. The author very cleverly uses hints at things that are going on in the novel, without specifically spelling it all out in graphic detail, which is actually an extremely clever way of making the reader really think, and using their imagination to fill in the gaps which, as we all know, means we end up conjuring the very worst images we can possibly conceive. This is human nature. However, in this case, the fear is always there that the worst images we can conceive don’t actually come close to the horrors that were enacted, our minds will shy away from accepting the true depths people can plummet in their inhumanity to one another, and this is the truth that is really the heart of the horror story here. I apologise if my thoughts on this come across as a little confused, I am still chasing all of my conclusions about this book around my head, still trying to process all of the emotions it has drawn from me.
The book also centres around a love story between Frannie and her mistress, but this also raises again the question of whether Frannie is a slave to the whims of a capricious woman who may be using the girl for her own ends, rather than seeing her as an equal in the relationship who deserves the same emotional treatment as anyone else. At least, this is what I drew from the book. I have seen some reviews that have characterised the love story as unconvincing but, on my interpretation of it, it worked perfectly, and Madame’s relationship with and feelings for, Laddie, particularly after his emancipation, just supported this reading of the relationship for me. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, I’d love to discuss the book with the author to find out what she had in mind when she was writing it, but I guess the beauty of a novel is that every reader comes at it from a different angle and will take a completely individual experience away from it at the end.
Despite this being a very long and rambling review, I’m really not sure that I have adequately explained what is so marvellous about this book, or why you should be tempted to read it, so let me try and give you a succinct summary. This book is rich, detailed, beautifully written, historically illuminating and absolutely horrifying in the true, gothic sense of the word. If you don’t come away from it feeling deeply disturbed, you haven’t been concentrating, but you absolutely should read it, I have not come across anything quite like it in recent times.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is out now and you can buy a copy here.
About the Author
Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and grew up in Grand Cayman. She studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years, before admitting that what she really wanted to do was write novels. She obtained a Master’s degree in Creative Writing with distinction from Cambridge University, where she was the 2015 recipient of the Michael Holroyd Prize. In 2016, she was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish prize for The Confessions of Frannie Langton, her first novel, a gothic romance about the twisted love affair between a Jamaican maid and her French mistress in 19th century London. The novel won the Costa First Novel Award 2019.
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