The Confessions of Frannie Langton: a review

The Confessions of Franny LangtonThey 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.

Sara Collins includes Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and Beloved amongst the novels that most influenced her as a writer; and in this stunning debut you’ll find Toni Morrison’s intensity of vision, Charlotte Bronte’s downtrodden but determined heroine and Mary Shelley’s tragic monster. You might think the market is saturated in gothic fiction but The Confessions of Franny Langton is an entirely new take on the genre. Frannie is a heroine for our Me Too and Black Lives Matter times – feisty, brilliantly clever, black and a woman. In Georgian England being a woman is already a disadvantage (you get married or you go into service) but being black, an ex-slave and yet highly-educated means a constant struggle against privation and lack of self-determination.

In the coach house on her master’s estate in the Caribbean, Frannie has been forced to take an active role in gruesome, racial experiments on other black people, first on corpses then on living people. She’s tallied the vertebrae in the warehouse of a man’s back… pulled a heart out of its cage, thick and slippery. She’s also been taught to read and write (Moll Flanders is a favourite) so has to scribe Langton’s ‘research’ into Crania, the work he intends to publish. But after a move to London Frannie is shocked to learn that instead of being free, she has only been educated as a wager and now as a gift to Benham has to work for him and his wife, Madame as a servant.

Sara Collins consistently uses domestic imagery to paint Frannie’s narrow world of cleaning, preparing food and sewing, brilliantly evoking a sense of powerlessness and claustrophobia: the pinch of memory is sharp as salt; her cold words knocked me like a beaten rug and London is crumbling like a stale loaf. Frannie’s overriding emotion is a barely controlled fury at what has been done to her. When she falls in love with the cross-dressing, laudanum-addicted Madame, it’s with a ferocious erotic intensity; when even that is threatened, her anger is all-consuming.

The novel takes the premise that Frannie is writing her ‘confessions’ to her lawyer to support her defence. It’s meticulous on court procedures (as you’d expect from a writer who worked as a lawyer for seventeen years), and on the minutiae of a servant’s life in the early 19th century. But what must have been extensive historical research is so well enmeshed in the story that it is utterly convincing. Through Frannie’s contact with abolitionists and scientists, Sara Collins brings the terrible legacy of slavery bang into our own century; two hundred years later the odds are still stacked against women achieving success and particularly against black women no matter how well educated.

Although Frannie is a tragic monster like Mary Shelley’s ‘creature’, she always has our empathy; and if she really is guilty of killing her master and mistress we can understand why. But this compelling and brilliant novel won’t let you know until the final pages.

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