After several years in London, Jamaican servant Frannie Langton finds herself on trial for the murder of her English master and mistress – but she has no memory of that fatal evening. Our arts contributor, My Ly, reviews Sara Collins’ atmospheric and evocative debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.
The story of ‘The Mulatta Murderess’ begins in the city of London, where Frances “Frannie” Langton, a young, black Jamaican servant, finds herself in the Old Bailey on trial for the double murder of her master, an English scientist called George Benham, and his wife Marguerite.
This is a million miles away from the lush and sunny fields of Jamaica, where Frannie grew up as the only mixed-race house slave on a sugar plantation belonging to the Langtons, a family from England. Instead of being regarded as a human being and an equal, Frannie is treated despicably: despite teaching her to read, the Langtons treat Frannie like a possession, a mere thing to use and abuse at their whim. As a result of being taken out of the field and into the house, Frannie finds fitting in with both her fellow slaves and her employers a difficult task. But Frannie’s love of books is the one saving-grace in a house built on lies and oppression. A voracious reader of classics such as Voltaire’s Candide, Defoe’s Moll Flanders and philosophers like Newton, Pierre Bayle and Paley, Frannie savours every opportunity to read in secret. It is this self-education that aids Frannie’s aspiration to transcend her slave status.
Being a scientist, Mr Langton is a man who likes to experiment. When Frannie is forced to become his lab assistant, Langton seizes the opportunity to test her reading skills further by educating her in the way of anatomy. With her inquisitive mind and hunger for learning, Frannie reluctantly becomes more and more involved in his grotesque and chilling experiments.
Under unexpected circumstances, Mr Langton leaves Jamaica and decides to take Frannie with him to London. The prospect of another land brings with it the hope of starting afresh, away from the horrors of plantation life. Frannie hopes that London will give her the type of freedom she’s always wanted. Like a game of ‘pass the parcel’ and without her knowledge, she is immediately given away to another English man, George Benham, to be a serving maid to him and his wife in their grandiose Georgian house. Yet again, Frannie becomes a toy in the Benham household, spending days alone with her new mistress, ‘Madame’, only to discover that the relationship between her new master and mistress is far from rosy. As time goes on, Frannie develops a strong bond with her mistress and when Madame returns her affections, they embark on a dangerous and clandestine relationship that leads to that devastating evening – the night when Frannie is found sleeping next to the dead body of her mistress.
Frannie’s life-story is told by herself, as she documents past events (again secretly) in prison. As the plot unravels and the details behind the murders come into focus, Frannie comes into the spotlight of this sensational story. Many interesting questions are posed and explored along the way, but the ultimate question remains unanswered until the end: did she commit these crimes and could she have murdered the only person she ever loved? Frannie pleads her innocence, but the testimonies portray a different story, and the truth appears more blurred than ever.
Collins weaves together an intriguing, gritty and thought-provoking, early 19th century historical crime mystery that brings to life a complex cast of characters and evokes an atmospheric, gothic-inspired setting. This is a modern revamp of the horrors of slavery and the main protagonist, Frannie Langton, is our contemporary heroine but there is more to her than meets the eye. Throughout the many exciting twists and turns, and the written accounts interpolated in the main first person narrative, the reader discovers that Frannie has a darker side to her personality and many mysterious quirks. Still, this is Frannie’s story, one that she tells in her own poetic and individual way. To some extent Frannie’s innocence or guilt is second to her narration of it all. This is a heart-breaking and gutsy tale about the frustrations of a woman who cannot control her own destiny, but finds, to some extent, agency and freedom in the telling of her past.
Several themes run throughout the novel, including an obsessive and forbidden love affair between a servant and her social superior, as well as an intriguing background of scientific racism that brings out the intellectual and emotional foundation to Frannie’s story. Having studied law and worked in trust litigation for seventeen years, Collins’ own past profession has no doubt helped to bring authenticity to all of the gripping courtroom scenes and demonstrates how extremely well-researched Frannie’s story and the world she navigates is. All characters have their own solid back story and defined voices; aside from Frannie who teaches herself to speak ‘proper English’, this is most evident in wonderfully conceived characters like Phibbah, another house slave who has missing front teeth and a thick warm Jamaican accent, as well as Sal, a former slave-turned-London sex worker who smokes cigars, has a ‘coconut husk laugh’ and cares for Frannie when she’s at her weakest. Having met Collins in person, this book was a real joy to read and I could almost hear her own rich voice coming through the pages.
Collins brings a fresh voice and perspective to the table and her love for Victorian gothic romances shines through in this powerful debut with the most gorgeous and unique custom-made embroidered front cover. I look forward to reading more work from this talented writer, as well as hearing Collins’ dulcet tones on Audible as she reads out her own novel. And, with her debut optioned for TV and Collins currently working on the adaptation, I eagerly await the appearance of Frannie on our screens. It’s easy to see how Collins’ ‘work-in-progress’ won the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize of Re-creative Writing, was then shortlisted for the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize a year later, and caught the attention of her agent, Nelle Andrew, even before she finished her Creative Writing MA at Cambridge. And it’s easy to see why Viking secured the book by proposing an offer on the evening that the debut was planned to go to a nine-way auction!
There is no doubt that Frannie Langton is an excellent answer to Collins’ own question ‘Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance?’
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is published by Viking, Penguin, and is available to purchase from all bookshops nationwide. To find out more about Sara Collins and her novel, click here.