A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it. What are my own intentions in writing this? The simple answer is that it’s my life, and I want to assemble the pieces of it myself. Mr Defoe made a novel and a romance out of the adventures of a felon and a whore, so it must be possible that of my own life I could do the same.The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Sara Collins debut, out next month, tells the engrossing and often horrifying story of the half-Jamaican, half-English woman Frannie Langton, known infamously as the ‘Mulatta Murderess’. The year is 1826. and the whole of London is abuzz with the scandalous testimonies against Frannie Langton, who is sitting at the Old Bailey accused of murdering both her master and mistress. In a similar strain to other historical ‘murderess’ novels – such as Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – Collins posits her novel from the point-of-view of the so-called ‘murderess’. However, unlike these other narratives, Collins writes her protagonist from the perspective of a woman of colour. Not only is she a woman from a poor, working-class background, not only is she an immigrant, but she is black. Sexism, racism and the presence of slavery-just-ended, all coil together in The Confessions of Frannie Langton to create a multilayered and riveting tale.
Writing from her prison cell as she awaits trial for the murder of her master and mistress at the Old Bailey, Frannie addresses the story of her life to her lawyer, Mr Pettigrew. She doesn’t immediately delve into the events of the fateful night that led to her incarceration. She begins, instead, right at the beginning; back in Jamaica. Born into slavery, she is the property of Mr Langton. Upgraded to a house servant for reasons unbeknown to her at first, Frannie strikes lucky when she is taught how to read and write. However, she is soon forced to work on Mr Langton’s secretive and underhand science experiments in the cabin next to the main house. At first the reader is not made entirely aware of the horrors that go in that little cabin. But what we do know is that it was a work inspired by a Mr Benham who eventually cut off all ties with what it had morphed into. There are many secrets woven into her life in Jamaica – I don’t want to spoil them here. But, Frannie holds a vested interest in both Mr Langton and Mr Benham: one she doesn’t find out about until much later. When she is taken to England with Mr Langton as a grown woman, she sees it as another stroke of luck. Her freedom is in sight. However, she is traded from one man to another – the dreaded Mr Benham. It is not an easy transition for Frannie, but for some reason Mr Benham’s strange wife holds an intrigue for her which she can’t quite shake off. As we know from the opening, somehow Frannie is arrested for the double murders of her new employees. But how she ends up there and why are deliciously revealed to us slowly but magnificently.
Stating in her address to the reader at the beginning of the novel, Collins mentions her childhood love of reading the ‘canon’ in her home island of Grand Cayman. Devouring classics, such as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, Collins began to realise that the depictions of black people in these novels were always marginalised and never taken seriously. They were always reduced to offensive and lazy caricatures, if they were mentioned at all. By centring The Confessions of Frannie Langton around a woman of colour, Collins gives life to these marginalised figures in historical fiction. Frannie is a three-dimensional character full of contradiction, hopes, fears, desires. She has a degree of agency despite the restrictions of the era she lives in. I’d like to think that, beyond the ending of the novel, Frannie’s story – in her own words – was disseminated far and wide across Georgian England. That her story was taken seriously by these readers.
Though, of course, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is just a fiction. But doesn’t the best kind of fiction sweep you up in the world the author has created, making you invest in their characters as if they were real? Sara Collins debut did that for me. I was fully convinced by the world, the characters and the story she told. I truly lost myself in the sensation and debauchery of Georgian England; of the horrors of slavery and its immediate aftermath. I lost myself in Frannie Langton’s dark and difficult story with all of its twists and turns. Power dynamics, racism, sexism, ‘science’, forbidden love, addiction and murder are all rife throughout its pages and Collins writing holds it all together beautifully.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is published on 4th April 2019. Thank you to Penguin UK, via Netgalley, for the review copy.