Are you ready for a different kind of historical novel, one that doesn’t start with someone in the present discovering a link to people in the past, one that actually trusts readers to be interested in the events of the past on their own? Are you ready for a historical novel that takes on issues like racism and slavery from a different perspective than you’re used to seeing? Then take a look at The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, new at The Field Library, and prepare for a great read.
Frannie Langton is on trial for murdering two people in the house in England where she worked as a servant, and the book is what she’s written to her barrister in response to his desperate request that she give him something he can use to defend her other than her initial response, which was that she couldn’t remember anything. The circumstances of the murders are definitely against her: she was found in bed with her mistress, both of them covered in blood, the master of the house had been stabbed multiple times and there was a trail of blood going from his room to the mistress’ room. But worse than that, Frannie was black, a former slave from the Jamaica sugar plantations, and in 1826 London, she’s viewed as a savage, possibly not entirely human, and capable of anything. That George and Marguerite Benham had taken her in when her former owner brought her to England, that they were well known members of upper class society, and that there were all kinds of rumors about the real relationship between Frannie and Marguerite, doesn’t help matters.
The trial serves as a thread that runs through the book; while Frannie tells the story of her life in the plantation and what happened to her once she arrived in England, periodically she returns to the murder case being tried in the Old Bailey Court, with excerpts of the testimony against her sprinkled through the book. For quite a while, you don’t know exactly what happened, other than the sensational charges themselves, and Frannie takes her time getting to the actual events (in fact, you don’t get the real answers until the very end of the book), let alone the question of what she might or might not have done, how responsible she might have been for the deaths.
Along the way, we get to know Frannie, and she’s quite a character. She defies stereotypes all along the line: she’s from Jamaica, she grew up on a sugar plantation, but she wasn’t ever a field hand, and her relationship to Langton, the owner of the plantation, and his wife is unclear: both of them seem to know more about Frannie’s background than she does. She’s literate, she reads novels, and she’s enlisted by Langton as his scribe in the incredibly racist and disgusting experiments he’s conducting to prove the differences between blacks and whites. When he brings her to England to meet George Benham, who had been his collaborator in his researches but who has now disavowed that connection, he leaves her with Benham, as a servant. She catches Marguerite’s attention, and falls in love with her mistress, all the while knowing that the relationship can never be equal and wondering whether there’s even a relationship at all (Marguerite is a strange woman, well-educated, addicted to laudanum, and hard to figure out in any event). Thrown out of that house, Frannie finds herself in a whorehouse, and then she goes back to the Benham household, shortly before the murders.
Smart and educated enough to see other people clearly and to see how Jamaican and English society are built on assumptions of racial superiority, Frannie nevertheless can’t escape from the expectations of those societies. Frannie’s status as a black woman, a servant, a foreigner, in England is different from what we as Americans in the 21st century would expect, but it’s fascinating to see how racism worked in English society at the time, and you find yourself hoping against hope that Frannie will find some kind of happy ending (no spoilers here; you’re going to have to read this for yourself).
Get absorbed in another time and place and enjoy the powerful perspective of Frannie Langton, former slave, whore and accused murderess.