Book Review: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
By Angie BarryMay 20, 2019
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a debut novel from Sara Collins. A servant and former slave is accused of murdering her employer and his wife in this historical thriller that moves from a Jamaican sugar plantation to the fetid streets of Georgian London.
I’m forced to trot to keep up with the turnkeys so I don’t tumble crown over ankle. Fear skitters up my throat as they push me into the dock. The barristers look up from their table, idle as cattle in their mournful gowns. Even those old hacks who’ve seen it all want a glimpse of the Mulatta Murderess. Even the judge stares, fat and glossy in his robes, his face soft and blank as an old potato until he screws his eyes on me and nods at his limp-haired clerk to read the indictment.
FRANCES LANGTON, also known as Ebony Fran or Dusky Fran, was indicted for the willful murder of GEORGE BENHAM and MARGUERITE BENHAM in that she on the 27th day of January in the year of Our Lord 1826 did feloniously and with malice aforethought assault GEORGE BENHAM and MARGUERITE BENHAM, subjects of our lord the King, in that she did strike and stab them until they were dead, both about the upper and middle chest, their bodies having been discovered by EUSTACIA LINUX, housekeeper, of Bedford Square, London.
MR JESSOP to conduct the prosecution.
All of London is agog over the case unfolding at the Old Bailey: Frannie Langton, a former slave, stands accused of murdering her scientist employer and his eccentric wife. She was found in Marguerite Benham’s bed, next to her cold body, covered in the Benhams’ blood. All of English society is convinced she is guilty.
But Frannie insists she has no memory of what happened that night. She insists that she isn’t responsible—that she loved her mistress.
But who will listen to an accused murderer who is both a woman and black?
Fully aware of how slim her chance is for acquittal and survival, Frannie sits in a prison cell and does something no one could expect: she writes her story.
She does so out of equal parts necessity and defiance; at this pivotal moment, she wants someone else to know the truth of her life. To see how limited existence is for a woman, a former slave, a black person in a white man’s world. How few choices she ever had in anything, and the nature of freedom, and what drives someone to persist and hope in the face of harsh reality.
And that “no one knows the worst thing they’re capable of until they do it.”
This is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that’s not the kind of story you’re expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those? No, this is my account of myself and my own life and the happiness that came to it, which was not a thing I thought I’d ever be allowed, the happiness or the account.
I have the paper you gave me, and a fresh quill, and your instructions to explain myself.
Any gaol-bird could tell you that for every crime there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner.
That story is one only I can tell.
We follow Frannie from her origins on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation—her years caring for Miss-bella, listening to Phibbah the cook, assisting Master Langton with his strange scientific experiments—to her arrival in London as a young woman.
Almost immediately her owner, now poor and ill, gives her to the Benhams to be their new maid. George Benham, another scientist, proves to be just as hard and cruel as Langton while his wife, Marguerite, is much more than she seems…
It’s truly remarkable that The Confessions of Frannie Langton is Sara Collins’ first novel. The plotting is so assured, the characters so layered, the prose so searing. The locales are rich with atmosphere, from the humid heat of Jamaica to the gritty streets of 1826 London, while the historical setting hums with life.
Narrator Frannie’s clear eye never shies away from the sordid or painful as she unfolds a story from the margins of society, giving voice to personal truths the history books penned by white men rarely record. Amidst her biography are moments of sharp recrimination against racism, misogyny, and the legalities that always placed minorities beneath the ruling white class.
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. Though it’s only one part of the world that’s taken up with novels and romances, the other part being taken up instead with death and vengeance. It’s that part which crowds the doors of the Old Bailey at cockcrow waiting to see meat such as me tossed at hungry prosecutors.
Some will ask why I address this manuscript to you. A man I’d never clapped eyes on before I was arrested. But there’s a simple answer for that also, which is that I want the same thing Langton wanted. English publishers. And I know enough to know that a white man is the only person on God’s green earth who can get me one of those.
Confessions is a historical mystery, but it’s significantly more than that. Collins never lets us forget that the most incredible thing about Frannie’s “confessions” is that they’re coming from a black woman at a time when either factor would have disqualified her from both an education and a platform to speak truth.
In Frannie, with her crisp and darkly beautiful prose, Collins has created a narrator who is both unflinchingly honest and vibrant. She’s a fully-realized woman with dreams and desires and flaws, who’s made terrible mistakes and desperate choices. Despite everything, her voice can be kind, and wry, and poetic as she recounts everything that led to her trial. Some of those experiences are difficult to witness through her eyes, but we never want to turn away and abandon her.
And Frannie’s story is far more than a slave narrative, or a mystery. She’s not here to just tell us about the horrors and suffering she endured—“I remember a thing Phibbah used to say: Only two types of white people in this world, chile, the ones doing shit to you and the ones wanting you to tell them ‘bout the shit them other ones did.”
Her story is one of a woman finding happiness in the forbidden. In books, which a black person wasn’t allowed to read or own. In her own sharp mind and passionate heart, which may have legally belonged to a white man but could never be controlled by him. And in clandestine, gothic romance worthy of Jane Eyre, something society never would have accepted or approved of.
What would you want to be remembered for? If you had one last page and one last hour, what would you write? In the end, this is what I choose. My account of myself. The only thing I’ll be able to leave behind. That there were two things I loved: all those books I read, and all the people who wrote them. Because life boils down to nothing, in spite of all the fuss, yet novels make it possible to believe it is something, after all.
Collins’ Confessions ring with such truth and humanity that I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see this on a college course’s required reading list in years to come. Collins has gifted us with a powerful new heroine while shining a brilliant spotlight on a swathe of history that is too often relegated to footnotes. For far too long, gothic suspense has been lilywhite—it’s a great joy to see that genre become more inclusive and representative of its readers.