Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“But 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?”
Frances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers, George and Marguerite Benham, to whom she was given by her former master, though in London she is technically free. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station.
The frame narrative finds the former slave known as Frances Langton in her cell at Newgate prison, furtively scribbling her “confessions” to her lawyer, whom she addresses as “you.” The lawyer has begged her to give him something—anything—that will help him in his defense of her, for to this point she has maintained that she remembers nothing of the night the Benhams were murdered. But Frances has her own ideas about the story she wants to tell, and she will not pander to the judge, the jury, or anyone else. Newspaper clippings, court transcriptions, and extracts from the diary of George Benham are interspersed between her chapters so that we see Frances largely through her own eyes, but occasionally catch glimpses of how she was seen by those around her.
By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She is a keen observer, though she often deludes herself in the matter of love, losing sight of that which would normally be obvious to her keen intellect. “Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder. Where has it got me, in the end?” she laments. She wants to be seen, but every time she reveals her true self, she is forcibly reminded that “there are many who find an educated black more threatening than a savage one.”
Frances consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. “What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it,” she warns. Collins nods to the real slave narratives of the period, naming one of the characters Olaudah, in reference to Olaudah Equiano, and Frances takes her name from Francis Barber. But Frannie is determined to write her own story on her own terms, even if “most publishers can’t see past their noses. Probably not far enough to see a woman like me.” She spends little time on her slave upbringing in Jamaica, focusing instead on her fate after her owner brought her to London and turned her over to fellow scientist George Benham. But it is Mrs. Benham who becomes the centre of Frannie’s world, bright and shining, but also eccentric and troubled, descending further into laudanum addiction every day.
Although framed by a murder mystery, the novel is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance. Frannie’s greatest defense also condemns her. “I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done,” she opens the book. And it is here her heart remains throughout the story, leading towards the inevitable tragedy, and final revelation of her trial.
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