Rating 3 stars
A friend recommended The Confessions of Frannie Langton to me ages ago, so I reserved it at the library. Everyone else in Manchester wanted to read it, apparently, so it took weeks and weeks and arrived just when I already had an armful of library books to read. When I finally got to it, I only had two days left in which to read it. Fortunately, it’s a page turner, and I managed to whip through it.
The story of Frannie Langton is a feisty one. She begins her tale as a prisoner on trial for murder, but not even she is sure whether she did it or not. Her lawyer asks her to write down anything she remembers that will help her case, and so she writes her life story.
And this is the first remarkable thing about Frannie: she can read and write. Why is this unusual? Well, Frannie was born a slave in Jamaica, the child of an unknown mother and her slave master. She is plucked from the cane fields to serve in the house. Her bored mistress is momentarily amused enough to teach Frannie to read. Later, her master uses her as a sort of clerk to record the results of his investigations into the relationship between race, cranial size and intelligence. Unbeknown to Frannie, her education and employment as a clerk is an experiment to discover whether a black woman can learn.
Frannie is alive at the start of the nineteenth century, which isn’t a good time to either be black or a woman. The horrors of her personal situation in Jamaica are hinted at rather than spelled out. As with the white emancipationists who Frannie encounters in her prison cell, do-gooders who like to feed on the tales of terrible things done to slaves, there’s no need for us to have it spelled out to us. Frannie’s story isn’t one of victimhood. Not if Frannie has any say in its telling.
From Jamaica, Frannie travels to London, where her desperate master, keen to re-secure the lost support of a celebrated man of science, George Benham, for his racist phrenological study, gifts Frannie to the Benham household. Mr Benham, it turns out, is the instigator of the educational experiment and is keen to have Frannie as a study of his own.
It’s in the Benham house that Frannie, now a maid but no less enslaved, meets Madame Marguerite Benham, wife of George and probable lesbian. And here is the second remarkable thing about Frannie: she falls in love with her new mistress, despite sharing the belief of the time that such a thing as love between two women was against nature, and it is this love that leads her to believe that she can’t be the murderer. At least, not the murderer of Madame Benham.
There were moments in the early part of Frannie’s tale where I thought I had read all this before. When I reflected on this surprising thought, I realised that it was because I have read a handful of non-fiction books by black writers recently who speak honestly about the slave trade and its legacy for the lives of black people today. Plus that history book written by a white person that seemed to be trying to diminish the impact of slave trade on the grounds that black people had lived in Britain since Tudor times. When I thought about it some more, I realised that I have read pretty much no historical fiction, Washington Black excepted, that told a story from the perspective of a black central character, let alone a black female central character. The next closest thing was The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which features black Londoners from a similar time and living in similar circumstances to Frannie Langton. I had a word with myself about my dismissive arrogance at having read all this before, especially because I have pretty much read all of it before each time I read a book by a white person. The truth is, there aren’t enough novels with black central characters, never mind historical fiction.
Sara Collins has created a vibrant character in Frannie. She captures her intelligence and her self-belief, she makes her fill the pages of the book with life and wit. Collins also conjours the filth and clamour of Regency London, seen through Frannie’s eyes as a new arrival from the Caribbean. The development of her love for Madame Benham is told in the way of all love stories: a gradual realisation followed by an irresistible desire to have the beloved person before acceptance that love is what it is. Collins makes it natural within the frame of society’s conviction that it was unnatural. She is clear that Frannie is entirely natural, despite the prejudice that surrounds her suggesting that she is other.
It’s a tragic story, of course. Frannie cannot have the things she wants, no matter how hard she longs for them or how much she believes she has the right to them. The world isn’t ready for Frannie yet. It will take another two hundred years for the world to begin to understand that black is not less than white, that woman is not less than man, and that people of the same gender can love each other. It’s sad that, even after two hundred years, the world is still only beginning to understand that.
I read this quickly because it’s pacily written and compelling. We uncover the truth as Frannie remembers it, and as she describes everything that went before, leading to the position she finds herself in, it becomes almost inevitable that things would play out the way that they do.