The writer of Confessions, Sara Collins, came to my attention last year because she presented and interviewed writers in several on-line events that I attended during lockdowns. She interested me because she was chosen to interview some well-known writers. I also noticed that she has been playing a part in the identification of young writers the Futures Award, by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping promoting young women writers.
Another reason to read her book is that she is a woman of colour, born in Jamaica, brought up in Cayman. This is her first novel, but not, I suspect her last, because it has already done well, for example winning the Costa First Novel Prize in 2019. And because the screenplay of this novel has already been filmed and released on Disney channel.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton
The story has mystery, suspense, and being set in Jamaica and London in the early nineteenth century, has a strong historical background. There is romance, and anger and truly awful physical experiments of which Josef Mengele would have approved.
The story is framed by Frannie’s trial for murder in 1826 at the Old Bailey and told mostly as her deposition in her own defence. Some additional documents and testimony are presented to fill out her story and to give an added perspective.
You could read this book as a mystery, a well told story. But Sara Collins has placed the action at a significant moment, especially for black people in England. The barbarous trade across the Atlantic had been ended for British ships at least, in 1807. But enslaved peoples still provided the labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, such as the one Frannie was born on.
It was also the time of enlightenment, when men with means were pursuing knowledge about everything related to humans. Mr Benham, one of the murder victims, is one of the finest minds in England, writing as a moral philosopher. He is interested in the physiological aspects of blackness, and in the study of the black body.
While this is the period of Rights of Men and Woman (Mary Wollestonecraft published in 1792) it is also the period of Frankenstein. This is the story of a human being cobbled together from body parts, and then abandoned by its creator, the Frankenstein of the title, when his monster became a liability. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft published her novel in 1818. The ethics of experimentation and research into humans is a theme of this novel, along with the question, are some humans less worthy of education, position, rights, than others? And is this due to skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or something else? What could possibility justify the enslavement of another human?
Frannie Langton was born in Paradise in Jamaica. Paradise is the plantation owned by Langton. He owns everything, the slaves, the crops, the profits, the house, his wife. You may remember that Paradise was the name of the plantation in Beloved. Frannie is brought by Mr Langton to the house, to serve his wife. She is taught to read, and eventually to help Langton in his experiments, his investigations into blackness and its physiological consequences. Even Frannie’s education, it emerges, is the result of a wager, to see if a black person can be educated.
Frannie is a mulatta, that is she is mixed race and in the course of the novel she discovers the identity of both parents. Langton brings Frannie to England and gives her to Mr Benham, with whom he is trying to curry favour, his endeavours in Jamaica having collapsed. Mt Benham will no longer support Langton as he suspects his experiments have gone too far. Mr Benham is known for his reformist views on slavery.
Frannie forms a close bond with Mrs Benham, and they become lovers. There are several twists and turns to the plot before Mr and Mrs Benham are found dead. It is not surprising that Frannie is accused of their murder, for she is black, female and a lesbian.
Reading The Confessions of Frannie Langton
It was a pleasure to read this novel; the story is well-told with pace and wit. There are many characters as suits a novel set in this period in London. There are the other servants in the house, the people on the streets, those who wish to live in the orbit of the Benhams, and the men who make use of the services of the women at the School House. The indolent and luxurious life lived by the Benhams, and people of their class can only be sustained by the poorly paid work of a range of servants, a parallel to the profits that were made on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, which sustained so much of the plantation owners’ way of life.
Frannie has been endowed with a good eye and a ready description. For example, when she is taken into the Langton’s house at Paradise she meets the cook Phibbah and she plies her with questions.
… but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear. (13)
While the story is fictional, the setting and the themes of the novel are not. Black servants were not unfamiliar in London households. For example, Francis Barber was brought to England by his ‘owner’ when he was seven, educated, freed and then he worked as Samuel Johnson’s manservant and companion. Johnson bequeathed Francis enough money that he could set up as a draper in Litchfield.
It is not quite clear whether Frannie is free or not, and the circumstance of her being given to Mr Benham suggests that the men did not consider her to be free.
Gothic is a word used in the blurb to describe this novel. Lush, lavish, an exposé of the worst of early nineteenth century British society, where behind the ornate and detailed veneer lies a mess of exploitation and sin. The paperback’s cover beautifully captures this masking. Sara Collins takes her time, however, to reveal what lies behind the curtain, the lies, the attitudes, the grimness of life in Paradise or in London for the underclasses and what happened in the coach house.
The manner of the Benhams’ deaths is hardly shocking given all that. And although there is a twist at the end, the verdict is not long in doubt.
I was interested to see a short clip on YouTube where Sara Collins identified three books that had been important to her. They were: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. You can find my reviews of Beloved and Frankenstein by following the links.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, published in 2019 by Penguin. 376pp