Monday 12 October 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins (2019)

You may know me as the author of Bronte’s Mistress, but, when I’m not writing my own books, I’m reading other people’s. For five and a half years now, in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I’ve been reviewing books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first. 

So far in 2020, I’ve blogged about Sandra Dallas’s Westering Women (2020), Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars (2019), Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte (2009), Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride (2019), Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon (2016) and Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr Rochester (2017). This time, it’s the turn of Sara Collins’s stellar 2019 debut, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.

It’s 1826 and Frannie Langton is in the Old Bailey prison in London when Collins’s novel opens. She’s accused of murdering her employer Mr Benham and his wife, a crime she tells us she can’t have committed because she was in love with her mistress. Frannie was born into slavery in Jamaica, and the British press has dubbed her “the Mulatto Murderess.” She doubts the court will recognise her humanity in her upcoming trial, so she chooses to make her confession to us, the readers, instead.

But what exactly is Frannie confessing? Did she kill either or both of the Benhams? Was she a complicit in the dissections and vivisections of slaves back on the plantation? Should we see her as a victim of sexual abuse, a willing party to incest, or both? Or is her confession a cri de coeur about her romantic feelings for a woman, a union this society condemns as equally unnatural?

While the plot unfolds slowly (after all, we know from the beginning that murder will be our destination), Frannie’s voice is distinctive and interesting. This feels in keeping with the unusual circumstances of her life, and, while I’ve read a few reviews from readers who found the frequency of similes excessive, I enjoyed how Frannie’s images were always rooted in her frame of reference.

Emotionally, there are few moments of joy. This is a novel about righteous and unrelenting anger, and the reading experience can be exhausting. There’s no respite for Frannie, but she never acts the part of docile and pitiable victim. A line of advice the character is given early in the book really stood out to me: “[There are] 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.” Collins asks (especially White) readers to confront their own ideas of what a narrative about a former slave should be.

While Frannie is an utterly original creation, at times she reminded me of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Like Jane, she’s overlooked and unfairly written off by those around her, and frequently thrust into the role of observer, although her perceptions are sharp and her words can be fierce. At the same time, she is also, of course, akin to Jane’s predecessor Bertha Mason, another famous Jamaican. As in postcolonial interpretations of Bertha, Frannie can be seen as an avenging angel, a personification of the White British man’s fears of his abuses abroad, the source of his wealth, coming back to haunt him.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton and urge fellow Victorianists to add it to their reading lists. Do you have a tip for me about a great book for my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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