Source: Review copy, Netgalley
Publication: 4th April 2019 from Viking
They say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.
But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?
A beautiful and haunting tale about one woman’s fight to tell her story, The Confessions of Frannie Langton leads you through laudanum-laced dressing rooms and dark-as-night back alleys, into the enthralling heart of Georgian London.
Right from the start of this novel, you know you are in for something quite different. This is Frannie Langton’s autobiography, written while awaiting trial in Newgate Prison, and it takes us from the heat addled sugar plantation, horribly named Paradise, to the cold wet streets of 1826 London.
Frannie Langton our protagonist, tells us that she wants to be the star of her own gothic romance; to be the Jamaican Jane Eyre or Catherine Earnshaw. A mulatto, she is raised in the Paradise plantation where her master, Langton, a bit of a scientific crackpot , makes her help him in his horrible eugenics experiments. Langton is a bit of a cross between Mengele and Dr Frankenstein and Frannie skates over these experiments as quickly as she can. Frannie is able to educate herself and finds some kind of peace in her reading.
After a disastrous fire destroys the plantation, Frannie is taken to London by Langton and given as a gift to George Benham, a scientist engaged in similarly dubious experiments. The fascination Bentham has with Frannie is more to do with finding out what experiments his rival has conducted than finding Frannie herself useful. Though slavery no longer exists in England, Frannie is penniless and still not free.
George Benham is married to the lovely and captivating Marguerite, a society beauty who married for money only to discover there was precious little of it to spare. Marguerite is disappointed, capricious and addicted to opium.
Sara Collins writes beautifully. She can convey horror in such a quiet understated way that it almost, but not quite, passes you by, mixed with slow sometimes sensual descriptions. These juxtapositions always lead the reader back to the sheer awfulness of Frannie’s position and to those who seek to exploit her.
Wherever Frannie goes she is viewed, not as a person but as a thing, a possession to be talked about, used, abused and ultimately betrayed by the one person she loved. This is Frannie’s story, told as she is on trial for the murders of George and Marguerite Bentham. She claims she can’t remember anything about that fateful night, but she knows for sure she would never have murdered her Mistress.
Frannie’s own account is layered with alternative sources of information. The reality of what has happened becomes the key question, and it applies to every single event of the novel because everyone has a different perspective. The reader is left to work it out.
Frannie herself is a fascinating character; there is an understandable sadness to her but she is quick witted, sharp and inquisitive as well as imbued with a strong survival instinct. She has done some terrible things, but she is always looking for freedom and love, in a country where those very rights are routinely denied because of both her colour and her gender.
This is a strong debut from an original writer. I thought it slightly lost pace in the middle, but that didn’t detract from an outstanding story and a gripping murder mystery with great characterisation.
Verdict: A strong and compelling debut from an original new voice
Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent. She studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before doing a Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. She lives in London, England. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is her debut novel, and was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize.