The Confessions of Frannie Langton centers on the titular character who is on trial at the Old Bailey in London for the murders of her master and mistress/owners, George and Marguerite Benham. This historical novel set in Paradise Plantation, Montego Bay, Jamaica, and London follows the life of enslaved Frannie Langton, born a “mulatta,” to her mother, Phibba, a house slave, and her father, John Langton, slave owner and proprietor of a large slave plantation in Paradise. The beauty of this many-layered novel is that Frannie Langton herself is recounting her own narrative on the eve of her trial.
Jamaican author Sara Collins spent 17 years as a lawyer before writing her stunning debut novel. Born in Jamaica, raised in Grand Cayman, and later attending law school in London, Collins shows her legal expertise in portraying Langton’s trial.
Frannie Langton proceeds to tell us her life story in “confessional” form which defies the slave narrative genre and also allows Langton to tell her story through the prism of her relationship with her slave mistress, Marguerite Benham. Silhouettes of other slave narratives such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano can be seen, but the fictional Langton incisively reflects on the role slave narratives assume in the context of the abolition movement. Or, as Collins eloquently writes:
“No doubt you will think this one of these slave stories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who would want to read one of those. No this is my account of my life and the happiness that came to it.”
It is not only the subversion of the slave narrative that I found utterly fascinating but also the reclamation of women’s narratives as love stories.
Full disclosure: I have read quite a few slave narratives both in my work as an historian and as a book editor on a project on nineteenth century slave narratives a few years ago, so I was all “in” on the meta-discussion on the role of slave narratives. Yet, I was also keenly interested in the way in which Langton’s story would differ. Historically, there is a way that slave narratives have been propulsively written to advance the cause of abolition. One need only look at the introduction to the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to recognize that it was parlayed to the world by longtime abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, for example.
A common trope in both 18th and 19th century slave narratives and Frannie Langton’s life story is the role of literacy. In Collins’s story, young Frannie is taught to read and write from her slave owner, John Langton in Paradise. Parallels to slave narratives end there, however, as Frannie’s literacy is put to sinister uses as she assists Langton and later, Benham, in the pseudoscientific study known as phrenology which entails measuring the size and characteristics of human skulls to make links to intelligence. It is a harsh, harsh world that Frannie lives in made exponentially worse by the gruesome work she is made to execute for the two men. But where the story of escape from slavery propel other narratives, the fictional confessional story constructed by Collins pivots instead on love.
The epigraph to the book conveys the key theme of the story: “one word frees us from all the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” And that love story forms the core of the book. Frannie is later brought by John Langton to London where she is “gifted” to George Benham, who is also in the pseudoscientific line of work. Despite the fact that the slave trade had been legally outlawed since 1807 (and Frannie goes to London around 1825) there is truly little difference between the work Frannie does as “servant” at the Benhams or as an enslaved house slave in Jamaica. Frannie is given to the Benhams, and George quickly hands off Frannie to his wife, Marguerite.
The love story between Frannie and Marguerite unspools slowly. They initially bond over books—Moll Flanders, Candide, and Milton among others—which is not entirely surprising given the prominent theme of literacy and reading. Frannie, however, is immediately smitten, and finds out much later that Marguerite’s feelings for her burned just as brightly. Over lolling days spent in the gardens, sharing their passion for books, and in the kitchen dancing playfully, the two become inseparable once Marguerite begins summoning Frannie to her living quarters. The two have ferocious appetite for each other which is seemingly overlooked by Mr. Benham. The story takes an unexpected turn as Marguerite eventually spurns Frannie—with irreparable consequences.
Yet it is Frannie’s recounting of her personal narrative on the eve of her trial where Collins’s skill as a novelist and also as a lawyer shine through. The extent to which one’s personal life history is a constructed version seems to be well-trod ground. Even though Langton’s version of her own life story is a true account within the context of a historical novel, Collins seems well versed in the art of the life story. And, notably also well versed in the way in which her story integrates the grist of classic literary works. Frannie’s life is only finally told in complete form toward the ending of the book as Collins appears to give a nod to Milton:
“The mind is its own place as Milton said. It can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. How does it do that? By remembering or forgetting. The only tricks a mind can play.”
Only in the final chapters of the novel do we find out where the line between truths and falsehoods are drawn. This is one of the best historical novels I have read in a while and is highly recommended.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton
By Sara Collins
407 pages. 2019.