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?
The Confessions of Frannie Langton opens in 1826 with Frannie awaiting trial, accused of the brutal murder of George and Marguerite Benham. Dubbed the “Mulatta Murderess” by the press, I liked that the reader immediately see’s Frannie’s current predicament, without understanding how she got there, nor having any indication of whether she is guilty or a useful scapegoat. Asked to write her confession, Frannie then takes the reader back to her time as a child on a Jamaican plantation where she was a slave to John Langton, describing the work she did there for Langton and the unusual circumstances which caused her to be taught to read, before describing how she came to London and began working for the Benhams, and what happened thereafter to bring her to the point where she is awaiting trial.
I felt a great deal of sympathy for Frannie, who doesn’t seem to fit in either in Jamaica or in London. As a slave on a plantation, her paler skin marks her out as different from those around her, and being chosen to work in the house rather than on the plantation itself also sets her apart from her from the other slaves, with such house slaves being detested by others. Being taught to read also marks her out as different, although she develops a thick skin early on in her life, and finds in novels a chance to escape, however briefly, and this education gives her a sense of pride. In London, she is also different to those around her, this time her skin being darker than what was considered to be the ideal complexion, although here her reading and articulate speech at least help her to be a little more accepted by society and those that serve them, although most see her as little more than a novelty.
Throughout the novel, Collins highlights the beliefs of the times, which range from bad to abominable. While there were those against slavery and who sought to abolish the practice all together, their protests in England don’t seem to do much good on the plantations where slavery is still very much the status quo. Additionally, Frannie’s arrival in London allows the reader to see the assumptions made about those who are different, particularly evidenced by the Benham’s Housekeeper, Linux, who immediately assumes that Frannie will be nothing but trouble, and who is most likely a thief, despite having only just met her and having no evidence upon to which to base such a judgement. Most horrific is the work that Langton was involved in upon his plantation which he calls science, and which Frannie was roped in to assist with. Much of the detail around this isn’t made apparent until later in the novel, but it seems that Langton sees his slaves as a different species to himself entirely, and seeks to prove this through experimentation.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, unsurprisingly, told through Frannie’s confessions which she writes down as evidence for the trail against her, interspersed with newspaper clippings and excerpts from the trial as the reader sees different witnesses take the stand, and catalogues her time in Jamaica and London up until her trial. Towards the end of the novel, Collins changes tack slightly, as Frannie herself is brought in as witness and to defend herself in court. I love court cases, particularly in novels such as this, and I enjoyed the way that Collins kept me guessing as to Frannie’s guilt or innocence until the very end of the novel.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a brilliantly written debut that I would recommend to fans of novels such as Alias Grace. It is published by Viking on 4 April – many thanks to the publisher for allowing me to read and review this title ahead of publication via Netgalley.