The Confessions of Frannie Langton
by Sara Collins
‘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?
I received an eARC of The Confessions of Frannie Langton from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Hm. This is a very difficult book to review because while there are things about it that I really appreciate, I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading it all that much and, for me, enjoyment is ultimately what I’m looking for when I pick up a book.
Set in Jamaica and then London during the Georgian era, The Confessions of Frannie Langton opens in prison where Frannie Langton, once a slave and more recently a lady’s maid, has been accused of murdering her master and mistress. Having the ability to read and write, she’s been asked to write her version of events, and she takes us back to her childhood and through to the night of the murders, confessing her various sins along the way.
I was initially so hopeful that I was going to love this novel. The scenes in Jamaica were some of my favourites but I found my interest in this novel dipped as soon as Frannie and Mr. Langton, the man who owned her, arrived in London. I just don’t find London as a setting in historical fiction particularly interesting because it’s a setting I’ve seen so many times before. There are other cities in the UK. That’s more of a problem with me, though, than the book.
For the most part I wish the novel had stayed in Jamaica, though; the setting there felt so much richer and easier to picture than Frannie’s time in London, but even in Jamaica nothing was as clear as I would have liked. Frannie ends up assisting (not that she has a choice in the matter) Mr. Langton with some pretty horrific scientific experiments, only we’re never entirely clear about what’s going on. These are Frannie’s confessions, and yet I constantly felt held at a distance from her and it was incredibly frustrating when I wanted to know her.
This sense of being held at a distance continued when Frannie travelled to London with Mr. Langton and ended up being left as a gift to Mr. Benham, an associate of his, and his wife, Meg, known as ‘Madame’ to the majority of the household, including Frannie.
Frannie and Madame end up entangled in a love affair, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why. I have no idea whatsoever why these two women love each other. It’s not that they aren’t compelling characters, and Frannie in particular is especially interesting which is why I was so frustrated at being held at a distance, but I didn’t feel like they had any chemistry. Frannie talks a lot about how she wants what Mr. Benham has, and that I could believe.
One of the things I did really appreciate about this novel is its discussions around freedom from slavery. Frannie might no longer be a slave, but she doesn’t know how to want freedom, either, because she’s never really been taught what freedom is. The only freedom she’s ever grown up around is the freedom that’s inherent in any wealthy white family during this period of history. She might not be a slave, but she’s never going to be treated like an equal by a lot of people who look down on her because she is a woman of colour.
How Frannie struggles compared to the white women and black men that she encounters, who in their own way obviously have struggles they’re facing when society favours wealthy white men in particular, is one of the most powerful observations this novel makes, and I think continues to resonate today when we talk about intersectional feminism. The problem for me was that I found the story itself somewhat lacking; so much is glossed over or mentioned in passing that I’d’ve liked to have seen fleshed out more, and it felt like a lot of the ‘twists’ were shoved into the last 25% of the book when I think they would have worked better gradually revealed throughout the story. Leaving them to the end like that felt a little like the novel was being rushed to its conclusion.
I like so much of what this novel set out to do. I know Collins herself wrote this because she’s a huge fan of Gothic novels, but never saw characters who looked like her in the starring roles, and I definitely want to see more people of colour at the centre of Gothic tales because they’re a type of story I love, too. I don’t know if I’d describe this novel as a Gothic novel, though. For me it was trying to do too many things at once, and for the most part I just found the experience of reading it to be very frustrating.
That said, there’s no doubt that Collins is a fantastic writer. There are some brilliant lines in this book – at one point Frannie describes the prints of Madame’s slippers in the carpet as ‘like teeth marks in bread’ and I love that image – so while I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I hoped, Collins is an author whose career I’ll be watching.