Sara Collins’ debut novel The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a startlingly vivid account of black peoples’ experiences in the Georgian era. The year is 1826 and lady’s maid Frannie Langton is on trial for the murder of her employers/owners, George and Meg Benham. The novel flashes back and follows Frannie as a young girl growing up on a plantation in Jamaica. As a mixed race child, she never really fits in with anyone around her so she turns to books for comfort. Soon, her and plantation owner Langton set off for England, where she is given to the Benhams and subsequently begins an affair with Meg. But one questions always lurks beneath the surface: did she kill them?
The book is beautifully written, and certainly one of the most lyrical I’ve read in a while. Collins wonderfully captures the sights, sounds, and smells of both Jamaica and London, making the reader instantly drawn into the world. She is also adept at getting underneath Frannie’s skin and exploring her character through original and surprising metaphors and imagery. It was an absolute joy to read and just being swept up in this gorgeous language was lovely; despite often at odds with the grim subject matter and themes.
Collins also explores aspects of this time period that I had never previously considered. A key example is when abolitionists are mentioned. Whilst perhaps good-intentioned, they are predominantly white men wishing to write about the lives of black people, without letting black people write their stories for themselves. An early example is a conversation between Frannie and an abolitionist named Feelon. When Frannie says she wants to write her story herself, Feelon remarks she needs to ‘season’ it:
“I showed him a raised brow. ‘If people don’t know already what happens on a West India estate, Mr Feelon, you’ve wasted your life in the printing of all those pamphlets.’
‘But the slave tales we print shed light on suffering‘, he said, his own face running oil, like a lamp. ‘Which is the only way to keep attention to our cause’.” – pg. 42
The idea that both plantation owners and abolitionists exploit black people, for different reasons and through different ways but still undermining them, was a new concept to me and made me question what I know of this time period and slavery. In a way, this book seems like Collins’ way of giving back the voices of people like Frannie.
However, the relationship between Frannie and Meg fell flat. To be honest, I never saw the attraction between the two of them and, without giving away spoilers, their relationship was incredibly toxic and was border lining on abusive. Whether the relationship was supposed to be this way or an actual beautiful romance that I was supposed to root for, I don’t know. Also, the fact that Frannie is sort of an unreliable narrator heightens this uncertainty. It was the one main problem I had with the novel, that I was never sure how to feel about them.
Overall, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an incredible debut. The language is stunning and was a highlight of the reading experience. The setting was evocative and how Collins dealt with slavery and abolition was unique and fascinating. However the core of the novel, the relationship between the two women, didn’t work; it seemed horrendous and I just couldn’t support it. But I would happily pick up Collins’ next book because this was a very promising first novel.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.