Are you looking for an author who reclaims, or rather, claims a place in a literary genre that has been dominated by white men and women? Are you looking for the inversion of the ‘slave narrative’? Or do you want to read a book about an extraordinary black and female character who does not fit into the ‘tropey’ and often stereotypical representation of black women? Then ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ is definitely the book for you.
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?
This book took me utterly by surprise. I had read some reviews in advance about how this is an exemplary gothic novel, that the author Sara Collins has introduced an autonomous black woman into the stuffy and white drawing rooms of Georgian London. If I am to be honest, that kind of narrative was not really what drew me to buying the book. I have become a bit apprehensive of this seemingly preferred marketing of books – especially books by black and female authors. Publishers and big-name reviewers seem to be in the business of making black women’s work more palatable to the ‘general’ audience, only to leave the readers with puzzled questions and confused reactions.
While, in this case, the connection between Sara Collins’ book and the gothic novel (or other connections such as to Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’, etc.) are certainly justified, I felt like there was so much more to this book than ‘just’ the reclaiming of a literary form usually published by white authors. ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ contains a plethora of social commentary and historical reclaiming of narratives and discourses.
The story starts on a plantation in Jamaica, but this book is far from the traditional ‘slave narrative’. Frannie, the protagonist, is not talked about, but she is the one talking herself. She takes her own version of her own story into her own hands. While on the plantation, Frannie, again, does not conform to the usual ‘slave’ whose back and mind is broken by perpetual violence, physical, emotional, or otherwise. She is an active part of the running of the plantation and shows us the role of other slaves on it, focusing especially on herself and her experiences. Her life on Langton’s plantation also sets the scene for her experiences later in life and her way of reacting to the difficulties that life throws at her.
The novel touches on more than the brutalisation of slaves at the long end of their owners’ whips, but also at the hands of people like the plantation owner Langton, who, a bit like the infamous Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, carries out horrific pseudo-scientific experiments on black bodies in his desperate attempts to prove the inferiority of black people.
The story takes on a different turn when Frannie is given to Mr Benham, a wealthy Londoner, as a maid. Since I want to keep this review spoiler free, I’m just going to allude to another aspect of this book that I really appreciated, namely the adding of an aspect of Frannie’s personality that I had not come across before in traditional narratives about slaves or former slaves. I mean… if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean! What an interesting additional (and usually ignored) layer to both Frannie and the story of the novel in general!
Anyway, if you’ve been reading my reviews for long enough, you’ll know that I am quite apprehensive of the often pervasive likening of black authors’ works to white authors’ works or previously existing traditions, because it essentially forces non-white authors to conform to existing forms of writing, undermining their own effort and creativity, and positioning white / Western literary traditions as the benchmark for success. In this case, likening ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ to existing traditions and forms of writing seems to have been well-received and even intended by the author, which I obviously respect and applaud, but I’d like to remind my readers of the fact that while ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ does certainly conform to the gothic genre, that Frannie definitely shows similarities to Jane Eyre, etc., we must be careful not to see this wonderful novel as merely an offshoot of something that already existed. We have to respect and celebrate Sara Collins’ novel as an independent, noteworthy and self-assertive part of the wider literary tradition and output – and I think this is an aspect which often goes amiss when likening books (by non-white authors) to the works of dominant white authors.