A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to join it.
Set in Victorian London, The Confessions of Frannie Langton begins as 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: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?
Frannie begins her story with her childhood on a Jamaican slave plantation whose master, John Langton, is a sadist who experiments on the slaves desperate to prove that Africans aren’t human. Having learnt to read and write Frannie acts as a scribe taking notes on his horrifying experiments into racial difference. However, after a fire destroys the majority of the plantation, Langton takes Frannie to London and gives her as a gift to George Benham, a scientist involved in the same controversial experiments. Forced to become George’s maid, Frannie soon becomes infatuated with George’s wife, Marguerite, whose addiction to laudanum rules her life. Marguerite and Frannie begin a love affair but their happiness is short-lived as Marguerite’s attention is drawn by the return of a love rival.
Frannie is a complex protagonist whose accounts of her life are frequently disorientating (reminiscent of other trauma narratives including Toni Morrison’s Beloved) as she blocks off events in her own memories. This means the reader is left like her, struggling to access memories which might set her free. Collins’ narrative kept me guessing until the very end – something which rarely happens – and so when the events of that fateful murderous night are eventually revealed they are heartbreakingly shocking.
In her review for the Guardian, Natasha Pulley claims that Collins’ novel ‘pulls the gothic into new territory and links it back to its origins. It points at the reader and asks whether it might be a sign of atrocious privilege to enjoy a genre devoted to the grotesque – especially when the grotesquerie comes from things that might plausibly have happened in the name of science and sugar money’. In her ground-breaking debut, Collins creates a book unlike anything else I have read. As a Victorian literature PhD student I am familiar with much of the period’s literature and the (anti-)slavery debates but I have never come across a book which places that debate directly in the heart of London. Collins is moving the Gothic and neo-Victorian fiction into new realms, ensuring that those voices which have been silenced for generations are finally able to be heard.