Friday 24 November 2023

The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins

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Frannie Langton is born into slavery on a plantation ironically named Paradise. There she witnesses extreme cruelty. She learns to read, and as a result is forced to help Langton with his experiments, the horrors of which haunt her throughout. The plantation burns down and she is taken to London where legally she is free but Langton nonetheless gifts her to his rival Mr Benham. We know from the start that she is on trial for the murder of Mr and Mrs Benham and this colours the way we watch their relationship develop. She sees how unhappy Mrs Benham is in her marriage and as they grow closer a physical attraction develops. She is judged by the other servants in the household, and the two of them descend into opium addiction, yet it is a cruel turn of fate orchestrated by Mr Benham that seems likely to push them both over the edge. 

The circumstances of the murder are hazy. Frannie doesn’t remember what happened, and the witnesses pointing fingers are basing their assumptions on circumstantial evidence and prejudice. Frannie’s confessions are her opportunity to give voice to her life. She resents the people who take on the role of white saviours, revelling in hearing tales of suffering, making money from the misery of others. She wants her life to be understood fully, not to be mere entertainment, a way for people to feel better about themselves. Her writing is passionate and engrossing. Her life has undoubtedly been difficult, the people around her treating her terribly, but she is so much more than what has been done to her. 

She is not used to receiving affection. Growing up not knowing who her mother is, after the loss of another slave in the house at Paradise, Langton becomes her closest acquaintance. His experiments aim to prove that people of colour are not human as a way of justifying slavery and ill-treatment. He sees that Frannie is intelligent and in private speaks to her with some degree of respect, but as soon as he is in the company of white men she is treated as invisible. The fact he gifts her to Benham shows that he never really saw her as anything more than a possession he could use to his own advantage. She is left with a feeling of confusion, of temporary sorrow at his exit from her life. The lingering emotion however is guilt, shame at what they did together, an inability to absolve herself of responsibility for the actions she was forced to perform. There is a sense that she is willing to take the blame for a murder she may not have committed as punishment for the evil deeds she’d witnessed and been forced to participate in.

The women in the houses where she lives are unhappy and bored, a very dangerous circumstance for those who serve them. They have no love for their husbands and take steps to try to avoid pregnancy, taking what little control they can. Mrs Benham is forced to perform her role as a good wife and hostess even when she is suffering, and Mr Benham’s attempts to save face descend into cruelty. Frannie sees this and feels for the woman she has come to care for deeply. Their relationship is a difficult one, and far from being equal. When Frannie finds herself alone she realises how little opportunity there is for women of colour to even buy themselves a drink, let alone find work that doesn’t involve satisfying the sexual whims of wealthy men.

Her life is hard and full of suffering, disappointment, and rejection, yet she is defiant. She knows that she is capable and intelligent and will do what she must to survive. Her confessions are powerful. Langton and Benham are fictional characters but their actions reflect experiments that were carried out around this period. A haunting, disturbing book. Well written and with characters that feel real, this is an impressive debut. 

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