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As this stunning novel opens, we are at the Old Bailey on a spring day in April 1826. We are being addressed by the woman in the dock, Frances Langton, aka The Mulatta Murderess, Ebony Fran, or Dusky Fran. She stands accused of having murdered her master and mistress, George and Marguerite Benham. She has little in the way of defence, as she says she cannot remember what happened before she woke up smeared with blood in the bed next to the dead Marguerite. But there is a lot that she can remember and as she says, "an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner. That story is one only I can tell."
And tell it she does, in a voice that is distinctive, articulate, and compelling. She begins with her life in Jamaica, where she was born a slave on the plantation named, with heavy irony, Paradise, a place that seems to have been paradise for none of its inhabitants, black or white. Frannie is both and was raised in the main house, where she was taught to read by her owner's mistress, for reasons that are far from altruistic. Frannie was an apt pupil and in no time is happily tearing through the house library, reading whatever she can lay her hands on. It is an education that shapes both her intellect and her prose style.
Terrible things take place in this anti-paradise, of which we only later become aware. In time, however, after the plantation is destroyed by fire, her owner, John Langton, brings Frannie to London, where, technically at least, she is free. Free or not, he presents her to one George Benham, with whom he has been engaged in a discussion over the nature of the black race, a question raised by the current campaign to end slavery and infused by the fact that both men own slaves. Langton believes that the colour of the skin negatively affects the character of the slave making him irredeemably inferior. Perhaps, asks Langton, "the Negro is a separate species?" Langton has a particular interest in the question as he may have impregnated any number of slaves in Paradise. Benham, on the other hand, presents himself as a liberal, concerned primarily with the physical and moral well-being of the slave and ignoring the fundamental evil of the institution itself. As Frannie says to him, trying to ameliorate conditions on slave-holding plantations is a waste of time: "There's no reforming what's already rotten."
Once introduced into the Benham household, Frannie rapidly finds herself an object of particular interest to Marguerite Benham, George's French wife, known as Meg, who is positively glittering with laudanum and despair. In time she promotes Frannie to "abigail," a personal lady's maid, and takes her along on various social occasions where she stays out of the limelight and observes what goes on. Meg also introduces Frannie to laudanum, that opiate then commonly prescribed for a variety of complaints, a drug to which she is herself addicted. Eventually, the two become lovers, at least for a time.
Frannie is, of course, of both white and black ancestry and she speaks from a dual perspective. She rejects the efforts of the abolitionists to reduce her to one whose value resides in the suffering she has endured in servitude, a means of arousing sympathy and so attract others to the cause. But Frannie observes that the abolitionists have all got "a slaver's appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it."
But Frannie also speaks as a woman. She observes that "a man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it." Prompted by her lawyer to write her story as a possible defence against the murders she is charged with, she takes Defoe's Moll Flanders as an example of how to make a kind of art out of personal history. Though she dismisses Moll as "the kind of smug nonsense that is always written by men when they write about women," it is her voracious reading in world literature primarily written by men that has provided her with an entry into the "common history" and allowed her to stake her claim.
Although I have not come across any acknowledgement on Sara Collins' part of a debt to Jane Eyre, a number of reviewers have suggested it, applauding this book as a worthy contemporary rereading of that Victorian Gothic rooted in colonialism. And so it might be. But there is another book that comes to mind, one also inspired by Jane Eyre, and that is Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea, which recounts the events of Brontė's classic from the point of view of the woman in the attic, Antoinette/Bertha, Rochester's poor doomed mad wife. Antoinette was Creole, though not of mixed race, even if Rochester seems to think she might have been. Whether or not Rhys afforded any inspiration to Collins, it is about time that the fetid mix of 19th century British prosperity, colonialism, slavery, and racism was subjected to a proper examination from the point of view of one whose life was heavily impacted by that evil brew.
The reader is asked to determine to what degree Frannie is guilty and of what crime. Frannie herself is not sure. But within the context of the enormous evil of slavery, even Frannie cannot be entirely innocent.
THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON is a challenging, compelling, rivetting historical novel that establishes a genuinely new approach to an era that has been heavily mined in fiction but rarely deeply explored. Read it. You really must.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2019
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