(SPOILER ALERT… Contains some references to plot)
It’s been more than 2 years since my last blogpost… Reader, where has the time flown?
I’ve been working on a novel and was planning to return to this page in the new year, but I must confess I missed the buzz of blogging…
A character from fiction grabbed my attention. It was Frannie, heroine of Sara Collins’ debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.
A few weeks ago, as reviews filled the Twittersphere and The Confessions of Frannie Langton was ‘Book of the Month’, I was approached by a Waterstones bookseller saying he doesn’t usually read novels but…
‘Try this,’ he urged, holding the paperback pictured below.
I took his advice and bought it.
The premise? A grand Victorian house in 19th century London, a young woman sent to work there from Jamaica, and the accusation of a crime, the double murder of her bosses, for which she may hang.
As she awaits her trial, Frannie gives an account of what actually happened before she was imprisoned. She hopes to set the record straight, taking us through a life spent resisting the servitude into which she was born.
At the centre of the intrigue is the love between the servant Frannie and her mistress, Marguerite, a French ‘eccentric’.
‘Knowing a person’s story, and how they tell it, and where the lies are in it, is part of love.’
And in each of their interactions, as in the rest of the novel, Frannie is determined to be treated as equal, in a household – and world – set on keeping her in her place. Her courage is the engine which keeps the pages of this mystery turning.
There are court testimonies by other dwellers of the house. Not just the masters but the staff too. We meet them in the kitchen and peek at the food that they prepare:
‘…the room was musty and dim, and still reeked of salt and old mutton fat. The cake made up for it. Golden and sweet, and no matter that I knew only too well how the sugar was made.’
Like the hit TV series Downton Abbey, exchanges between the servants are as central to the story as those of the family, but no cosy historical is this. Imagine characters, with grins and bones protruding, a little larger than life, and you get the idea. Much of The Confessions of Frannie Langton is decidedly gothic.
We also see snippets of a journal written by Benham, one half of the murdered couple. This adds to our picture of Frannie, a forthright mix of bookishness and protest at her lot, an avid reader who even hides the pages of Candide into the seam of her dress so she may continue the story without being seen.
This devotion to literature gives Frannie the language of her oppressors, the tools with which to face them. It’s a wonderful surprise in this suspenseful novel to find that books are not just Frannie’s lifeline but her secret weapon, giving her the confidence to speak her mind, shocking those who would expect her ignorance, and compliance.
If you spend time writing anything lengthier than an email you’ll know that the mechanics of plot can be a challenge to get right. But Sara Collins has nailed it; the pacing of this novel is superb.
In one sense, it’s a classic ‘whodunnit’, but the language is so rich and the literary allusions detailed that another layer is added to what might have been a more generic mystery.
The descriptive passages too are evocative of a London we only usually meet, as modern readers, in the pages of a real Victorian novel (or perhaps a TV adaptation). Yet this book, published in the Spring of 2019, conveys life in the 1820s in exquisite detail.
There’s a sensuality to the prose which makes the voice of Frannie visceral and true.
‘If it was a crime, then I am guilty of it and I confess it here. But I just wanted to keep that book as close as I could get it to my skin. Not to remind myself happiness was still possible, but to remind myself that anger was.’
The novel entwines entertainment and message to extraordinary effect, standing face to face with England’s legacy of racialism without flinching. It enlightens the reader on the part played by pseudoscience to fuel the pro-slavery agenda of the English ruling class in the 19th century.
In another blogpost I describe the challenges writers may face when attempting to marry a thrilling story with a serious point. In The Confessions of Frannie Langton the plot is so deftly handled that Frannie’s righteous anger is made tangible through every twist of the tale. Line after line so well conceived, I must confess I drank this novel.
It brought not just the pleasure of a great yarn – the joy of another world to go to – but a strong social message in the tradition of Charles Dickens.
Frannie Langton’s struggle against appalling cultural forces is made memorable through her bold, unforgettable voice, and the gothic imagery which abounds, shining a light on the ugliness of racial injustice while leading us through the most entertaining – and educational – of confessions.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin, available to purchase at all good book shops.
This blog recommends pairing this book with A True Story Based on Lies by Mexican-American author Jennifer Clement, which addresses class discrimination and female servitude in contemporary Mexico.
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Your comments as always are welcome…