All those rotten branches, growing from the same black root. – Frannie Langton
There’s a lot going on in The Confessions of Frannie Langton. In it, Frannie Langton tells, in her own voice, the story of her life and how it has ended up where the novel begins: with her imprisoned in the Old Bailey, on trial for the murder of her employers George and Marguerite Benham. Born into slavery in Jamaica, Frannie works on the sugar plantation of John Langton, who is not just her owner but also, we learn without much surprise (though Frannie is shocked and horrified when she is told) her father. Langton’s passion is investigating the “science” of race. Frannie herself was an experiment, educated and trained on a whim of Langton and Benham to test the limits of her “mulatto” intelligence. She becomes Langton’s apprentice, and over the course of the novel we learn just what Langton had her doing in the old coach-house that served as his laboratory. “How guilt has run through me, all this time” says Frannie near the end,
keeping time with my blood. How, even now to think of it, to write of it, makes both leap in my chest. How sorry I am.
Her complicity in his horrors haunts her even though she understands that she was never really free to do otherwise: “That’s what slavery is,” as she later says; “their minds, our hands.” “They might see me as the savage,” she reflects, “but didn’t Benham and Langton pull me into their own dark corners? Wasn’t it them who tried to make an animal of me first?” When she reads Frankenstein, it is impossible not to make the obvious (and obviously intended) connection.
A lot intervenes, however, between her monstrous apprenticeship and her trial. After an upset on the plantation Langton moves to England, taking Frannie with him only to present her to Benham as a gift. Though as Benham’s servant she is in some sense now free, Frannie cannot imagine her way to real freedom: “I kept forgetting,” she explains, “that I was no longer owned.” And as she eventually finds out, a poor black woman on the streets of London in the 1820s is hardly liberated.
Frannie’s early story has some elements of a slave narrative, though Frannie herself is somewhat disdainful of the form, “all sugared over with misery and despair”: “The anti-slavers are always asking me, what was done to you, Frances? How did you suffer?” She did suffer, and Collins does not spare the details, but the form Frannie wants for her story is the novel. “No one like me has ever written a novel in the history of the world,” she says, and the only hope she has as her end approaches is that her account of herself might “tempt a publisher.” All her life she loved only “all those books I read, and all the people who wrote them”:
Because life boils down to nothing, in spite of all the fuss, yet novels make it possible to believe it is something, after all.
Frankenstein isn’t the only literary touchstone in Collins’ narrative: pages of Candide are sewn into the skirts of the dress Frannie is wearing when she’s arrested; she cherishes Moll Flanders; she and her mistress, Marguerite Benham, both love Paradise Lost.
Frannie’s relationsip with Marguerite is at once the heart of her Confessions and, to me, the least interesting and convincing part of the novel. During her trial, Frannie insists over and over that what they had–that what she felt–was love: “I loved my mistress. I couldn’t have done what you say I’ve done because I loved her.” I think this part didn’t work well for me because Marguerite herself remains something of a cipher–defiantly unconventional but not clearly principled, elusive, slightly fey, and frequently manipulative, especially of Frannie. She treats her unhappy combination of boredom and oppression with laudanum, an addiction she eventually shares with Frannie. Haunting her, and her marriage, is her past relationship with Olaudah “Laddie” Cambridge, once a house servant, now a celebrity; one of the twists of the plot makes this connection a key point in Frannie’s final confession. Another plot twist puts Frannie out on the streets only to end up working in a “spanking parlour”:
Men like him were the ones who wanted scarring, always happier to let themselves loose under the whip hand of a black. That put the white girls’ noses out of joint. But we’d already been in the bondage business, no matter that it had been at the other end.
A lot going on, as I said–too much, I finally thought, and neither the “love” story putatively at the center or the framing murder plot is quite enough to hold it all together. Many of the novel’s individual components are very powerful, and the hideous moral contamination of slavery runs through all of the novel’s violence. Frannie’s love of fiction makes it seem as if she (and thus perhaps Collins as well) believes in the power of an individual narrative to counter the dehumanization so grotesquely literalized in Langton’s “research.” But this premise doesn’t really help me make sense of Marguerite’s role or some of the other particulars of this novel. To me The Confessions of Frannie Langton ultimately seemed miscellaneous, albeit in an ambitious way: it tries to include too much, to be too many things at once–slave narrative, Newgate novel, romance, murder mystery–and the result is not quite formally or aesthetically or thematically unified. There’s that famous line, though, about reach exceeding grasp: by and large, I’d rather read an ambitious but imperfect book than a perfectly but narrowly limned one.