Has anyone else noticed the trend for murderous Victorian servants in fiction? There’s Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and then Anna Mazzola’s The Unseeing. Even male writers are interested in the topic; Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost is also centred around household help with a literal axe to grind. My point is that it’s a popular topic so I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for. Plus I was having my Brontë binge earlier in the year and I had heard comparisons made to Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. And yet it was another classic case of me leaping into a book and then being horrified when I landed. With The Confessions of Frannie Langton, I finally found a book that made me understand why some people demand Trigger Warnings. Yet as I reeled back and rummaged frantically for a comfort read, it got me thinking about Gothic fiction as a genre. What is it for?
According to the internet, Gothic fiction is ‘characterised by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense.‘ But yet it has become synonymous with a kind of ‘comfort fiction’; if the horror is in a gloomy house on a hill then it is not horror that can touch you. The worst you can get is a tingle up your spine, nothing more. But Gothic fiction used to pack a heavier punch, using fear and horror to point at indelicate societal truths. The first readers of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have recognised the novel as making allusions to closeted homosexuality but since that is no longer controversial, the modern eye misses the point. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is therefore a return to the earlier Gothic tradition. This is a novel that sets out to make its reader wince.
The parallels to Jane Eyre are noticeable. Frannie is another ignored and unwanted child, growing up in a hostile environment. In this case, she is born a slave in ‘Paradise’, an inappropriately named sugar plantation. Her owner Langton is a revolting man whose life-mission is to prove that Africans are not human. In order to establish this, he carries out horrifying experiments with Frannie as his assistant. Up in the big house is Langton’s wife Missbella, a lady with similarities to Jane’s Aunt Reed. Working in the kitchen is Phibbah, a slave-woman whose medical knowledge is stolen by a visiting botanist. Later when Frannie visits London, she sees the man’s book in a shop and writes Phibbah’s name on every page. Yet while the set-up does recall Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, its subsequent direction is quite different.
Frannie goes from slave-girl to lab assistant and then she is taken by her master to London, where Langton gives her as a present to George Benham and his wife, the beautiful but peculiar Marguerite. The reader is told early on in the novel that it is this pair who Frannie has been accused of murdering under circumstances which are something of a riddle. Frannie does not remember and the various witness statements are at odds with one another. To make things even murkier, the narrative flits back and forth between Frannie’s time in the Benham household and to when she is awaiting trial.
I wanted to like this novel more than I actually did. Collins did a fantastic job building the tension and forboding, particularly in the Jamaica segments. A shiver went down my spin when Phibbah tells Frannie that there’s nothing more dangerous than ‘a white woman when she’s bored’ – there we have the novel in a nutshell. But unfortunately when the action travels to London it just … drags. I didn’t care for Marguerite as a character and by that I mean I did not even find her a satisfactory antagonist. She was just pathetic. I couldn’t understand how she would have held any appeal to anyone. Because of her, a lot of Confessions‘ latter section failed to engage me.
It is a bold endeavour to address racial issues in the context of Victorian Gothic literature. Collins is explicitly using her protagonist to confront the contemporary received opinions on slavery and eugenics. Frannie rages silently at the insistence of framing her experience as that of a victim, because slave stories sell. It does feel clunky at times to have her list every single one of the books that she has read but if you’ve read them, it again offered a thought-provoking commentary on racial inequality. Relationship dynamics when someone is enslaved, class, money, mental illness – the novel is teeming with ideas. No matter how much I could admire the way that Collins tackled all these important topics though, I just couldn’t take to the book. The relentless nastiness, the barbarism, the flat characterisation – I was just longing for it to be over. I also spent much of the book braced for impact due to a long-running thread that an infant may have been harmed during one of Langton’s experiments; harm caused to children has become difficult bordering on impossible for me to read about since I entered motherhood. It was too much.
I heard so many positive things about Confessions but in the end it was too rough a read for me in 2020. If my understanding is correct, Frannie Langton rejects the do-gooding intentions of her legal team and the meddlesome attentions of white people as a whole. Just as Frannie carved Phibbah’s name in the white man’s medical book, Collins is staking a claim for people of colour in Victorian literature. It is an astonishingly powerful debut novel and a testament to the author’s thorough research and passion for her subject. Contrasting Confessions to other examples of modern Gothic fiction such as The Essex Serpent is like the difference between the true sword and the stage equivalent. One cuts deeply, the other leaves no mark. Stories like that of Frannie Langton need to be told and I try not to shy away from tough topics in my reading. I can’t complain that I didn’t enjoy this book because I can see that I was never supposed to.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Penguin UK on April 4th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General, Romance, Regency, Mystery & Detective, LGBT, Gay, Lesbian, African American, Political Science, Colonialism & Post-Colonialism
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