Most books recommended as beach reads don’t involve cruel beatings, drug abuse, abject poverty and violent murder, but most books aren’t “The Confessions of Frannie Langton,” a startling, compelling historical debut novel from Sara Collins that should be on top of your vacation reading pile.
The eponymous Frannie, born on a Jamaica sugar plantation and raised by another enslaved woman, is eventually taught to read and write by her mistress, Miss-bella. Thus, she ends up working as an assistant to her master, John Langton, who’s “playing at being a scientist,” according to his wife, and conducting grisly race experiments. Frannie dislikes the subject matter but prefers the scientific work to anything else she might be allowed to do. “I saw things in that coach-house that I can’t stop seeing now. But worse than the things I saw are the things I did.”
She assumes she’ll continue helping Langton when they take a trip to London. Instead, once ashore, he presents Frannie to his friend George Benham, who needs a housemaid. Under the gimlet eye of the housekeeper Mrs. Linux, Frannie struggles to reconcile her intellect with her lye-damaged hands. Even the kindness of her fellow housemaid Pru cannot convince her to settle for such tough, demeaning work.
Collins possesses too much talent and righteous indignation to allow Frannie’s story to fizzle into a poor-girl-of-the-streets fable. We know from the start that our protagonist awaits her trial for murdering Benham and his French wife, Marguerite. Her favorite book is Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders:” “Mr. Defoe made a novel and a romance out of the adventures of a felon and a whore, so it must be possible that of my own life I could do the same.”
What we learn a bit later, as Frannie makes her confessions, is that once she catches Marguerite’s eye, the two women fall deeply in lust. But there’s so much more: a black boxer nicknamed “Laddie Lightning” who prefers to be called Olaudah Cambridge; a brothel specializing in particular tastes; and rivers of laudanum, an opiate taken by Marguerite and Frannie that “softens everything to the same gray shapes as an English fog.”
But who wouldn’t take as much laudanum as possible in their circumstances? Which is not to say they’re congruent; no matter how constrained Marguerite’s life is by marriage and society, it isn’t the same as Frannie’s. As the latter says on watching a swanky party to which she is, of course, not invited: “I was angry, yes. . . The real madness would have been if I had not been angry.” Frannie must not just keep her love silent, but her very person as invisible as possible.
When Marguerite falls pregnant, Benham issues orders that will put several people in untenable situations. Although plenty of action takes place in the book’s final quarter, it’s all in service to a larger theme: Everything that happens, happens because people of color are not seen as fully human. If Frannie has any power, if Olaudah has any power, it’s due not to their actual gifts — which are considerable — but because they’re pawns for those in charge. Collins’s book is a pointed reminder of the harm unleashed on everyone when human beings are given second-class status.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Sara Collins