By Leslie Lindsay
The Mulatta Murderess–Dusky Fran–Ebony Fran—Frannie Langton is former slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation now locked in Old Bailey awaiting her sentencing–but did she do it?!
It’s circa 1820-1826 in Georgian London and Frannie Langdon has been indicted for the double-murder of her master and mistress, George and Marguerite (Meg) Benham. She couldn’t have possibly done it because she cared so deeply for them. Frannie is at once a fierce, powerful, and intelligent character–yet, she’s been accused of so many things–a whore, a seductress, a witch, a manipulator, a liar. THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON (Harper, June 18 2019) is such a multifaceted tale, I found it ambitious but also ambiguous, paying tribute to British Gothic literature with a philosophical slant.
The writing is clear, concise, and sparkling on every page. But there’s a lot going on. We start with Frannie in Old Bailey, where she is awaiting trial and sentencing of the alleged murders. Frannie is whip-smart, articulate and tells her story retrospectively in first person as if writing in a diary. As readers, we are right there with her as we travel back to her horrific days as a slave on the sugar plantation in Jamaica where cruel, brutal, and tragic things occurred.And then she is ‘given away’ (freed) to an eccentric couple in England, where she tends to the mistress, reads to her, etc.
THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON is at once a tale of murder, but there’s more. Race and class, (il)literate women, science/human experiments, slavery, drug addiction, mental health concerns, same-sex relationships, prostitution, paternity, and so much more. It’s dark, it’s grim, it’s philosophical and presents timeless ethical discussions– this book absolutely made me think, to question, and at times–feel uncomfortable. THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON is a stellar debut and I look forward to reading more from the highly talented Sara Collins.
In fact, this praise from bestselling author of Jane Steele and The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye, says it all:
“Destined to become a benchmark for historical fiction, THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON is at once fiercely raw and remorselessly beautiful.”
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Sara Collins to the author interview series.
Sara, I am so enthralled with the depth and breadth of THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON. Can you tell us a little about why this book, why now? What was haunting you?
Whenever I looked to history or historical fiction for an exploration of black lives all I saw were victims. It began to seem as if the story of slavery left no room for any other stories. There was never any adventure, love, or mystery. I wanted to write about a character who happened to have been a slave but who was highly educated, morally ambiguous, angry and in love. I wanted to give her a story like the ones I’d been addicted to as a teenager obsessed with the classic gothic romances, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. For a long time I had been haunted by this question: why couldn’t a black woman be the star of her own gothic romance? Part of the power of fiction is that it can right its own wrongs; by writing this novel I could put a black woman center stage where she’d never been before.
Slavery, in itself is haunting. But then Frannie is brought from Jamaica to London with her master and is technically free under English law, but she becomes a new type of slave to Master and Mistress Benham. Can you talk about that, please? Can one ever leave the…uh…shackles of their past behind?
The past is the lens through which we see everything, including ourselves and our place in the world. History is a form of collective memory but the people who write it down are the ones who get to decide what we choose to forget as well as what we choose to remember. There is real power in that, as well as an ability to keep us stuck in the same old patterns. Historical fiction gives us room to speculate about forgotten histories, reclaim some of that power and perhaps break free of those patterns. If history is a kind of haunting, writing about it can be a form of exorcism.
“Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace . . . [a] devious, richly detailed debut.”
–O: The Oprah Magazine
I’m so intrigued—and deeply bothered—by the scientific experiments mentioned in THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON. Can you highlight a few? Why were these conducted? Was it common practice?
While I was researching the novel, I was shocked by how little attention is paid to the fact that much of the scientific progress of the Age of Enlightenment was aimed at determining whether blacks were human beings. The institution of slavery could not have become as widespread or survived as long as it did without reliance on pseudoscience designed to prove that blacks were less than human. As Frederick Douglass said: “the temptation to write the Negro out of the human family is exceedingly strong”. The great minds of the age were obsessed with this wild goose chase. Voltaire examined a little albino boy who was held captive in Paris; Buffon kept an albino woman named Genevieve captive in order to study her; Hume dismissed the achievements of Francis Williams (an educated black man) as the equivalent of a parrot being taught a few words of English; and Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no black ever uttered a thought above the level of plain narration”. It’s about time we acknowledge this more widely instead of continuing to venerate men who made such fundamental mistakes, which is one of the reasons I wanted to include some of the experiments, including skin blistering and craniometry. I was interested in exploring the extent to which the ideology justifying slavery was built on experiments into racial differences.
You’re of Jamaican descent yourself. Was the draw to write about this time and place personal?
Although I was born in Jamaica, my family was forced to leave when I was only four years old following the outbreak of political violence in the aftermath of the 1976 elections. I grew up in Grand Cayman and then went to boarding school in England at the age of eleven. I have moved between those three places all my life, never feeling as if I truly belonged in any one of them. Sometimes I think writing a novel set in Jamaica was an attempt to write my way back home, in the same way novelists are often driven to write about things because they want to understand them. But Jamaica in the early 19th century was also an incredibly lush and dangerous place. Breathtaking beauty masking unimaginable suffering. Paradise for some, but hell for others. All of that is good gothic material and I think I was drawn to it for that reason also.
Frannie! I loved her. She’s fierce, whip-smart and she reads! She often talks about the books she’s reading throughout the story. They are always classics. So…I have to ask…have you read these books yourself? Can you give us a sense list of which books are included and why?
Thank you! I came to love Frannie as well, even though she did some infuriating things at times. Her love of books and reading is definitely one of the book’s autobiographical elements. One of my the keys to developing the character for me was to think of a young black girl with my own sensibilities stuck in the era of plantation slavery. One of the great losses would have been access to books. My early images of Frannie were all of a bright young girl growing up on plantation, craving the books she can see through the windows of the great house, desperate for a life of learning. Those became the springboard for the character. I wanted to explore what education would have meant to a girl like that, as well as how far she would have gone to get it. Many of the books included in the novel (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Voltaire’s Candide) were books she would have had access to but they also made serendipitous connections with many of the novel’s themes (identity, colonialism, race, etc).
Being a debut author, can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
Writing the novel was without question the hardest thing I’ve ever done – harder than being a lawyer or raising five children. I was crippled by despair and self-doubt, and I wanted to give up several times. There was one practical reason I kept going. Just after I started writing it, I submitted the opening chapters to the Lucy Cavendish prize for the best unpublished first novel by a woman in England and soon afterwards I met my agent (who was one of the judges). She offered me representation at our first meeting but it took another two years before it was ready to be submitted to publishers. I’m convinced that the only reason I didn’t throw in the towel during that time was because she was waiting for the manuscript and I didn’t want to let her down. By the time I finished it I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was incredibly lucky to have had a smooth road to publication from there! Within a week of submission it sold on a pre-empt to Penguin (Viking) in the UK and then sold the following week to Harper Collins (Harper) in the USA and Canada.
Sara, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
You’ve covered everything I can think of. Thank you for these excellent questions! Perhaps your readers may be interested to know that Frannie has been optioned for television and I am writing the scripts myself, which is hugely exciting and challenging. I now have to take my own work apart and find fresh and exciting ways to present the story for screen, which means I can’t rely on any of the tricks available to a novelist using first person narration.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before turning to fiction writing when her children were teenagers. She completed a Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. She lives in London.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this.]