"In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me," writes the narrator of Sara Collins' intricate gothic novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton. "Like me" means a former slave from Jamaica, awaiting trial for the brutal murder of her new employers.
"No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair," Frannie writes. "But who'd want to read one of those? No. This is my account of myself and my own life and the happiness that came to it, which was not a thing I thought I'd ever be allowed, the happiness or the account."
Frannie has been told by her lawyer to give him something, anything, he can use in her defense. So she starts the story of her life from the beginning: taught to read on a Jamaican plantation as a cruel bet, and forced to assist her master, Langton, in gruesome scientific experiments and dissections intended to prove that black people form a separate race from white people. He brings her to England, and gives her as a "gift" to a friend, George Benham, a man with similar preoccupations, if less brutal methods.
In Britain, slavery is officially illegal, but not so easily cast off: "All I'd done was trade one master for another," writes Frannie.
But one thing is different: Benham's wife, Marguerite: "Everything they say beauty is supposed to be, she was." They begin a love affair, sweetened with opium. It is partly because of the drug that, when Frannie wakes up, bloodsoaked and confused, next to a dead Marguerite, her husband's corpse in another room, she can't be sure she didn't kill them.
At its worst, Collins' style is hampered by repetition, excess, and meaningless aphorism. At its best, it is full-hearted and visceral: "I am guilty of this," Frannie writes. "I was a woman who loved a woman ... [M]y thoughts were all of her, and coarse and lewd, disturbing as dog-barks. Oh, the shock of it. The wrongness. The dark, surprising glee. That was the beginning of all my misery and all my joy."
The question of who killed the Benhams provides the ostensible narrative tension of the book, and the love story its heart. Neither is wholly convincing: Marguerite is hazy and bloodless, and the mystery is obscured as incest, prostitution, addiction, secret pregnancy, and other twists are added to the narrative tangle.
The true, vital energy of this book comes from its preoccupation with knowledge, science, and writing, both for their inherent values and because they are proxies for power. Nearly all the major characters write accounts of themselves, from Frannie to Langton to Marguerite to Benham. For Frannie, the language of writing and the language of emancipation go together: Before she can read, she looks longingly at letters "small and black and sharp, like little claws." Indecipherable, "they seemed trapped, each one shackled to the next one."
The white people around her also understand knowledge's destabilizing potential: The sight of Frannie reading prompts confusion, rage, or amusement. Or they use black learning for their own ends. When a visiting botanist comes to the estate where she is enslaved in Jamaica, he interviews another slave, Phibbah. He takes her medical knowledge and publishes it in his own work; meanwhile, Phibbah is executed for practicing obeah because of that same knowledge. "[A]ll bush medicine is obeah if they say it is," writes Frannie. When she sees his book in a London shop years later, she steals back the next day with a concealed pencil and scratches Phibbah's name "on every page."
In The Confessions of Frannie Langton, the rebellion and freedom represented by black wisdom is set against the terrible, false authority of the bogus race scientists. For the latter, Collins draws on real people: Crania, the racist treatise Langton hopes to publish, is based on a real book, Crania Americana, by Samuel George Morton. Morton, like Langton, claimed that the races were separate species, and tried to prove it with bad science.
"Langton once told me that when the English soldiers rounded up the obeah men in Jamaica, after Tacky's rebellion, they experimented on them," writes Frannie. "Tied them with shackles, prodded them with electric machines and magic lanterns, gave them all manner of jolts and shocks. It must have felt like thunder going through their bones, or pops of lightening cleaving their skulls. When they could no longer stand it, they were forced to admit that the white man's magic was stronger." The book's most deeply felt battle is over that magic. Who has knowledge, who keeps it, who spreads it, and who gets the credit. In its best moments, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is less a romance or a mystery than a counter-curse.