The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins drops us in the middle of the issues of white supremacy and male dominance. It’s the beginning of the 19 th century but slavery still exists in America and, as in this case, on the sugar cane plantations in Jamaica. The owner of the plantation that is the focus of Collin’s story. John Langton, is from London, a transplant, a scientist, a gentleman farmer (who knows little about farming). We meet Frances as a child being trained as a house-slave. There are plenty of secrets on this plantation – probably on any plantation that keeps people in slavery. Slavery is a nasty business and it taints those who practice it.
John Langton marries Bella who did not get what she bargained for. Not all gentlemen from rich families are wealthy. It depends on their order of birth. To wreak vengeance on Langton, Bella does something forbidden. She teaches Frannie to read. Phibbah, an older house-slave, warns Frances that white women married to gentlemen tend to be very bored and that she should steer clear of any personal relationship with them. But for Frannie learning to read and getting spoiled is just too enticing and she is too young to understand how Miss-Bella is using Frannie to get her husband’s attention, or to punish him.
Bella’s husband is a sort of scientist making the most common mistake that is made by scientists. He has his theory already formulated and now is just trying to bend the evidence to back it up. It is his contention that black minds are inferior to white minds unless there has been “racial mixing.” We’re talking about the 1800’s here, but there are still people in the 21 st century who make this argument. John Langton takes vengeance on his wife by using Frances (who can read and write very well) to help him with his scientific work. His lab is in the coach house on the property. He measures and compares the capacity of skulls, and then explores other even less savory arenas. Secrets, secrets, secrets. His book is called Crania.
When the coach house burns down, John Langton’s debts are called in and he loses the plantation. The only thing he still owns is Frannie who he takes to London with him and offers her as a paid servant in the house of a rival scientist, George Benham. George Benham is not against slavery (although it is illegal in England). His theses is that owners should treat their human property better. In the house of George Benham Frances meets the bored wife of Benham, Meg. But this time Frannie is a grown woman. Oh, if only she had listened to Phibbah. The book explores both the dangers faced by women in a male dominated, wealth (or class) dominated society, and the complexities of slavery for house-slaves who we normally think of as escaping the worst of slavery. Frannie may be a kind of “my fair lady” character but there is little fairness in her life’s trajectory, which for the most part she has very little control over. I haven’t given away any secrets. This is not perfect writing, but pretty close.