“You want a confession. Or an explanation. Give me something I can save your neck with.”
This a book of confession in April, 1826. Frances is appearing at the Old Bailey in London, charged with a terrible crime. She appreciates the dangerous situation she is in, held in solitary confinement, staring at the possibility of a death sentence. She was effectively a slave, but a mulatto, a house girl of uncertain parentage at a time when the slave trade has been banned, but freedom is still not established in places like Jamaica. On the plantation life was still owned by others, life and death was still in the hands of the owners, and self will severely limited. A girl who grew up in these circumstances has arrived in a London where class, money and position still dominate, and she is now accused of a heinous crime. Much of this book tells the story of this girl, known as Frannie Langton, as she has written it herself, to confess and explain what has happened to her, and to an extent what she has caused to happen. Being fictional, there is much more to this book, as some huge questions are asked. The nature of race differences, the difference between slave and servant, the way that marriage and love can be very different things. This is a fascinating, intense and moving novel about the treatment of women, slaves and servants in the early nineteenth century, and I was very pleased to be asked to review this book.
As the novel begins, we hear of the trial that Frances is undergoing for the murder of George Benham and his wife Marguerite. Throughout the book we have brief transcriptions of the evidence of various witnesses who are called in the trial, those who knew Frances in the Benhams’ household. The book is in the form of a story that she writes for her defence lawyer, John Pettigrew, as a confession and an explanation of her life to this point. This because she is a rare person, a slave that can write very well. She begins with her life in Jamaica as a house slave, a female cook, Phibbah, who cared for her, and her elevation as a writer and more to Langton, unhappily married to Miss-bella. As Frances proves herself quick and able, she helps Langton with his experiments and his attempts at writing a book about the differences between the very bodies of the slaves. When he returns to London he takes her with him, but very soon she passes into the household of the Benhams, with the network of relationships with those who live and work there. As she becomes more involved with Marguerite, the reader is forced to consider the nature of that involvement, and the truth of the quotation “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love”
This is a honest book, full of the intensity of relationships which push at the edge of what was considered proper. I found it beautifully written, paced and plotted; this is a gothic novel which is not horrific in usual ways, but has much to say about how people were treated. Women, servants and indeed slaves are shown as having few if any possessions, choices and opportunities, that perceptions of colour and race are brutally relevant to the life of many people, and addiction is life changing. There are so many themes to this book that it is memorable and always compelling. I thoroughly recommend it as a complex and challenging read, and a tribute to the resilience of the individual.
This is the second book that I have featured on this blog as a Love Reading Book Buzz Ambassador, and I am really pleased to be given the opportunity to review this exciting and significant novel.