‘They say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.
But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 3.84 out of 5
4th April 2019 aka TODAY by Penguin
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and split. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks.
I received a copy of this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
In a review on another book that I posted as recently yesterday on my blog I spent time singing my new found love of historical novels and heaping praise on a technique I adore. This technique is when we begin reading a novel already knowing the events and circumstances of the ending. I believe I used words such as ‘journey’ and ‘anticipation’.
There is a book that I have read recently which is similar in tone to both the aforementioned anonymous book and ‘Confessions’ and what really made me love that book was the love story. It was a forbidden love (along with a bit of enemies to lovers) and clearly I can now add that to my list of romance tropes I adore.
There is a third book. One that I read last year but which has been out for years. It involves a woman who has been accused of murder and who tells her story to a third party and it is that story which we are reading, . The story builds up to the murder but the main focus is on all the horrible events of her life that may explain why she did it (if she did it).
I mention all these books because I adored all these books. The first two are recent releases so I don’t want to name them because it would be unfair to ‘Confessions’ but as the third is well known I’ll just let you know that it’s Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.
Why am I mentioning these books though?
Let’s go through the list:-
- Newfound love of historical novels – The Confessions of Frannie Langton is one of these. We move from Jamaica and the plantations to Victorian London and I’d say that’s pretty darn historic.
- We begin knowing the ending – ‘Confessions’ starts with Frannie in prison awaiting her trial for murder. She’s been accused of stabbing her master and his wife (Frannie’s lover) to death. The whole story builds up to that moment and the outcome of Frannie’s trial.
- There is a forbidden love story – Frannie falls in love with her master’s wife. There’s the power angle, the race angle and the lesbian angle. You don’t get more forbidden than that in a Victorian based novel.
- There is a woman accused of murder who is telling a third party her story to try and get out of her sentencing – very strong Alias Grace vibes here. Even down to the focus being less on the murder and more about how awful the woman’s life has been up to the point of the murder. I definitely won’t be the only person who throws in Alias Grace as a comparison.
Ultimately the above means that The Confessions of Frannie Langton should have been everything I wanted in a novel. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that. I should have adored this story, I wanted to adore this story but in the end it just felt flat to me.
It was like flat champagne. The taste was there but the bubbles weren’t.
The writer is a good writer and she can weave a great tale. There’s skill in her story plotting which keeps you guessing as to what truly happened and she crafts characters that feel painfully real.
The scenes in Jamaica at the beginning are superb. The truly nasty events of plantations and slavery really come across in vivid detail and the characters that we meet at the beginning are even more fleshed out and alive. There is permanent tension and the coach house and its horrors loom ominously over Frannie.
Then the story moves to England and what could have been unique was lost.
Frannie becomes oddly detached from her life experiences. In some way you could say this is due to trauma and deliberate emotional attachment but I didn’t feel it was supposed to be that way.
She is angry at the injustices she has experienced and those who have caused them but I never really felt it. It’s almost as though we’re being shown her anger; ‘I am angry’ is what we get rather than a palpable feeling of rage and hate which would be completely understandable.
What overtakes the story of Frannie as a person is the love story between Frannie and her bored, spoiled mistress who frankly is awful. I appreciate that Marguerite (Meg) is also an oppressed woman in Victorian society but as a white woman of wealth she has it so much better than Frannie.
Meg is a woman who manages to charm the society she is part of by being deliberately avant garde and controversial. She is progressive for her time in that she is more liberal when it comes to relationships, gender and race but ultimately is that ‘progressive’ nature due to her genuinely realising that people should be equal or because she knows it irritates her husband and fascinates the masses?
Honestly? I think it’s the last one. She’s privileged and drug addled and sees her servants as things not people. This is why I was so frustrated that Frannie, with her intellect and anger and strong sense of self, becomes so enamored with Meg.
Why Frannie? Why?! This wasn’t a love story I could get behind because it didn’t feel like love. Frannie describes the horrors of her life to us (via her lawyer) and they are horrors. Yet somehow she turns her spine into steel and picks herself time and time again only to have that all fall away over a preoccupation with a love affair.
Frannie goes from being an interesting character to a rather bland one all in the name of ‘love.’
Sadly, the parts I disliked over-ruled some of the parts I liked. With some books if there are parts that hit me in the chest and I think ‘wowsers’ I can let that ‘over-ruling’ slide but I think the balance wasn’t strong enough here for that to happen.
Overall this is a well crafted book and I would say that it’s a good book from a technique point of view but I’m left a little disappointed by the lack of emotion it elicited from me.