Historical Fiction set in the nineteenth century, exploring the life of a young woman transplanted against her will from Jamaica to London – a city on the brink of the Victorian era.
Frannie Langton did not live a good life, although she is aware that it could have been worse. It is this knowledge that, perhaps, lets her find comfort – and even love – in a place that she did not come to willingly. The story we read is that of her confession as she writes, hurriedly, in the dark cells of London, where she awaits the fate of her trial. It is not, as she tells us from the start, going to be the confession we expect.
The three primary settings of the novel each bring their own flavours and colour. The author paints for us the bright – too hot – days of Jamaica, where we are given the chancre to imagine the laconic experience of the wealthy, in vivid greens and blues against dusty ochre and splashes of white-washed walls. Then we have the crowded, cold, stone of Georgian London, and the confines of a large and wealthy London house; one where where servants and staff keep separate from the masters of the family. In this place, the pull and pressure of elite society is ever-present; soirées, lectures, dinners and parkland walks offer the primary sources of entertainment for the established.
Then, lastly, there are the dank, filthy, cells of the Old Bailey, where Frannie is now imprisoned, charged with murder. Two people have been found dead, both bearing stab wounds, and Frannie herself was found asleep next to one of them, damningly covered in her victim’s blood. The blood of her mistress.
Frannie, unfortunately, grew up in a time and a place where awful crimes, crimes that we now view with aghast, we committed as a matter of routine. Committed by the wealthy and powerful, against the poor and undefended; by those that believed skin colour created a natural – even imperative – superiority. Who wouldn’t seek vengeance, we are asked?
She knows she had it easier that some, on the plantations. Her natural beauty and femininity had – at too young an age – caught the eyes of the Langton household, from where she takes her name. She never had to work in the plantation, itself, but as the story unfolds we discover that her life in the household was, perhaps, just as torturous.
Throughout her tale, we explore the unfolding thoughts and experiences of Frannie, first with the Langtons and then, after she transported by circumstance, with the Bentham household. Here, although she lives in the comparative freedom of a country that has now abolished slavery, she acknowledges that she never thought to leave, not being used to having her own right to decide.
Although not unreliable, Frannie a narrator that is dealing with her own emotional scars. The means that we do not get all of the information we need to pass verdict in quite the order we would need. Her confessions are peppered with her in-person account of the ongoing trail, often leading to the next segment of her fractured insights. She talks, through her writing and through us the reader, to her lawyer, Mr Pettigrew. In the court of the Old Bailey, the theatrics and drama of a prosecution play out between her representative and Mr Jessop, who seeks to have her hanged.
This is a story that leads us, in slowly unfolding horror, to her final night of ‘freedom’ in the Blenheim house. It is a murder mystery, and although we can make guesses, the pieces are occluded enough that we can’t know what really happened for much of the story. But it is fun to engage and to guess, enjoying the complexities of the personalities on display throughout the story. We are given, throughout, alternative candidates and motives for the murder. The author provides cause for her potential perpetrators by creating a cast of engaging and imperfect characters.
Mr and Mrs Benham, with whom Frannie is inexorably linked, present a civilised face to an intolerant world, but their marriage is far from perfect. This flawed home life gives us a reason to understand and explore the household, knowing from Frannie that few, if any, are being entirely honest, reasonable, or kind.
We uncover, in this story, the development of obsession, lust and forbidden romance. Accompanying these is the arrogance of class, the chains or taboo, and the darkness within humanity. Over and over again, our it is our darkness that cannot be hidden from, manifesting in both the plantations and behind closed doors in London, deep and black waters running beneath the thin surface of civilisation. The author notes in the book’s acknowledgements that she researched scientific and courtroom papers from the era, and it is sad to say that although fiction, this tale is a collection of possible and even likely experiences had throughout that period. Perhaps they were less concentrated in one place than we find here, but equally, perhaps not. It is sobering to think on that, while reading. This is a good book, helping us see the world from a less-told perspective, and also allowing us to enjoy the creep of a well-narrated story. One for those of us who like to see the rawness of human nature.