A Hurricane of a Novel About Love and Murder
By Neil Nyren
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold, they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.
I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best.
April, 1826: A servant and former slave from Jamaica named Frannie Langton is accused of murdering her employer, renowned scientist George Benham, and his wife Marguerite—but Frannie can’t recall a thing about that night, and has no idea how she came to be covered in their blood.
She does have a story to tell, however, and in Sara Collins’s THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON, it’s an extraordinary one: of an enslaved life in Jamaica, yet being taught to read and write to help her master’s scientific studies (“Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder”); of his ruin and flight to London (“the luggage he took with him included me”); of her master’s gift of her to Benham to curry favor, the remarkable role in which she found herself in this new household, the passionate affair it produced with her new master’s wife, and the explosion of events that followed, all rushing to calamity, the world spinning out of control.
It’s a hurricane of a book, its prose both cold and red-hot, a brilliant exploration of the darkest corners of race and gender, slavery and freedom, science and passion—and in the middle of it, a towering figure the likes of whom you’ve never seen before.
“This is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that’s not the kind of story you’re expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. 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….
“Any gaol-bird could tell you that for every crime there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner.
“That story is one only I can tell.”
What inspired Collins to write it? “When I started writing, I had a single image in mind: a maid huddled outside on the steps of a London mansion, accused of murdering her mistress, with whom she’d been having an affair. I also had what I thought would be the opening line: ‘I never would have done what they say I’ve done to Madame, because I loved her.’ That sense of shimmering rage opened the door to Frannie and, from her, to the novel.
“Around the same time, I read a biography of Francis Barber, the young Jamaican slave brought to London and given to Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. I wondered what it would have been like to be a young woman in that position, essentially as trapped in England as she had been in Jamaica; I wanted to imagine a story for Frannie that took that as its starting point. The gothic undertones are deliberate. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were two of my earliest loves and I wanted to engage in some way with the work that had affected me so strongly as a reader.
“But most of all I wanted to write about love in many forms: Frannie’s love for Madame, maternal love, friendship, marriage. I wanted to explore how one of the measures of power and of humanity has been who’s allowed to love and who isn’t.
“On the small Caribbean island where I grew up, I reread Bronte and Jane Austen, trying to imagine windswept moors and drawing rooms draped in silk, sighing women, and men dashing about on horses—corrupting or taming or rescuing.
“My own world stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point, there came the realization that those books I loved didn’t love me back. And that they had left questions in their wake.
“Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex?”
However, Collins says, “as a black woman, I was reluctant to write a novel about a woman who had been a slave.
“Slavery feels like a topic at once too vast, and yet too reductive, to tackle. The scale of it is so overwhelming that at times it feels like we can only approach it with our eyes closed, with the kind of fear or disgust that doesn’t allow us to tell the truth.
“There is also the sense that black readers are tired of seeing ourselves always in victim mode, because that’s the only mode in which slaves are ever discussed. There was so much more in our history than this, yet the horrors of slavery stripped away all of that, leaving it for us to reclaim.
“But I knew I didn’t want to shy away from writing about it. In a sense, those of us who are the descendants of slaves are gathered together after waking up from a nightmare, and there’s no sense in behaving as if we aren’t supposed to talk about it. I think we owe it to the people who lived through it to do our best to examine their lives, and to do them justice by writing them into fiction in a way they have never been written into history.
“The challenge is to do something different. I had never read a love story with a former slave as the protagonist. And I’d always wondered about that gap. Why couldn’t a woman like Frannie have a love affair like the gothic romances I’d read? I decided that was how I could approach it. I like to think I didn’t write about ‘slavery’ at all, but rather I wrote a gothic romance about a woman who happened to have been a slave…a novel about going beneath the veneer of sophistication and civility in Georgian London to its rotten underbelly of plantation slavery, opium addiction, the exploitation of women. It seemed the gothic was the perfect form for that, playing as it does with the balance between dark and light, and bringing to the surface all those things we’d prefer to hide.”
Regarding the exploitation of women, two lines in particular leap out from the book: “A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it.” And, “Women focus on what they lack, men on what they want.” Collins explores those further.
“There is a quartet of women in the novel. Frannie is raised on a horrific plantation in Jamaica, where Phibbah is the beleaguered housekeeper and Miss-Bella is their disenchanted mistress. After Frannie is taken to London she falls in love with her new mistress: Madame, who is the daughter of French emigrés. Each of these women has very different motivations and levels of guilt and complicity but they have this in common: they are completely under the thumb of the men of their households. I am fascinated, and angered, by how much the real pain of what has been done to women throughout history, both black and white, has been the agony of suppressed ambition; how it can still seem that everything a woman does is an attempt to catch up, while everything a man does is an attempt to set himself apart.”
The book is full of acute observations and vivid phrases: the judge “fat and glossy in his robes, his face soft and blank as an old potato”; “the syrupy way white women move”; “the cold seemed to carry its own smell, like raw meat, and came on me sudden as a cutpurse. London air, wet as a kiss.” What sort of writing process did she have?
“I became very rigid about it. I started work at the same time each day, every day, went to the kitchen for coffee at the same time, kept to-do lists. I tackled the actual writing in the morning, when the words and ideas were at their most beautiful. By late afternoon, when I knew both they and I would have dried up, I worked on the huge amount of research that was required.
“It was always hard to sit down to write knowing I’d have to face the anxiety about getting it done, so I treated myself to a daily poem before doing so, as well as carefully curated soundtracks, ranging from Beethoven to Kendrick Lamar. I needed those tricks and treats to keep myself in the chair, chipping away at sentences. But the poetry and the music also gave a kick-start to my own work: I would feel the rhythm and beauty and imagery become a kind of internal wave that led to inspiration. The most important lesson I learned was to let the sentences come, to see what I wanted to say, and only afterwards to worry about how I wanted to say it.
“I’m not sure it’s possible to say exactly how everything that goes into a novel is captured. It requires a feeling of immersion in the world you’re trying to create, in service of it. The process is whatever your own way is of opening the door from the real world to the imagined one. I’ve heard other writers describe it as an attempt to program the mind, leading it away from itself towards an even deeper place. I love Mary Oliver’s description of being ‘deep in the machinery of your wits.’ That’s where the beauty lies.”
As she mentions, the research for the book had to be extensive, and the details ring with authenticity. How did she go about it and what was the most surprising thing she found?
“I’m sure my background as a lawyer helped here. I divided my notes into files by topic and tried to use sources as close to the original where possible, including trawling through the Old Bailey archives online. There was so much research to be done that I tried as much as I could to take a targeted approach and start reading only when I knew what I was looking for: would there have been a test to detect opium in the stomach contents in 1826, for example? But there were many occasions when something I uncovered in my research gave me an idea for the plot. The ultimate resolution concerning the murder weapon was inspired by something I stumbled across while reading about early medical evidence given at the Old Bailey.
“The biggest challenge was to ensure the research didn’t choke the novel. Not a single fact mattered unless it served the characters or the plot in some way and, as Rose Tremain says, research must be re-imagined before it finds its way into the text.
“I was most surprised, and appalled, by the extent to which the new scientific methods of the Age of Enlightenment were used in constructing arguments or keeping people enslaved, and how much time and energy the great thinkers of the age devoted to arguing about whether black people were human beings. Hume, for example, saying he was apt to suspect negroes of being naturally inferior to whites; and the story of Voltaire examining the little albino boy in Paris exhibition and declaring: ‘This animal is a man, because he has the gift of speech, memory, a little of what we call reason, and a sort of face.’ Our world is built on the ideas of men who made such fundamental mistakes, yet we never tell the truth about that.”
Mention of her background brings up two questions. How did her own childhood in Jamaica and Grand Cayman influence her book? And her bio notes that she was a lawyer for 17 years “who always wanted to write but only recently decided it was time to stop wanting to do it and just do it.” What tipped her over the edge?
“I was born in Jamaica and my family moved to Grand Cayman in 1976, to escape the violent aftermath of the Jamaican elections that year. When I was 11, I came to boarding school in England. I think some of the sense of moving between places, but never quite belonging in any one of them, crept into the novel. I tried to pour my love for the Caribbean and London into it, but also to look at both places from an honest perspective as well.”
As for the tipping point: “I lost two dear friends, who passed away. They were both talented, creative women but hadn’t had enough time to do everything they wanted to do. It brought home to me that I’d better stop dreaming about writing a novel, and just try to do it. My friends (Melanie and Susan) are named in the dedication to the novel.”
Despair and self-doubt? “Yes. It’s so important for anyone working on their first novel to know that it will sometimes feel impossible and overwhelming. There were times when I wanted to give up, but I am very glad I didn’t. And I’ll say what I desperately needed someone to say to me then: Tackle it a paragraph at a time. You aren’t alone in feeling this way. One day you’ll print a stack of pages, a story that reads from beginning to end, and take a picture of it. You’ll congratulate yourself on finishing your novel. And then you’ll take it from there.”
I’ll leave the last words, fittingly, for Frannie Langton herself:
“What would you want to be remembered for? If you had one last page and one last hour, what would you write? In the end, this is what I choose. My account of myself. The only thing I’ll be able to leave behind. That there are two things I loved: all the books I read, and all the people who wrote them. Because life is nothing, in spite of all that fuss, yet novels make it possible to believe it is something, after all.”
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the Executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: