Redefining the Gothic Romance: Sara Collins
Jamaica to London
Collins’s debut novel The Confessions of Frannie Langton transports us to the 19th century worlds of Jamaica and London. We travel with the protagonist Frannie Langton from her grotesque beginnings on a sugar plantation, where she is made to cut up bodies, to a life in servitude in hostile London. Genres are combined as Collins offers a chilling murder mystery, the gothic and also an all-consuming romance, both between two women and the seductive drug of laudanum. In a fashion similar to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, we begin at the end, with Frannie already in court and on trial for the murder of both the mistress and master of her London household. This non-chronological structure sets the format for the rest of the novel, as the mystery and romance unfurl in short, non-linear chapters which echo Frannie’s foggy memory as an avid ‘opium-eater’. Is there anything more intriguing than a murder suspect who is unsure of their own innocence?
A Romance, Slavery and the Gothic
Collins insightfully depicts a protagonist who has come from slavery, and therefore topically aligns with the current ‘black lives matter’ movement and provides an immersive education of the atrocities of the slave trade. There is a unique gothic aspect to Langton's plantation, as he uses Frannie as an assistant to his diabolical human experiments which are attempts to scientifically prove that black people are of a different species to white people. Frannie however, refuses to be defined by such a background. Although empathy is created for our protagonist’s grusome upbringing, Frannie is not just a victim. She is passionate, angry, ambitious, well-read and, most importantly, not without fault. Instead of presenting us with a victim, Collins exquisitely portrays a multi-dimensional character, who is capable of both evil and good. A ‘mulatta murderess’, a lover, an intellect, and an ex-slave. Inspired by literary giants such as Jane Eyre, Frannie is unorthodox in her intelligence and outspokenness, and her originality as a character is a constant surprise to the white upper-class society. She claims to be condescendingly regarded as a ‘dog walking on its hind legs’, which tragically depicts that her brilliance amounts to nothing but a source of entertainment in a cruel 19th century society.
Most significantly, Collins fills in the gaps of historical fiction in which black women are notoriously not portrayed as being at the epicentre of romances. Between Frannie and her mistress, a thrilling romance occurs alongside both of the characters’ growing addictions to laudanum - a drug used commonly among the upper-class women of elite London society. Collins often portrays these women as angry due to being unable to fulfil their potential and choose how they wish to live. Even though Madame and Frannie are different in terms of race and class, they are tragically both denied an outlet for their talents. Madame is allowed to write, but refused publication by her husband, whilst Frannie often feels her intellect and abilities are wasted on menial housework as a maid. In different ways, neither woman is free and it is this commonality which enhances the romance. The fact that such a love ends in a murder trial leaves the reader constantly questioning the truth and always hungry for answers.