Frannie Langton: Slave story, murder mystery and queer bodice ripper

“No doubt you’re thinking this will just be another one of those slave histories all sugared over with misery and despair,” says Frannie Langton, a former slave accused of murder in 1820s England, as she narrates her own story in The Confessions of Frannie Langton. “It won’t be.” When Jamaican-born lawyer Sara Collins set out to write the Costa Prize-winning novel that she has now adapted for television, she told herself much the same thing. She wanted to delve into the history of slavery, but avoid going over familiar ground.

Karla-Simone Spence in The Confessions of Frannie Langton.Credit:Britbox

She thinks now that she first saw the glimmerings of a story she wanted to tell when she read about J. Marion Sims, an American doctor generally credited as “the father of modern gynaecology”. Sims developed his techniques in the middle of the 19th century by experimenting, often fatally, on female slaves. There was a steady supply of them and no painkillers were required. “That triggered something in me,” she says. “We look for the expected atrocities when we talk about slavery now, but here was something I hadn’t come across.”

Researching further into the history of slavery in the Caribbean, which ended with the Emancipation Act of 1833 – before Sims’ time – she turned up records of spurious intelligence tests in which selected slaves would be taught to read to assess how “human” they were. Defenders of slavery claimed their slaves were inherently less intelligent than their white owners; abolitionists were interested in showing the opposite. “What was done to people’s minds,” Collins says. “That you could give or withhold intelligence with access to learning: I thought that here was a fresh take on this story, something I hadn’t seen.”

That history became the starting point for the fictitious story of Frannie Langton, a Caribbean slave who works in a plantation laboratory where her master, John Langton (Steven Mackintosh), carries out terrible experiments on behalf of George Bentham, (Stephen Campbell Moore), a respected British scientist and the estate’s owner. Frannie (played in the series by Karla-Simone Spence) is the product of one of his educational experiments. Langton took her as a child from her own mother to be raised by his childless wife, and when she proved an adept studenthe sequestered her as his laboratory assistant.

Collins sets her story during the period between 1807 – when the Abolition Act outlawed both the international slave trade and slavery within Britain – and 1833. In Enlightenment Britain, slavery is a contested issue in a weird grey zone, where it is illegal at home but still legal in British territories abroad. Bentham writes reasoned tracts about his humane treatment of slaves and how happy they are to be in his service. He considers himself an advanced man. “His character was based on the real journals of a Jamaican planter who used to describe how, on his trips back home, slaves would run out and fall at his feet as if he were a god,” Collins says. “They would hug him and start weeping, they were so happy to see him. As a writer, I really wanted to get into that headspace and understand what would have motivated a man like him.”

Langton, however, is aware that his grisly business is a scandal waiting to happen; he is only one step ahead of the law. His plan is to leave Antigua with Frannie and “gift” her to Bentham’s household where, much to the chagrin of the white housekeeper – who snaps that she is taking the bread from decent English mouths – and her own furious resentment, she will work as a lowly scullery maid. She is soon rescued by Bentham’s French wife, Marguerite (Sophie Cookson), who survives her miserable marriage on a mix of literature and laudanum and notices the new Black servant’s ability to quote Milton and inclination to speak her mind. Frannie is appointed her secretary and, after a slow burn of romance, becomes her lover. The two women find a sensual happiness neither has known, until the day Frannie wakes to find their bed surrounded by angry men and Marguerite’s dead, bloody body lying next to her. Bentham is downstairs, also dead. Her own nightdress is also spattered with blood. She is duly arrested. The hangman’s noose awaits.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is nothing if not a mash of genres: murder mystery, social history, queer bodice ripper and, in its final episode, a full-blown court drama. Sara Collins is 51. Along with millions of others, she was transfixed by the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in which Colin Firth set hearts a-flutter when he emerged in a wet shirt from a Cheshire lake. She was a great reader of Victorian melodrama; she has laughingly suggested that her story is a juicier Jane Eyre, where Jane and the unknown woman in the attic get together behind Mr Rochester’s back. What her researches told her was that there were comparable stories in real life – and that they included Black people.

While Frannie is an invention, other details and characters are drawn directly from history. Frannie soon discovers that she is not Marguerite’s first Black favourite; Bentham brought her a four-year-old boy called Olaudah (Patrick Martins) – renamed Laddie to sound more English – 20 years before, after she had miscarried twice, as a diversion. Laddie was summarily thrown out of the house when he could no longer be seen as a plaything, but he has since prospered as a gentleman boxer. He was based, Collins says, on a boy adopted at a similar age by the then Marchioness of Queensberry. “What struck me was that the past is such a goldmine for these kinds of stories,” Collins says. When she wrote The Confessions of Frannie Langton, she says, she approached it as a lawyer, marking out subject areas with a lot of coloured markers. Now she’s a veteran. The next story delving into her Jamaican past is in the works.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton screens on Britbox from March 8.

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