The first black person I ever came across in a novel was the runaway slave, Jim, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The moment he was introduced (as “Miss Watson’s big nigger”) I saw he was a character you weren’t meant to take seriously. Looking back now, the problem I had with the book was that Jim’s humanity was treated like a question that needed answering. He’d slipped away from Miss Watson only to end up stuck forever in Twain’s trap, where the measure of the man was loyalty to a feckless and undeserving boy. I hated that book, but I forced it down like the deworming medicine my mother dosed us with every summer – and for the same reason. Everyone said it was an American classic, and therefore it was supposed be “good for me”.
My family had fled Kingston some years before, after the eruption of the violence that followed the 1976 elections. We’d ended up in Grand Cayman, where my paternal grandmother was born. When my brothers and I went out in our neighbourhood to play, it meant running the gauntlet of two women who sometimes called out: “You black Jamaican monkeys! Go back where you came from.” Luckily books had given me a home that was privately and irrevocably mine. I scoured them, craving the kind of fierce and instant kinship that sprang up when I met characters like Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March. Which was why Twain’s novel came as such a shock. It seemed to slap away those feelings of affinity, with the awful suggestion that it was Jim who lurked in my family tree, not Jane or Jo.
Luckily books had given me a home that was privately and irrevocably mine.
It wasn’t a surprise to discover I wanted to write a novel driven by emotion of the kind I’d encountered in novels like Jane Eyre, that vibrating energy that pulses through Gothic fiction, nor that, much the same as Jane’s time spent in Mrs. Reed’s household, I wanted Frannie’s early life in Jamaica to form the wellspring of her longing, and her rage. Yet when I came to write about it, I could feel something holding me back. As a black woman, I was reluctant to write a novel about a woman who had been a slave.
Part of the reason was that slavery is one of those topics people expect to be written about in a certain way. Historically, slave narratives were written with an agenda: to inform white readers about the terrible suffering endured by slaves, and thereby persuade them to the abolitionist cause. It’s the kind of writing that tells you what happened to a person, but not much about who they were. One of history’s many failings is that those early black chroniclers were required to spend all their energy addressing the emergencies that had been made of their lives, instead of leaving behind a proper record of themselves. Yet unless we’re careful in the way we write about slavery now, we risk getting stuck in the same mode as those early chroniclers, reducing our characters to stereotypes from whom no one expects anything other than suffering. Historical fiction is full of as many blind spots as history when it comes to black characters, but unless our characters reflect humanity in all its forms, good as well as bad, we risk dehumanising them all over again.
35 years later, I had an idea for a novel of my own. I wanted to write about a Jamaican woman in Georgian London. The spark had come from reading about Francis Barber, a Jamaican boy brought to London late in the 18th century, and sent into service in Samuel Johnson’s household – “given me by a Friend”, Johnson wrote. My protagonist, Frannie Langton, would be given as a gift to an eminent natural philosopher, Mr. George Benham (“the finest mind in all of England”), as a maid in his Mayfair mansion. The rest would be pure invention: an Old Bailey trial in which Frannie is accused of the murders of Benham and his wife, and, at the heart of the book, a twisted love affair between Frannie and Madame Benham. A love affair that seems to be the only thing she can offer in her own defence. “I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame,” I could hear her saying, “because I loved her.”
One of history’s many failings is that those early black chroniclers were required to spend all their energy addressing the emergencies that had been made of their lives, instead of leaving behind a proper record of themselves.
What can a mere novelist do to redress the balance? I started by asking myself what I could add that was new. While I was researching the novel, a question occurred to me: If you were dragged back to that place by time machine, what loss would hit you hardest? My answer came clear and instant. Books. And not far behind it came another question: What would you have done to get them? The door to what I wanted to write swung wide open and I saw a young girl growing up on a plantation, desperate to read, craving the books in the library, making her way further and further inside the house and the lives of the people in it, until she made her way all the way to London. The first question led, page by page, to the last: how far would she go? At times, in answering it, I had to allow her make the kinds of choices I hope I wouldn’t have made, and that we aren’t necessarily used to seeing from characters like her. Yet the more I did, the more complex and compelling she became, and the more she seemed to take on real flesh.
A historical novelist has the power to wake the dead, but then she has to let them live.
I wrote Frannie for the same reason I scoured all those novels as a child. Because the magic of writing is the same as the magic of reading: those brief moments when imagined people breathe. Because a historical novelist has the power to wake the dead, but then she has to let them live. I didn’t want to write another “slave story”, but once upon a time I’d have loved to read a gothic romance about a woman who happened to have been a slave. In all my reading, I had never come across a book like that, or a character like Frannie, even though it’s self-evident that genius, anger, moral complexity, and passionate, all-consuming, romantic love are not qualities that only white characters should be allowed.
There’s a cushion on the chair in my agent’s office where I sat when she offered me representation. During our second meeting, I noticed a quote from Toni Morrison cross-stitched onto it that I’d been too distracted to see properly the first time: “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”. Perhaps, after all this time, writing Frannie was my personal antidote to Jim.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is out now.