Love is not love which alters when its alteration finds.
In April 1826 in London's Old Bailey, Frannie Langton (the "Mulatta Murderess") is indicted for the willful murder of society couple George and Marguerite Benham. The gallery is crowded with all manner of "quality folk" who can't wait to hear from the Benhams' housekeeper, Mrs. Linux, who was the first to enter Marguerite's bedchamber and discover her body next to the prisoner. Asleep in her mistress's bed and covered in blood, Frannie had no idea what had happened. From her arrest to this day, Frannie has refused to speak. What frightens her "is dying believing that it was me who killed her."
On trial for her life with a chuckling judge and a smirking lawyer who "spins on his heel...[d]ripping with malice or kindness depending on your purpose," a terrified Frannie begins her confession. She just wants to show the love that existed between her and Marguerite.
The origin of Frannie's story begins in Paradise, Jamaica, on Langton's sugar plantation. As maid to Miss-bella and friend to Phibbah, the plantation's chief cook, Frannie sees the three women of Paradise like "figures etched in glass." Amid the smell of cane trash and light "like blades," reading is the only occupation that gives Frannie solace. After Langton's library and the years guarding Miss-bella's health, Frannie is terrified she might meet the same fate of Phibbah.
After Langton's health takes a turn for the worse, Frannie travels to London. Employed as a maid to George Benham in his home of Levenhall on Montfort Street, Frannie discovers that she is "Langton's creature." By turns disappointed and enraged by the brazen prejudice that follows her through the sour-clotted city streets and frightened by Levenhall's narrow hallways smelling of wool and cold hearths, Frannie recalls the horrors of Paradise--the coachhouse and "the things that had been done there."
Benham is neither exciting nor tame enough for Marguerite. He accuses Frannie--because she's got a "bit of learning"--of getting on her high-horse: "Would the same work be required of me here that I'd done in Paradise?" Faced with Mrs. Linux's prejudice, Frannie finds comfort in her friendship with beloved Pru, who tries to bring light into an otherwise dismal life. Meanwhile, Frannie's attraction to Marguerite is accelerated, as well as her taste for laudanum: "it had started with single drops but now built to a need that shook through my hands."
Through Frannie's "confession," Collins hurls us into a whirlwind of Marguerite's subversive attraction, Langton's wager, and Benham's ultimate deceit--all wrapped up in the sad garlands of Frannie's literary dreams. Mrs. Linux tells the court that Frannie is a thief, "a sly African," lascivious and lazy, a danger to the house. Broken and drug-addled Frannie is left behind, haunted by her love for Marguerite. She is left with a series of choices; death can be a choice, too, the dark link between dreaming and madness as in her melancholia Frannie attempts to justify her history.
Collins executes the gothic genre beautifully, weaving the trials of her impoverished black heroine into a poetic fractured tapestry of 19th-century society fraught with casual racism and human frailty. Frannie's emotional collapse is so dramatic and real; it's difficult to imagine a woman feeling any less hurt, lost or betrayed.