You’ve got to love Zadie Smith. When The Fraud arrived I did what no self-respecting reviewer should ever do. I flipped the book open and peeked at a random chapter. I know, I know. Never peek. It can spoil Christmas. But sometimes it’s just too tempting, and sometimes knowing what’s under the wrapping paper can make it even more fun to tear it off when the big day comes. So I peeked, and got this appetite-whetting piece of Smithery:
He looked past the milk and the milk-boy, past Mrs Touchet, past the horses and the gates of Gore House. Also past caring, past toleration, past patience. Finally he turned towards the lettuces to smile directly at Mrs Touchet. Not a nice smile. A sharp smile, with a threat in it. Then bent down, took the second pail, and walked off towards the pantry, past all the kitchen drawers so full of sharp and threatening things.
Such spiky delights. The passage follows a description of a group of servant children – ‘he’ is a young Black servant – taking the piss out of their masters and mistresses. It’s a kind of purposive fooling around that recalls the fun dances, which are also dangerous games, shared by the narrator and her friend Tracey in Swing Time (2016), or the goofing off that always says something about what it is to be famous and how toxic it can be to think of oneself as not famous that happens when the characters in The Autograph Man (2002) are stoned or drunk.
The Fraud is billed as Smith’s first historical novel, though actually the ghosts of the past, either in film or in music, have always played a big part in her fiction. It spans a period from the 1830s to the 1870s, and shuttles between the earlier and later part of that date range. The central character is Eliza Touchet, a cousin and former lover of the once successful but now forgotten Victorian historical novelist William Ainsworth. The deadliness of Ainsworth’s prose is a running joke, and it enables several asides of the ‘don’t whatever you do write a historical novel’ kind, as well as various self-conscious observations about the horrors of literary criticism. What could be better advice for the editor of a literary journal than Ainsworth’s statement: ‘To run a serious literary magazine, Eliza, you must always ensure that only nice things are said and all writers kept happy – particularly the famous ones’? Through Ainsworth’s household Smith pulls together an omnibus edition of Victoriana: there are set-piece descriptions of dinners attended by Men of Letters, who boorishly fail to give Eliza a chance to speak, and unthinkingly describe the writer’s trade as ‘purest slavery’ while consuming the products of literal slavery. Among those at the table are Charles Dickens, prattishly joking and preaching for free trade while failing to see into the experiences of those around him, an oafish Thackeray, and Dickens’s biographer John Forster, who SHOUTS IN CAPITALS, as well as George Cruikshank the angry cartoonist.
Male novelists, however, are peripheral to The Fraud. At its centre is the strange case of the Tichborne Claimant, which dominated the news and the popular imagination through two immensely long trials in the early 1870s. The Claimant was a Martin Guerre figure. He said he was Sir Roger Tichborne, who was believed to have died in a shipwreck in 1854, and whose mother had sent advertisements as far as Australia to find out if he had survived. ‘Sir Roger’ returned to England in 1866, suspiciously fatter than he had been before, and having suspiciously forgotten the French of his early education, but his mother accepted him as the heir to a big estate in Hampshire. After her death in 1868 people began to mutter, and the questionable Sir Roger’s attempt to reclaim his estates led to the first trial, during which the non-fraudulence of the Claimant became a populist cause. He was seen as the victim of an establishment conspiracy to exclude the common man from justice – though, unless he was in fact a liar, the Claimant was as blue-blooded as the next baronet. At the trials, cracks showed: despite his supposedly expensive education the Claimant had trouble distinguishing Latin from Greek and lacked a crucial tattoo on his arm. He was probably in fact a butcher’s son from Wapping called Arthur Orton, who had ended up in Wagga Wagga, had seen the advertisements seeking the Tichborne heir, and had taken advantage of a mother’s grief. The story ‘had everything: toffs, Catholics, money, sex, mistaken identity, an inheritance, High Court judges, snobbery, exotic locations, “the struggle of the honest working man” – as opposed to the “undeserving poor” – and “the power of a mother’s love”’.
Smith gives a fresh angle to this often-told tale by concentrating on a key witness in the trials: Andrew Bogle, a Black man who grew up enslaved in Jamaica. There he became the page of Edward Tichborne (uncle to the missing Sir Roger), who was the manager of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos’s plantations around Kingston. During the trials Bogle persistently restated his belief that the Claimant was the real Sir Roger Tichborne. Eliza (who regards the Claimant as a fraud) repeatedly wonders how and why Bogle sticks to his story: ‘It was possible to “know” Sir Roger was a fraud and yet still “believe” Bogle.’ Through Bogle’s life history Smith weaves the fraudulence of the Claimant into a much wider story about the intricate ties between rich English aristocrats and the enslaved people who worked the plantations in Jamaica in the early 19th century. Eliza comes to realise that the islands of Britain and Jamaica ‘were, in reality, two sides of the same problem, profoundly intertwined, and that this was a truth that did not have to be sought out or hunted down, it was not hidden behind a veil or screen or any kind of door. It was and had always been everywhere, like the weather.’
The interconnected worlds of English riches and poverty and enslavement in Jamaica converge when Bogle visits the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos’s extravagantly decorated house at Stowe with his master, Edward Tichborne. He witnesses the grotesque ornaments of wealth:
Here the walls seemed, to Bogle, to be painted with scenes from home. At least, he felt he recognised the palms and cedars, the forested hills, the sparkling blue-green water. Here and there, in the groves, someone had whimsically added little groups of naked, unmurdered Indians, as if anything was left of them besides their moaning laments in the conch shells.
‘Unmurdered’ is one of several moments in the novel that make you suspect Smith doesn’t quite trust her readers to trust the tale and not the teller. Tichborne and Bogle are eventually admitted into the ‘Rembrandt Room’ to meet the duke and duchess, where Bogle’s eye is caught by the painting of a Black boy known as The Young Archer:
This boy took up the whole frame. Bogle liked him very much. He had a bow in hand and a quiver on his back, and looked just like Ellis by the side of Mr Macintosh, off to hunt wild pig. Only, this young archer was not carrying anything for anybody. These were his own bow and arrow, and he hunted on his own behalf.
‘Not carrying anything for anybody’ is an overemphatic duplication of which Smith is a bit too fond when she wants her readers to notice what she is noticing (here: the subject of this painting does not appear to be enslaved). She does something similar when she wants readers to notice that Eliza is silent in a conversation between men: ‘Mrs Touchet said nothing whatsoever, for no one asked her,’ where a plain ‘Mrs Touchet said nothing’ might have done the job. But in Bogle’s reaction to the young archer there is a hidden Easter egg of fraudulence, which Smith leaves for readers to discover for themselves. The painting that Bogle admires at Stowe is real. It was signed with a fake Rembrandt signature, and was sold as a Rembrandt when the spendthrift duke went bankrupt in 1848. It is now (in the Wallace Collection) ascribed to one of Rembrandt’s pupils, Govaert Flinck. Bogle’s eye is drawn to a painting now known to be itself a fraud, which was bought with the wealth of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, wealth that substantially derived from the labour of enslaved people in Jamaica.
Bogle himself remains the central enigma of the novel: ‘What a mystery was Mr Bogle!’ Is he lying to himself? Did he concoct the whole affair? Did he feed the Claimant with information that enabled him to pass himself off as Sir Roger? Was this quiet man just sticking to the truth as he saw it, or was he taking revenge on the aristocratic families who had owned and caused the death of his enslaved lover by assisting someone he knew to be a fraud to inherit their estates? Is the whole story of The Fraud one of inarticulable anger at enslavement enacted through the Tichborne Claimant?
That unanswerable question generates the two best moments in the novel. One is a kind of tribute act to the representational decorum of Victorian fiction, in which a physical action can betray an emotion too intense to be articulated directly. Bogle, in England, overhears his master, Edward Tichborne, recounting how ‘on 15 July 1840, 110 negro houses and out offices’ were consumed by fire in Jamaica along with silver belonging to the recently emancipated inhabitants, which Tichborne assumes had been stolen. After overhearing this, Bogle is asked to bring in the port glasses. Tichborne continues: ‘“My word, Bogle, whatever’s happened to your hand?” Bogle opened his shaking fist and watched the pretty little pieces of green glass tumble out onto the floor, red with blood, sparkling.’
The other moment is more explicitly angry. Towards the end of The Fraud Eliza says to Bogle’s son, Henry, that justice takes time and emancipated Black people should be patient. He responds: ‘I say whoever sees and comprehends the truth of this illegitimacy MUST reveal it, it is essential that he does, that he make it his life’s work … Such is the daily war of all men who love justice and know the truth!’ The George Eliot-ish, Dorothea Brooke-like, well-meaning white woman can’t cope with the vehemence of that reply. It’s a moment of violent emotional overload, at which Eliza feels ‘her face was wet, she was shaking … this essential and daily battle of life he had described was one she could no more envisage living herself than she could imagine crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon.’ That’s one of the few times when Mrs Touchet’s super-enlightened vision is allowed to show its limitations. She can’t cope with the rage that runs beneath the novel, in which even the kitchen drawers are ‘full of sharp and threatening things’, and in which Black servants crush port glasses in quiet fury.
The book begins with ‘the sheer weight of literature’ in Ainsworth’s library falling through the floor. Blowing a hole in earlier literature while feeling its weight is perhaps the main aim of The Fraud. Its restless movement between the 1830s and the 1870s deliberately recalls the temporal span of Middlemarch, the greatest of all not-quite-historical Victorian novels, which was published in 1871-72 but looks back to the dark ages before the 1832 Reform Act. The implied historical argument of Middlemarch (though of course it’s not as flat-footed as this) is that white men and women were more emancipated by 1872 than they were in the 1830s. Eliot herself is glimpsed for a moment in the audience of the Tichborne trial, and Eliza is reading what is clearly Middlemarch (though it’s not named), of which dim old Ainsworth says: ‘Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?’ Smith’s own critique of Eliot is, naturally, finer grained. The Fraud moves from a period just before the act abolishing slavery in 1833 to a period about forty years after it. It suggests that for formerly enslaved Black people and people of mixed race, very little actually changed through that period of supposed emancipation apart from an increasing willingness on their part to express explicit anger at their mistreatment. Dickens gets debunked too, and not just by being represented in the fiction as an ass. Eliza receives a mysterious legacy from her estranged husband which suddenly doubles on the death of its other, unknown, beneficiary; but – in notable contrast to Pip in Great Expectations – Eliza gives the money to the mixed-race children whom she discovers, via a dirty version of Dickens’s lawyer, Jaggers, her husband had with his mistress.
That act of Eliza’s recalls another novel that makes up perhaps the heaviest portion of the ‘weight of literature’ which falls through the floor at the start of The Fraud: Jane Eyre, whose heroine also renounces part of her £20,000 legacy. Indeed Smith’s book could be seen as a more radical rewriting of Jane Eyre (a copy of which Eliza sends to Ainsworth in 1849) than Smith’s rewriting of Howards End in On Beauty (2005). Jane Eyre hints at the relationship between aristocratic wealth and colonial violence through the figure of Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic, whom Mr Rochester has married while in Jamaica, and whose mother is described as a Creole but whose ethnicity has been much debated. In The Fraud, that glancing reference to where the money of the Mr Rochesters of the world might come from grows outwards to become the centre of the novel. In Jamaica, Bogle’s enslaved lover, Johanna, is condemned for prophesying rebellion and is tied for three months to the treadmill ‘until the trough beneath your feet filled with blood’. After her ordeal, Johanna madly describes hell on earth:
The world rest upon THE TREADMILL! I have SEEN it. I have a DREAM. The TREADMILL TURNS, it never STOPS, and atop it rests every SHINING CITY and SHIP and GOLD COIN and all KINGS AND QUEENS and LORDS AND LADIES and all CHURCH MEN for it is a TREADMILL WET WITH BLOOD and it is the SECRET ENGINE OF THE WORLD!
Giving a prophetic voice to the Bertha Masons of the world is not the only way in which Smith’s novel transforms its Victorian predecessors. The most powerful section of the book is its description of Bogle’s life and enslavement in Jamaica, and this deliberately ruptures some of the key expectations underpinning realist fiction. Bogle’s history, from the enslavement of his father to his dismissal by the Tichbornes, is related across almost a hundred pages. In the literal time of the novel, that history is supposed to have been conveyed to the white saviour Eliza while she is giving Bogle tea and a chop after his ordeal giving testimony in the first Tichborne trial, and she writes it all down. It is impossible that he could or would have told her so much in that time span. The painful history spills dangerously out, like a poison that dissolves the polite convention that narrative time and the time it takes to narrate a tale should more or less coincide. Is Eliza the transcriber writing fiction rather than recording testimony? Or does the horror tear time apart? The structural jumps and awkward sutures of time in The Fraud are part of its argument. They give additional force to its wider project of showing how the novels of the period 1840-80 were structurally unable to represent the interdependence of the British aristocracy and the slave trade.
The problem with trying to turn the Victorian novel inside out in this way is that the novel as a form might not want to go there, or needs to be pushed too hard to go there. Giving a push to this enduringly baggy form is certainly a good thing: there’s no telling the surprising places in which it might bulge out when subjected to such pressure, and Smith’s pressure is never less than thought-provoking, and often exhilarating. But knowing exactly the direction in which you want to push the form may not be the best way to change it in the longer term. It’s usually the hidden contraband in novels, rather than their overt aim, that sits and festers in the minds of its readers: mad, marginalised Bertha in Jane Eyre is the archetypal instance, where the offstage presence of a woman from Spanish Town, Jamaica, gives a new power to the conventions of Gothic and Romantic fiction, and encourages later readers to ask questions about colonialism, money, gender, race and oppression, and to link them with the emotional enigmas of the novel. It’s the things an author can’t quite or won’t quite articulate that tend to affect what later writers do. If you know exactly where you want your readers to find the mysteries, exactly where you want to provoke their resistance, and exactly what your political stance is, then readers may feel that something of the chaos and freedom they want from reading a novel has been sacrificed.
The Fraud is a paradigmatic instance of a mature work by someone who began life feeling as though they belonged outside a national canon and got famous by doing something brilliant and different; someone who then finds herself rather awkwardly central to an age in which her kind of urban, eclectic, consciously mixed race, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, sometimes funny-angry writing is what a lot of people want to read, and is so much what people want to read that it has become canonical. That isn’t an easy transition to negotiate. Smith began by thinking about herself as edgy, both culturally and tonally. Then, as the formerly edgy becomes the new canonical, the big questions begin to loom. What am I doing to the English literary canon and what has it done to me? What am I doing for the people and histories it has hitherto marginalised?
Those questions were asked both seriously and in the key of fun in Smith’s transformation of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in The Wife of Willesden (2021). But asking them in a deadly serious key takes her away from the messy, inventive, loose-ended, endlessly engaging, laughing-to-yourself-while-you-get-carried-away-with-an-idea quality of her earlier fiction, and some readers will no doubt feel this as a loss. The Fraud is a book that asks to be the subject of a seminar, and the things people would say in that seminar would probably coincide with what the book wants them to say about it. It wouldn’t be for that reason a bad seminar, because the things the book wants you to say are all good things, and they’re set out with an amazing grasp of detail and all of Smith’s super-critical intelligence, and there are, besides, many more hidden joys that grow from her wit and learning; and so everyone at the seminar will go away feeling they’ve understood things they didn’t know before. Hands up who knew how many radicals from the first half of the 19th century were children of white plantation owners and enslaved Black women, for instance? (Mine stays down in shame). Hands up who knew about the connections between the Tichbornes and the slave trade? But set The Fraud beside this passage headed ‘Locate the Self 1’ from a short story called ‘Mood’, and you might find its gain in clarity of purpose is also a loss of the capacity to wrong-foot her readers which is what I love most about Smith:
Are you in your tote bag? In the plants? In the bad faith soda-stream (Palestinian tears)? In your rug? In the city’s half-assed attempt to recycle? In your children? In your decision not to have children? In your tribe? In your kink? In your place of employment? In your wage packet? In the likes? In the rejections? In your documentation? In this sentence?
If you want the ragged edge, the bizarre or unharmoniously uncontrolled note, or love those dangerous moments when people lose control of themselves and their actions, and who and where they are, which Smith’s earlier novels (and many of her essays and short stories too) can offer, then The Fraud may seem a bit too much as if it’s putting on a starched collar and impeccably tailored Victorian stays, and then vigorously tearing them to pieces. It leaves you with the unfathomable and unshareable anger that is the principal non-economic legacy of the trade in Black human beings, a legacy no one should forget. But one of its little pieces of embedded self-consciousness may ring truer than it ought to. Eliza says to herself when reading one of Ainsworth’s dreadful books: ‘Of all the things to steal from Charles [Dickens], why choose the sermons?’ The Fraud doesn’t quite sermonise, but it does give you Thoughts. Good Thoughts, but definitely Thoughts with a capital T.
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