Book review: The Fraud, by Zadie Smith

Inspired by a real-life legal battle in 19th century England, this multi-layered novel touches on a huge range of issues, from slavery and classism to demagoguery and political indolence, writes Stuart Kelly

The Fraud seems a very definitive title, but part of the elegance of Zadie Smith’s new novel, and first historical novel, is that who the fraud is becomes increasingly complicated. The most obvious candidate is the “Tichborne Claimant”. Richard Tichborne was heir to a family estate and fortune and supposedly died at the age of 25 in a shipwreck. His mother always believed he survived. Years later, someone who says he is Tichborne turns up, claiming to have been in Australia – suffering from amnesia and one supposes post-traumatic stress disorder – to reclaim his inheritance. (The mother had placed adverts in newspapers in Wagga Wagga asking for information about sightings). The family are somewhat suspicious, and there are soon whispers that the individual is actually Arthur Orton, also known as Thomas Castro, a Wapping butcher’s son who had gone to sea. The affair culminated in a trial that might better be described as a media frenzy.

This is the spine of Smith’s novel, but it is scaffolded by three other characters. The first is the 19th century novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. I have actually read Rookwood and Jack Sheppard, but may not re-read them (he did write many more novels, and Smith piquantly quotes some of the more verbose examples of his later prose). But Jack Sheppard did sell more than Oliver Twist, a fact Ainsworth never tires of repeating. “Generally dull, except when it is revolting” is one contemporaneous critique. Ainsworth was a dandy, and his social circle included Dickens, Thackeray, Cruikshank and various hangers-on. Posterity has not been kind to Ainsworth, but what Smith so deftly describes is a man who is aware, in his own lifetime, that his star has waned. Is he the fraud?

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Ainsworth lived with his widowed cousin-in-law, Eliza Touchet. She is the most intriguing. She is sharp-tongued and quick-witted; vehement about the slave trade and intellectually curious. There is a neat grace note of her noticing George Eliot during the trial and noticing how dismissive the literary coterie she inhabits is of Middlemarch. She is outwardly a pious Roman Catholic, but her outward propriety works as armour against inner doubts and anxieties. Another fraud? She is caught up in the Tichborne hysteria, especially as William’s much younger second wife, Sarah, and former domestic servant is obsessional about it. This allows for claims and counter-claims to be aired in the novel without putting a finger on the scales. That said, Smith has certainly not lost her comic touch and Sarah’s ranting about Jesuits and Freemasons and Jews, set next to Eliza’s frosty rationality, is a highlight of the novel.

Zadie Smith PIC: Getty ImagesZadie Smith PIC: Getty Images
Zadie Smith PIC: Getty Images

The third candidate is the most ambiguous. Andrew Bogle – “Black Bogle” – was a slave on a plantation, but his cleverness meant that he was to work more as a clerk and factotum than in the fields. He has always said that the claimant is Richard, and his testimony in the court is the star turn. He is calm, articulate, dignified and consistent; in other words, the antithesis of the stereotype of the backward, hysterical and recalcitrant African. He has been in England and has observed the aristocracy and their hypocrisy. Is he the Keyser Söze using the corpulent and meandering Orton as his cat’s-paw for revenge?

The novel has a triple-decker structure. Although it is in eight “volumes”, it splits between set-up, then an extensive part where Eliza interviews Andrew while posing as a journalist, and learns of his, and his family’s life, in the Caribbean, and then finally a drawing together of the narrative elements established. It is also written in pleasingly short chapters, so each one is a vignette, and each can reflect or contradict the next. Although billed as a historical novel, Smith allows herself a degree of chronological fluidity, with chapters taking place decades before the 1873 trial. This also introduces a degree of irony, as we see the worn out when young, the lumberers when they were bucks. It requires a great deal of skill to carry off such switchback changes of perspective.

The historical novel is never wholly about history. In this we have slavery, demagoguery, the moral complexities of accepting money you know came from unethical sources, classism, political indolence and a wonderful sense of the literary world as being a nest of cliques, resentments, rampant egos and financial precarity.

But it is human, all too human. Smith strikes me as a non-judgemental writer even though the moral convictions shine through. Compared to the fustian of some historical novels, this reads breezily if not always comfortably. As the port is being passed the various luminaries all discuss abolition, and more importantly, what is to be done post-abolition? There is the old witticism that the Empire only abolished slavery to be able to boast about it. But over and above the mismanagement and incompetence of the owners and managers of the estates, the compensation given to slave owners is staggering. It is also paradoxical. Does it mean that a person went from being property to being free, with the swish of a pen and the casting of a vote, or were they always free and the thief should not be paid when their stolen goods are taken back? What is the Fraud of the title? The compensation scheme. It shames us still.

The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £25

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