In Zadie Smith’s new novel, the true story of a heated nineteenth-century criminal trial connects to the unrest of current times.
The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, Penguin Press, 454 pages, $29
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Zadie Smith’s work epitomizes the contemporary. I mean that as a compliment. Beginning with her 2000 debut novel, White Teeth, she has made an aesthetic out of engagement with the complexities and contradictions, the uncertainties and mash-ups, of twenty-first-century life. Her characters (and, in her essays, Smith herself) wrestle with a world that exists in an identifiable state of upheaval. In such a landscape, meaning becomes conditional, requiring us to reassess and reimagine as we go along. I think of White Teeth, the protagonist of which, like Smith, is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a much older English father; all must reckon with the cross-cultural currents of a changing London. I think of the essay collection Intimations, which, appearing in July 2020, managed the uncanny achievement of evoking the chaotic early days of the pandemic even as the author, like the rest of us, was struggling to make sense of them. The last two sentences of that book—“That my children know the truth about me but still tolerate me, so far. That my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now”—are among the most self-lacerating endings that I know.
For Smith the contemporary is complicated: not just a moment on its own terms but also one with implications for the future and deep roots in the past. If her essays tend to stretch toward the former, the fiction can be read the other way. Her 2005 novel On Beauty borrows from E. M. Forster’s Howards End, while NW (2012) opens with an extended stream-of-consciousness narration reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Still, as Smith acknowledges, the decision to set her sixth novel, The Fraud, in nineteenth-century London seems a bit of a surprise. “When friends asked why I’d left the country, I’d sometimes answer with a joke: Because I don’t want to write a historical novel,” she noted recently in the New Yorker. At the same time, Smith continues, there can be more at work in such narratives than history. “Not all historical fiction,” she explains, “cosplays its era, and an exploration of the past need not be a slavish imitation of it. You can come at the past from an interrogative angle, or a sly remove, and some historical fiction will radically transform your perspective not just on the past but on the present.”
The Fraud represents a vivid case in point. Smartly rendered, true to its own time while also deeply reflective of ours, it’s a terrific novel, perhaps Smith’s finest. Much of the action involves the real-life Tichborne case of the 1860s and 1870s, in which a butcher named Arthur Orton (or “the Claimant,” as he became known) presented himself as the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy and sought to assume his inheritance. After losing both civil and criminal trials, he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. The circus-like atmosphere of the proceedings galvanized Victorian England in the manner of a passion play; as Smith writes, “All present had the strongest possible feelings about the Claimant, and many elaborate theories of conspiracy regarding him.” Such theories tended to fall along political or economic lines, with the establishment deriding Orton as a charlatan while those on the outside stood in his defense.
It’s impossible to think about these reactions without making associations to the present, when the collapse of a collective social narrative has effectively broken us apart. That is part of what Smith has in mind, since nineteenth-century England was awash in a similar degree of cultural disruption, spurred by the Industrial Revolution, reform movements addressing suffrage and slavery (two of the novel’s overlapping plot lines explore slavery in Jamaica and British abolitionism), and the rise of new technologies. Mandatory smallpox inoculation provoked an “anti-vaccination movement, for who knew the true intentions of these rich men and their needles?” As for the Claimant, “every newspaper’s against him—well, what does that tell you? Whose side are they on?” asks a character named Sarah Wells. “The people’s? Decent, common people like yourself? Not bloody likely!”
Sarah, too, is a historical figure, the second wife of novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was a friend and contemporary of Thackeray and Dickens, both of whom appear in The Fraud. Here is where Smith cracks the novel open, moving beyond the social issues activated by the Tichborne case and into a more self-reflexive territory. Wildly prolific, Ainsworth churned out over forty books, including the scandalous 1839 bestseller Jack Sheppard. In The Fraud’s version of events, he is also a terrible writer, his work fundamentally unreadable.
Smith makes that point explicit repeatedly, not least in the dynamic between Dickens and Ainsworth’s cousin, Eliza Touchet, who moves in to help raise his three daughters after his first wife dies. Mrs. Touchet (as Smith refers to her) is the moral center of the narrative: no-nonsense, at times caustic, with ambitions and frustrations and an abiding sense of right and wrong. She and Dickens are not close; she has never trusted him. Yet when, at a gathering, Ainsworth jokes that he’s a mediocrity, they are the only ones to read between the lines. “The Lady Blessington laughed,” Smith writes, “and the Count laughed, but before Mrs. Touchet and Mr. Dickens could laugh, they made the mistake of meeting each other’s eyes.”
The scene suggests a knotty connection between the two, a certain knowing sensibility. Something similar is true of Smith’s narrative voice, which is sharp, insinuating, marked by her point of view. “Keep stealing, my friends!” she declares. “From life for fiction, and from fiction for life. What a terrible business. At least William did it clumsily, with benign incompetence. Whereas his friend Charles had done it like a master—like an actor. This was precisely what was so dangerous about him.” The implication is that writers are thieves, and dissemblers. As a self-indictment, it brings to mind those scathing final lines of Intimations, while also functioning as a meta-commentary. What is Smith doing if not what Dickens, what every writer does? The complicity is only heightened by the real-life origins of the characters in The Fraud. “She did not want to appear in any more novels,” the author observes of Mrs. Touchet. But then, here she is, against her will.
The Fraud is a novel of sublime empathy, in which the author’s voice and perspective bestow a contemporary edge. From the Claimant and his supporters to Ainsworth and Mrs. Touchet, Smith understands how much we need one another, and the consolations of narrative, true and false. “Theirs was a fellowship in time,” she observes of the cousins, “and this, in the view of Mrs. Touchet, was among the closest relations possible in this fallen world. . . . They had known each other such a long time. She still saw his young face. He still saw hers, thank God.” There it is, the deep connection on which literature depends, the pulsing of its human heart, which has kept the same time whether in the present or in the past.
David L. Ulin is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.