In “The Fraud,” Zadie Smith’s latest novel, she sets her pen on a little-remembered Victorian writer, William Harrison Ainsworth, and an event that captivated the British public at the time but will probably be as unfamiliar as Ainsworth to today’s audience.
It was a court case in which a man claimed to be Roger Tichborne, who was missing and presumed dead. Almost no one believed that the man, uncouth, ill-educated and overweight, could be the heir of the Tichborne fortune, who, by all accounts, was svelte and refined when his ship was lost at sea. No one, that is, except his own mother, and Andrew Bogle, a former enslaved man who eventually worked for the Tichborne family.
It’s not unusual for Smith to reach back on the rich vein of British literature, borrowing what she likes while firmly entrenching herself where she rightly belongs. In “The Fraud,” she continues in that style, inserting characters like Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and an elusive George Eliot. Dickens is portrayed as a peevish friend, given to sulking. Most of the male novelists, come to think of it, are insecure and catty. Ainsworth complains about “the Eliot fellow’s” eight-volume serial. “No adventure, no drama, no murder, nothing to excite the blood or chill it! I must say I can’t understand the glowing notices. As if she were a new Mary Shelley! But there isn’t an ounce of Shelley’s imagination. Just a lot of people going about their lives in a village—dull lives at that.”
Most of “The Fraud” is told through Ainsworth’s cousin and occasional lover, Elizabeth Touchet, who, having lost her husband and having a small income, is one of those British characters reliant on family members. Smith quotes from Ainsworth’s forgotten novels and allows Mrs. Touchet to groan at his redundant phrasing and tangled plots, and she also quotes verbatim from the Tichborne trials, in which Mrs. Touchet takes a particular interest—sitting in the gallery at every opportunity.
It’s the testimony of Andrew Bogle that Mrs. Touchet takes notice of. Bogle is one of the star witnesses of “the Claimant” (as he was known), an elegant, Black man who stood in marked contrast to the uncouth Claimant. Unfortunately for the Claimant, Bogle’s word was dismissed as quickly and easily as the mother’s. After all, he was Black, and therefore carried the weight of suspicion. Families like the Ainsworths declared their opinions over newspapers in the evening. “You tell me, William, you tell me how it is that a mother—a mother, mind—can look a body in the face and say: There stands my only living son, Sir Roger and not be believed? Prejudice is what it is! Purest prejudice.”
Mrs. Touchet convinces Bogle to tell her his story after the trial, and in one horrifying sitting, he recounts how his father was captured as a young boy in Africa and taken to a sugar farm in Jamaica, how he eventually came to be and grew up on the same farm. Bogle and the other enslaved people, generations upon generations of enslaved humans, experienced physical and mental torment under the unrelenting heat of the Jamaican sky and the dangerous sugar factories where they were forced to work.
What Smith describes is an untenable state of madness almost unbearable to conceive. The woman Bogle’s father loves tries to escape. “He watched the bookkeeper write notorious runaway next to Johanna’s name, three years in a row, and marveled at her persistence—at what it cost her. Two toes. A breast. The cleaving of her face, a scar that ran from eye to chin.” The woman Bogle loves, also called Johanna, also tries to resist and is sentenced to three months on a treadmill. Smith’s emphasis on the cyclical nature of these crimes and injustices naturally brings up questions of continued culpability and enduring trauma. While “Fraud” is very much a novel of ideas, it does indeed contain adventure, drama, murder, and will excite the blood and chill it.
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 464 pages