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Review | In Zadie Smith’s ‘The Fraud,’ truth is an illusion


(Illustration by Olivier Bonhomme for The Washington Post)

The new novel by the author of ‘White Teeth’ was inspired by the trial of the 19th century

Zadie Smith is clever enough to make anything sound plausible, but the most outrageous elements of her new novel, “The Fraud,” are actually true.

In the 1860s, a butcher with a shadowy past claimed that he was Sir Roger Tichborne, the presumed-dead son of Lady Tichborne and the heir to a vast fortune. The evidence against the butcher seemed overwhelming: He could not remember his supposed classmates, could not recall basic facts of a gentleman’s education and could not even speak French, Tichborne’s first language. More damning, details about his “missing years” at sea were shown to be false. And yet for many thousands of devoted fans, the very audaciousness of his claim argued in its favor.

Two bizarre court cases involving hundreds of witnesses dragged on for years and filled a sewer of conspiracy theories. The butcher’s chief legal defender was an Irish barrister named Edward Kenealy, whose shameless histrionics — “whining, ranting, swearing, sermonizing, lecturing and embarking upon incredible rhetorical tangents” — make today’s Kraken-releaser Sidney Powell look like a legal genius. Wisely, Smith offers no explicit contemporary allusions, but she hardly needs to, as the Great Claimant of our own era struts across the public stage scrambling every norm of evidence and certainty.

The carbonated lunacy of this scandal could easily have powered “The Fraud” from start to finish. Smith, though, is at pains to keep the trials of the so-called Tichborne Claimant rumbling in the background. Earlier this summer, she wrote in the New Yorker that she had spent years determined not to write a historical novel. “I retained a prejudice against the form,” she said, “dating back to student days.” Her resistance failed, fortunately, because she shows herself as adept with historical fiction as she is with courtroom drama. And as it turns out, the grasping butcher is hardly the most curious fraud interrogated here.

At the center of her story, we find Eliza Touchet, another forgotten figure rescued from the margins of history. (Keep Google handy; you’ll need it.) A young widow of limited resources, Eliza moved into her cousin’s house to fulfill an ambiguous role as hostess and housekeeper. For several years, she enjoyed — or endured — a curious position in London’s literary scene because her cousin was William Harrison Ainsworth.

If Ainsworth is remembered at all today, it’s only as a grim exemplar of the fleeting nature of popular acclaim. During his life, he published more than three dozen novels. Many were apparently popular; some were controversial for their lurid content; one reportedly outsold “Oliver Twist”! But I toiled in the academic field of 19th-century literature for 20 years and never ran into Ainsworth. None of his books is in print now. And much of the comedy in “The Fraud” suggests why: He was an extraordinarily dull and ridiculous writer.

Zadie Smith is just the latest. Fashion and literature have a long history.

In Smith’s reimagining of this household, Eliza struggles to encourage her prolific cousin — indeed, she comes to see that as her meager role in life. But Ainsworth’s prose is not easy to praise. A few times, Smith reproduces passages of his work that are truly rancid. More often, though, she invites us into Eliza’s private agony. For instance, wading through a three-volume novel called “Hilary St. Ives,” Eliza notices that “People ejaculated, rejoined, cried out on every page. The many strands of the perplexing plot were resolved either by ‘Fate,’ the fulfillment of a gypsy’s curse or a thunderstorm. It took over three hundred pages for young Hilary to work out that the servant who seemed unusually concerned with his future was his mother, and that the fellow who looked so very much like him that he could be his father was, indeed, his father. And for great swaths of the novel it was hard to distinguish it from the descriptions of a house agent.”

For all the offenses of his prose, Ainsworth is a congenial, buoyant fellow in Smith’s novel. But Eliza worries that he’s generous to the point of naiveté, almost willfully oblivious to the slights and humiliations he suffers at the hands of Charles Dickens, the illustrator George Cruikshank and his other frenemies. (The Man Who Invented Christmas gets only a walk-on part here and comes off as a particularly oily manipulator.) In rare moments when Ainsworth confesses to crippling fits of anxiety about his talent and reputation, it falls to Eliza to convince her cousin that he’s not, in fact, a fraud.

But what, she worries, does that kindly subterfuge make her?

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The best and most poignant sections of “The Fraud” examine the highly prescribed space for a sharp, smart woman in a culture that has no interest in sharp, smart women, particularly a dependent one of a certain age with little money. Eliza cannot be honest about her cousin’s novels; she cannot be open about her sexuality; she cannot pursue her own interest in writing.

All of which gives her a slant but intense interest in the case of the Tichborne Claimant that dominates London news. She never considers the butcher even marginally credible, but she’s fascinated by the epistemological questions that lie beneath his ludicrous performance.

How do we know who’s telling the truth?

How do we decide whom to believe?

Of particular interest to her is Andrew Bogle, a former Jamaican slave who insists under rigorous cross-examination that the rotund butcher is definitely the man he once knew as Roger Tichborne. As a righteous abolitionist, Eliza feels certain that Bogle is sincere yet somehow wrong. Her reaction raises a host of fascinating issues about whose testimony is valid, whose life story is reliable and, of course, how race and class determine those calculations. Even the structure of “The Fraud,” which makes Bogle a character in Eliza’s amateur investigation, dares us to marginalize him and the suffering of Jamaicans yet again.

Ultimately, Eliza craves a “theory of truth,” but if we had that, we wouldn’t need novels. Particularly one this subtle.

As ever, Smith continually works against expectations. Although “The Fraud” lacks the dazzling energy of her celebrated debut, “White Teeth,” it excels at sleight of hand. The syncopated arrangement of these short chapters jumps back and forth in time, placing Ainsworth’s youthful popularity in contrast to his later years of panicked self-doubt. But the focus remains on the mysterious Eliza Touchet — so externally polite, so internally acute — struggling till the end of her life to divine what to believe when the human condition is essentially fraudulent.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

Penguin Press. 454 pp. $29

POST AUTHOR: Ron Charles

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