Zadie Smith’s first historical novel spins a tangled web around the knotty case of the Tichborne claimant, a long-running legal saga that divided Victorian Britain. The book’s title, The Fraud, ostensibly refers to Arthur Orton, a butcher who, in 1866, claimed (falsely, in the eyes of the law) that he was Sir Roger Tichborne, an aristocratic heir long presumed lost at sea. Yet in Smith’s crowded narrative – crafted to imply that the much-debated phenomena of polarisation and disinformation are hardly new – the frauds multiply, the titular slur clinging to everything from writing novels (for Smith, always a suspicious enterprise) to neoliberal economics.
Orton’s case serves largely as a backdrop for emotional drama in the household of another real-life figure, William Harrison Ainsworth, a contemporaneous author of bestselling potboilers who is now forgotten and, the novel shows, fell into neglect in his own lifetime, overshadowed by Charles Dickens and even reckoned by one of his publishers to have died before he actually did. Some of the novel’s bustle comes from his rivalries with other Victorian luminaries (not just Dickens but also Thackeray and the illustrator George Cruikshank, who claims at one point to be the brains behind Ainsworth’s work), and also from his three daughters, whose role is chiefly to provide animated household discussion of politics. Uniting every thread is Ainsworth’s housekeeper, Eliza Touchet, the novel’s central presence, an open-minded widow who has an affair not only with Ainsworth but also with his first wife, Frances.
There’s a familiar archness to Smith’s storytelling – one chapter, a five-line paragraph titled ‘Theory’, begins ‘Mrs Touchet had a theory’ – but also much fussiness as the novel’s date-stamped chapters jump between the early 19th century, when Frances is still alive and Ainsworth is in his short-lived literary prime, and the 1860s and 1870s, the period of the Tichborne trial. Eliza and Ainsworth’s second wife, Sarah, follow the case keenly, not least for the testimony of Andrew Bogle, formerly enslaved, latterly employed as a servant in the Tichborne house, and now a supporter (as was Sir Roger’s bereaved mother) of Orton’s claim.
Amid the narrative jumble, which is not aided by the decision to give Eliza four different names (Mrs Touchet, Eliza, Lizzy and ‘the Targe’), the book settles into satire. Ainsworth quickly emerges as the main target: ‘Not infrequently, he wrote twenty pages in an afternoon. He always appeared entirely satisfied with every line’ – without reason, we understand. Reading one of his books, Eliza thinks, ‘for great swathes … it was hard to distinguish it from the descriptions of a house agent’. Attitudes as well as aesthetics are sent up. ‘I do not advise you to enter upon a literary career,’ Ainsworth tells his daughters. ‘It is a hazardous profession … Although, of course, ladies don’t often think to do anything so foolish.’
Smith is careful not to render Ainsworth entirely as a figure of fun, but it’s hard not to feel she is pandering to the modern reader’s sense of knowing better – and not only than the Victorians. When Eliza discusses society with Dickens, he professes that a ‘bigger loaf is a bigger loaf’: ‘If food is cheap’, Dickens explains, a worker ‘will have a little more money in his pocket … then he’ll buy more things … and thus, Mrs Touchet, the wheel of free trade turneth!’ ‘It was a good story,’ the narrator tells us. ‘Mrs Touchet could think of another one: if food was cheap, so then wages could be lowered, too, by “benign” managers, and their profits increased in turn.’ While Eliza muses ironically on how ‘peace on earth signified only the smooth flow of goods, from Liverpool to Bombay, from Melbourne to Manchester’, a segment portraying Bogle’s life in Jamaica shows the devastating human cost of that vision.
Ultimately, Smith is using Eliza, and The Fraud itself, as a way to hold up ideas to the light. But non-fiction can do that too – and Smith is a great essayist – so to put all this into the minds and mouths of her cast comes to feel an oddly limited endeavour. The Tichborne case, ‘a pleasant distraction from the financial crisis’, spawns variously aggrieved truthers: ‘Was it not suspicious … that the British papers should report endlessly on the birth of wastrel princes and princesses, but never did you hear a word about the … manifestations taking place all over the country?’ Plus ça change, yes, but resonances of this kind only go so far, and the sense of irony overhanging the novel tends to feel complacent.
Smith, in one of several treacly sign-offs to her bite-sized chapters, tells us, ‘One lifetime was not enough to understand a people and the words they used and the way they thought and lived.’ Another chapter ends: ‘if anybody truly understood what is signified by the word “person”, they would consider twelve lifetimes too brief a spell in which to love a single soul.’ A little of this goes a long way. When Ainsworth grumbles that George Eliot’s Middlemarch has ‘No adventure, no drama, no murder, nothing to excite the blood or chill it!’, we are meant to shake our heads at his silliness. Yet for long stretches of The Fraud – so conspicuously wise and sensitive – I found myself suppressing just a twinge of fellow feeling for his complaint, which may only be another mark of the novel’s peculiarly anaemic even-handedness.