Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

Doing time — ‘The Fraud’ of Zadie Smith

Doing time — ‘The Fraud’ of Zadie Smith
'The Fraud' by Zadie Smith. (Composite image: Maverick Life)

If literature is your escape from the mounting horrors of everyday life, Zadie Smith’s latest novel, ‘The Fraud’, should tick all your boxes. But be warned: If there is any such thing as Zadie-usual, this is Zadie unusual. It’s a historical fiction set in the mid-19th century with tentacles that stretch forward to the unresolved issues of equality, identity and truth that face the 21st century.

The Fraud, British writer Zadie Smith’s seventh novel, traverses backwards and forwards in time between the 1830s and 1870s, centring its plot on the odyssey of Eliza Touchet, the one-time lover, most-of-the-time housekeeper, unacknowledged literary critic and companion of the real-life William Harrison Ainsworth, a prolific although largely forgotten novelist of the Victorian period.

Making Mrs Touchet the lead actor in a world peopled by much more important characters is a clever device because through the ruminations and observations of this mostly overlooked woman (in her own words “Mrs Touchet has been a third wheel for so much of her life”), we are able to inconspicuously enter the world of a country in transition and the country of a world in transition.

1848, the year of revolutions, the year Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, falls squarely in the middle of the book’s timeline, so not surprisingly life through the eyes and experiences of Eliza Touchet brings us sharply up against issues of race, class, gender, slavery and industrialisation. And how literature reflects all of it. Or distorts and recreates it.

Or maybe doesn’t see it at all.

Enter thus, some of the literary giants of the period, although ironically only in bit parts. Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Ainsworth himself, all seen always through the critical and unconvinced eye of Eliza Touchet, herself always on the periphery of their man’s world. Mrs Touchet, let it be said, is no fan of Dickens: A chapter title in the middle of the book trumpets Dickens is Dead! It offers a wry glimpse of variegated responses to the obituary announcing his death in The Times on that morning, 9 June 1870. As for Mrs Touchet:

“But she knew she lived in an age of things, however out of step she felt in it, and whatever else he was, Charles had been the poet of things. He had made animate and human the cold traffic and bitter worship of things. The only way she could make sense of the general mourning was to note that with his death an age of things now mourned itself.”

Touché, Touchet!         

With such wry and wonderful observations, easily lost in the novel’s unfolding of a “historical fiction”, Smith demonstrates her own thesis on history, as explained in an article in The New Yorker earlier this year, aptly titled On Killing Charles Dickens, where she writes:

Not all historical fiction 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.”

And that’s what The Fraud does. 

Its greatest poetic justice is that the heart of the book is not Dickens, Disraeli or any of the familiar literary or political characters who trod that stage, but a black man, Andrew Bogle, and his son Henry. The Bogles are outsiders, slaves from Jamaica, caught up in the grand story of slavery in the aftermath of its abolition in 1834. Unwittingly, but not accidentally, they found themselves caught up in one of the great frauds that played out in 19th-century England, the Tichborne trial

But even Mrs Touchet, the character most sympathetic to black people’s experience, is caught up in her own bubble of class and privilege. Thus, in one poignant and beautiful scene (in a chapter titled “What Can We Know of Other People?”), as she meets Henry Bogle after a performance by a group of Ethiope singers at the Metropolitan Tabernacle (“she had told William she was going to Wigmore Hall to hear a French-man play Bach”) in her “agitated emotion” she wants to express her feelings that “those so recently in bondage should lift their voices in joyful song!” 

But Henry, “agitated in a different way”, is more interested in his date, one of the singers. She declines the young couple’s invitation to walk with them:

“She watched them walk away, towards Parliament, drawing the attention of all. To Mrs Touchet they no longer looked like noble sons and daughters of Africa – filled with the grace of suffering, illuminated by freedom – but simply like any other foolish boy and girl. She was unable to shake a sense of conspiracy between them, directed towards her own person. A conspiracy of laughter? Of pity? All the way home the idea pursued her like shame.”  

Touché, Ms Smith!

But black people are not the only outsiders in Victorian England, and so the plight of the Bogles is interwoven and contrasted with brief glimpses of what Friedrich Engels in his book of the same name in 1845 described as the condition of the working classes in England – in this case Manchester and London. 

The book is set around a fraud – Arthur Orton’s – but there are many levels and layers of fraud: The fraud of writing and writers, the fraud of power and wealth, the fraud of gender and race. As Smith herself writes in an essay in her 202o collection, Intimations: Six Essays:

“To write is to swim in an ocean of hypocrisies, moment by moment…”

But although The Fraud’s subjects are weighty, the book has a lightness about it. Its eight volumes and multitude of short chapters, itself an imitation of the form of the Victorian novel, give it a form that feels sprightly and wry. It’s proof that you can write a serious novel without being too serious. A disquisition full of historical fact and fiction that is accessible. You can almost feel the joy of Zadie at play, the fun of reimagination after “the global shit hit the fan”. In a sense she’s disproving her own assertion that writing is “just something to do” and that “there is no great difference between novels and banana bread”. 

My one criticism is that perhaps it’s just too good and too clever to deeply move you, or to build a deep connection with either Eliza Touchet or Andrew and Henry Bogle – although you empathise with both – or the traumas, particularly of slavery and poverty, that its revitalisation of history recovers. 

It’s a beautiful act of literary imagination, but does it suffer from the writing style and detachment of its ultimate fraud? You decide. DM

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