I don’t remember much about our day at Stowe, whether it was rainy or dry, where we parked, what the road from Oxford was like. The house was closed, that much I know, but we’d come for the gardens, and today a few keystrokes give me some images I recognize: a footbridge we crossed, a series of so-called temples at which we lingered. That was a kind of joke, “Temple” being the family name of the first Viscount Cobham, who called this eighteenth-century landscape into being. But the only thing that sticks in my mind is the ha-ha, the hidden fence that was designed to preserve an unbroken view, an illusion of pastoral, even as it kept the animals in the surrounding park from straying into the gardens. I knew about such things already, for a ha-ha figures in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. At Stowe I saw a real one, and I remember it because my daughter asked about it.
What I didn’t see, know, or read about was the connection this place had to slavery. The Temples first got rich on sheep, but a recent report by the National Trust, which now owns and manages the property, suggests that Cobham may also have profited from the trade in people. In the early nineteenth century a member of the family worked in Parliament for the trade’s suppression. At the same time his nephew, the owner of Stowe and by then a duke, fought against abolition and used the profits of the Hope Estate, a Jamaican sugar plantation, to help fund a series of elaborate architectural fancies.
None of that should surprise us, not if we’ve read Mansfield Park, in which Sir Thomas Bertram’s English fortune depends on his ownership of Antiguan slaves. Still, such facts about the source of so much British wealth have not, until lately, found much space in the national consciousness. Or as Zadie Smith once wrote in these pages, “The only thing I ever learned about slavery during my British education was that ‘we’ ended it.” It was a history as hidden as that ha-ha itself, and allowed one to gaze across that green and pleasant land in “perfect oblivion.”1 Hidden until one knows where to look for its enormity; Stowe’s ha-ha runs for miles.
Smith’s characteristically expansive new novel, The Fraud, works by indirection, and it takes her a while to approach the subject that in a recent New Yorker essay she says got her going.2 It is a historical novel, the kind of book that she suggests she’s spent her career avoiding, and it concerns the notorious case of the Tichborne Claimant, a Victorian scandal about class and money and a supposed long-lost heir. It’s still cited in law schools, but within that story Smith found an even bigger one, a nugget of narrative that begins in Jamaica and takes her on to Stowe. For one of her characters is a man named Andrew Bogle, born enslaved on the Hope Estate, a man whose labor, like that of his parents, paid for a part of that extravagant house.
Bogle is “Taken off the Country” in 1826 and brought to England as a page by Edward Tichborne, the plantation’s overseer, who one rainy day takes him along on a visit to his employer. They drive up to Stowe’s “bad weather entrance” and step “bone-dry straight into an underground cavern.” It’s a place whose corridors are all “stony white” and lined with ghoulish statues and “racks of guns…. A house like a city, with an armoury to defend it.” The rooms upstairs are as big as barns, and their walls wear “silk and gold and velvet like a woman.” But what really holds Bogle’s attention is an oil painting of a young archer with the kind of face he’s used to finding “in the corner of canvases, or buried in a crowd”—a black face, at the center.
The sight makes him homesick, but he will never see Jamaica again, not after Tichborne unexpectedly inherits an English estate and decides to keep Bogle with him. Eventually the new freedman will marry another servant, have children, lose his wife, and find another. Yet he always remembers his birthplace, the people caught in slavery’s “turning gears,” their “minds ploughed. Bodies mangled. Souls boiled.”
Then, in middle age, Bogle joins the British emigration to Australia and finds that he has stepped into a different story, the one that has the most obvious bearing on Smith’s title. In Sydney he meets a butcher from the country town of Wagga Wagga who speaks broad Cockney and yet claims to be Edward Tichborne’s long-lost nephew, the heir to an estate worth £20,000 a year. It’s a good yarn. Bogle accepts it, and so in 1866 he travels back to England, swearing to recognize the man as the boy he once knew and standing beside him in court as “the Claimant” tries and fails to prove that he is Sir Roger Tichborne, who was thought to have drowned at sea a dozen years before.
Bogle says that his “life has had many parts,” and his words might hold for The Fraud itself. It’s divided into almost two hundred short chapters, some just a paragraph long and others composed of reproductions of documents from the period—a page from a novel or a bit of court testimony. The narration hops and skips through time, beginning in 1867 but often returning to the 1830s or before; Smith indicates a few of these shifts by date, but they’re thematically linked and not hard to follow. And almost every one of her characters is a historical figure, Bogle included. Still, she takes her time in making us realize just how important he is. Early on he’s described only as “the black fellow” who accompanies the would-be Sir Roger, and we are two hundred pages in before we learn about his early life in Jamaica and his first days in England.
The Claimant becomes clear to us sooner. His story filled the English newspapers in the first half of the 1870s, a cause célèbre that packed the courtrooms for a pair of yearlong trials. The grieving mother of the actual Roger Tichborne claimed to recognize him, even though at three hundred pounds her once-slight boy was hardly an Adonis and spoke not a word of the French that had been his first language; meanwhile another witness swore that the real Sir Roger had tattoos that the butcher conspicuously lacked. The legal authorities thought he was trying to pass himself off, and yet he has defenders even now. For the Claimant became a tribune of the people, someone who seemed to speak for the common citizen against the landed interests—the elites—who wanted to deny him his rights, and he raised many thousands in shillings and pence that he used to pay both his legal and his living expenses.
Nevertheless he too is only an intermittent presence in The Fraud’s early pages, as intermittent as our own attention to any particular bit of gossip. The book’s main character, its starchily subversive conscience, is instead a woman named Eliza Touchet. Touch-it or touché—her name sounds like a joke whichever way you say it, and one that the dinner guests make all too frequently. Not that they’re her dinner guests. Mrs. Touchet works as the housekeeper for her cousin by marriage, a now-obscure historical novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth. He’s a merrymaking bon vivant who in the 1830s is all too happy to pour out the port for young men named Dickens and Thackeray, and he too can serve as the book’s title character. For Ainsworth can’t forget that his own Jack Sheppard (1839–1840) had once outsold Oliver Twist, and in his sixties he cannot in the least understand why he does not sell still.
As nearly as I can tell, the link between Ainsworth and the story of the Tichborne Claimant is an invention of Smith’s—a plausible one, though Ainsworth himself takes no interest in the case. But he is a fond, foolish old man, and when the book begins the long-widowed novelist has formed a liaison with his illiterate housemaid, Sarah Wells. She has borne him a child and he has done the right thing, to the consternation of his three grown daughters, and the new Mrs. Ainsworth is utterly fascinated by the Claimant’s tale. She believes it, believes in her bones that the Wagga Wagga butcher is indeed Sir Roger, but she also believes that he’s someone just like her, a man who shares her tastes and values; and through him she hopes to spit on the world that has kept the likes of her down. Sara lives for the news she cannot read and attends the trial as often as she can, piling into a Westminster courtroom and taking Mrs. Touchet along with her. The older woman is in turn fascinated by Bogle, who seems even more displaced than she is. An odd woman, Mrs. Touchet: a widowed and childless dependent, attracted to both women and men, smarter than anyone around her, and increasingly troubled by the imperial crimes of a country in which she has never had a voice.
Eliza Touchet loves her cousin William and knows that he has a rare “gift for joy,” but at times she cannot get beyond his books’ first pages. She’s not alone. His best novel is supposedly The Lancashire Witches (1848), a tale of religious persecution that runs from the first stirrings of the Reformation to the reign of James I. My leather-bound library copy was last checked out in 1982, and only two of the dozen professional Victorianists I asked had read him at all. And really, anyone who does try to read him will immediately understand why Dickens is the one who has lasted.3 By the time that small “item of mortality” called Oliver Twist has said “Please, sir, I want some more”—another bowl of gruel in the workhouse to which the Poor Law has condemned him—the wink of Dickens’s prose has worked him into life. Jack Sheppard, a story of the London underworld, thieves and hangings, vengeance and betrayal, ought to have something going for it, and its first sentence made me want to read on:
On the night of Friday, the 26th of November, 1703, and at the hour of eleven, the door of a miserable habitation, situated in an obscure quarter of the Borough of Southwark, known as the Old Mint, was opened; and a man, with a lantern in his hand, appeared at the threshold.
Or I wanted to read on, until I looked down the page and met a woman with “raven hair” and an “ominous cough, that, ever and anon, convulsed her lungs.”
Ainsworth wrote almost forty novels in that cliché-mastered language, but The Lancashire Witches is the only one that has stayed reliably in print. They almost always begin with a date—The Tower of London starts on “the 10th of July, 1553”—and often with a setting so precisely defined that you can find it on a map. Afterward come the details of pots and pans, clothing, furniture, and heraldry, along with dialogue full of “’twere” and “’twas.” Smith rather wickedly makes Ainsworth say that he can’t get through the first volume of Middlemarch: there’s “no adventure, no drama, no murder, nothing to excite the blood or chill it.” She also allows Thackeray, that softhearted cynic, to suggest that Ainsworth “too frequently mistakes information for interest.” It’s a sentiment with which Mrs. Touchet silently agrees. She may see Dickens as a vampire, sucking what he needs from the people around him, but she also recognizes his genius, his quality of “close attention, which was everywhere on everything, always.”
Smith’s work on The Fraud began a decade ago when she stumbled on the story of the Tichborne Claimant, one that seemed to have “my name all over it.” That’s what she says in her New Yorker essay, describing her onetime reluctance to write historical fiction: a reluctance that she jokes even made her move for ten years to America, away from the imperatives of a culture “constitutionally mesmerized by the past.” She kept trying to avoid the Claimant and wrote four other books after discovering him, but somehow he was always there, and every thread she pulled seemed to “lead to yet another rich tapestry of nineteenth-century life.”
This isn’t surprising for a writer who, whatever she says about historical fiction, has always had a deep interest in the history of fiction itself. Smith has written beautifully about both George Eliot and E.M. Forster, on whose Howards End she modeled her novel On Beauty (2005), and her work has always been marked by Dickens, who called himself the “Inimitable.” And Dickens would probably have written some sharply amused words about the Tichborne Claimant if he hadn’t died before the case came to trial, for like many of his characters “Sir Roger” was a charlatan and a fake. Though so are a lot of Smith’s own—that’s one of the things she and Dickens share. Bogle, in contrast, works to give The Fraud a ground note of sincerity. It was possible, Smith writes, to “‘know’ Sir Roger was a fraud and yet still ‘believe’ Bogle. In fact, whatever side of the thing a person was on, admiration for Bogle appeared universal.” But that admiration has its limits, and when Mrs. Touchet walks with him in London their steps are tracked by the “quiet, poisonous, patient” mutterings of the crowd.
Still, what is Ainsworth doing here? How does he fit? It’s got to be more than that he lived for many years in Willesden, the North West London neighborhood where Smith was born and around which she set most of her earlier fiction. I suspect it has something to do with the difference between the particular kind of historical novelist he was and the kind that Smith wants to be. So let’s go back to Walter Scott, whose work explored the long and bloody process that led to the political union between Scotland and England, and made them, almost, as one. Books like Waverley and Old Mortality showed how the past became the present, indeed how it gave way to the present, with tradition falling to modernity’s harvest. The king over the water, the Stuart monarchs in exile—they might have a legitimate claim, but the future had a greater one. Progress entailed loss, but it was still both inevitable and right; the past had its charms, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
That’s the classic and in some ways celebratory form of the historical novel, and it found its Victorian successors in Thackeray’s undervalued History of Henry Esmond and George Eliot’s Romola, with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities off to one side, its rage against injustice qualified by his fear of the mob. But Scott also wrote Ivanhoe, that neomedieval dream of knights and castles, and then Alexandre Dumas invented the costume drama with The Three Musketeers, and so on down the years to whatever corseted Netflix serial you might now care to binge. Scott’s best books recognize historical necessity. Ainsworth just gives us the clothing, though people like clothing, and if his pages had been as stylish as Dumas’s we would be reading him today.
Historical fiction has never lost its popularity, and yet by the end of the nineteenth century serious novelists looked down on what writers like Ainsworth had made of it, seeing it, in Henry James’s words, as marked by
a fatal cheapness…. You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.
Then in 1969 John Fowles published The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which found its material in the very difficulty James describes: the near impossibility of understanding the behavior of people whose consciousness is so different from our own. Few people read it now, but it would be difficult to overestimate its influence: the way it played with the past, registering the facts about Victorian sexual life that the Victorian novel itself could not include, and played with its readers as well, leaving us with a choice of endings and making us ask if we wanted the loose ends tied. Fowles gave the British historical novel a new purpose. It was now revisionary and irreverent; it picked apart the national past and tried to imagine the lives history had erased, the emotional truths lost to a world of discretion.
It was a different kind of progress than anything Scott might have recognized, and that revisionary moment got a boost from the subject that the twentieth century had handed it. The end of the British Empire made an entire overseas history newly available for fiction, a history of which many people in Britain itself had remained happily ignorant. An early winner of the Booker Prize was J.G. Farrell’s supremely skeptical Siege of Krishnapur (1973), set in India during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Some of the books that followed used a present-day frame, as A.S. Byatt did in Possession (1990), and sometimes a revisionary impulse shaped the form of the fiction from within. In Fingersmith (2002) Sarah Waters lifted a plot from Wilkie Collins and gave it over to queer characters and pornographers, the kinds of people that the Victorian novel could not afford to know.
Of course, others fell into the trap of pastiche. They looked to the great age of the English novel and tried to do it all over again, writing the kind of neo-Victorian stuff Smith rejects, arguing that “if you pick up a novel and find that it could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, well, then, that novel is not quite doing its self-described job, is it? Surely, it’s in the very DNA of the novel to be new?”
No one would mistake The Fraud for a Victorian novel. The short chapters alone militate against that, and so does its darting in time, its refusal of a strict chronology. It’s certainly not a costume drama, and its rather terse dialogue has nothing faked about it; in many ways it’s the very reverse of what Ainsworth does. Yet Smith isn’t really drawn to drilling away at the past from within, as Waters does, and at times her interest in this material—Jamaica aside—seems less skeptical or revisionary than simply fascinated. Here’s an odd bit, she seems to say, and here’s another, with most of those bits being noticed by Mrs. Touchet, like the people at one of the Claimant’s rallies, who
did not look like any lecture crowd she had ever encountered…. As many with dirty hands as clean…. Women for whom she knew no respectable name…[but also] clerks and schoolteachers, dissenters of all stripes…governesses.
Mrs. Touchet is useful, an intelligent observer who doesn’t get out much and is therefore surprised by almost everything she sees: coffee stalls and headlines, the new profusion of foreigners in the street, and eventually the connection between Bogle’s world and her own small annuity. Early on she notes her cousin William’s pleasure at the news of Dickens’s death—a death that Smith admits she enjoyed writing, killing off that omnipresent predecessor. Ainsworth plans to go to the funeral; he’s delighted to outlive the man he still sees as his younger rival, and wants to “stand at the edge of a very large hole and observe that he was not the one buried in it.” Only there’s a hitch. His pleasure is “marred by the fact that the hole in question had been dug in Westminster Abbey.”
The past is there, like the abbey itself, and we can’t do anything about it—can’t change it, move out of its way, or move it out of ours. All we can do is understand and account for it.
But what about the present? For historical fiction is always about that, too, the present date of writing. Some of what The Fraud says about our own time is troubling and meant to be so. But Smith is never solemn. She takes “ideological inconsistency…[as] practically an article of faith,”4 and she’s clearly had some fun as well: nobody reading will be able to escape the sly suggestion of Trumpian populism in the crowds around the Claimant. Her curiosity seems endless, she’s willing to let the past surprise her, and though the book doesn’t offer a new form of historical fiction, I would bet that it does represent a new moment in the career of Zadie Smith.
The Fraud is her sixth novel in a string that began with White Teeth (2000), published when she was just twenty-four. That first book made her famous, though it also threatened to lock her into a role she describes as “multicultural (aging) wunderkind.” Still, it’s not as if that role didn’t fit. She was young, her mother was a Jamaican immigrant and her father white English, and she took her own London neighborhood as the new English norm, a place full of people from everywhere, loudly arguing as they found a way to live together. She was bold and funny, and she could write about anything: sex from a man’s point of view, Black conservatives, British Jews, old people, and the strange world of a pop star’s personal assistant. Not everything she tried worked, and some critics complained about the too-muchness of it all, her books like an overstuffed shopping bag, full of odd characters and clever lines that should have been left on the shelf; and it’s true that Salman Rushdie lay behind too many sentences in both White Teeth and its successor, The Autograph Man (2002).
Yet her picture of London went much further and deeper than that of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and in the end none of those blemishes really matters. What does matter is the ever-continuing ambition, the steady professionalism, the fact that Smith hasn’t frittered away her early success into unproductive stardom. What matters is that it’s a long time since she’s sounded like anyone else. She’s made her world, and among other things she is the most consistently interesting critic of any novelist in her generation, someone who writes as well about Hollywood movies or stand-up comedy as she does about books.
Yet she is now in her late forties, and having started so young it must feel like time to take stock. In 1939 Evelyn Waugh began a novel that he put aside at the start of World War II. He never went back to it, but he published the fragment a few years later under the title Work Suspended, and I would happily trade Brideshead Revisited for a finished version. It was Waugh’s initial attempt at writing in the first person, and his narrator is a novelist in search of a new subject. For he believes he’s “becoming mechanical, turning out year after year the kind of book I know I can write well…. I have got as good as I ever can be at this particular sort of writing.”
That was Waugh’s own dilemma as he searched for a way past the frantic brittle comedy of his first books; opinions differ, but I don’t think he ever found it. Smith hasn’t become mechanical, but she has kept returning to the same ground: modern-day Willesden and a few surrounding neighborhoods; close, tense friendships between people who’ve known each another since childhood; four hundred–odd pages; and an ending with a series of neatly resolved comic comeuppances. Does she feel she’s gotten as good at that particular kind of book as she ever could be? I’ve no idea, but she’s a risk-taker, and in writing a historical novel she has stepped into the “new worlds” that Waugh’s narrator says he wants.
The Fraud begins with a joke. A bit of flooring in Ainsworth’s house has fallen, leaving a large hole through which one can gape at the downstairs parlor, and the carpenter hired to fix it looks around, puzzled, at the high-ranged bookshelves. “The sheer weight of literature you’ve got here,” he says, “well, that will put a terrible strain on a house.” Mrs. Touchet smiles, finding a meaning in his words that the young man cannot, and tells him he’s exactly right. All those books will indeed lay a burden on the house of fiction, and on the national house as well, all that weight of the past.
And that’s how Smith’s humor works here. This novel is softer and gentler than its predecessors, and yet more consistently ironic; I didn’t laugh aloud much, shaking my head at what she was getting away with, but it did often leave me off-balance. Three quarters of the way through Smith writes that “Mrs. Touchet was under the singular delusion—common at this stage of the process—that everything was connected.” It’s certainly a familiar delusion for readers at that stage of a novel, and maybe for writers, too, and I think Smith is smiling at us. But though I want everything to connect, I’m not sure that it does, not with all those many parts, however much fun they are to read. The pieces seem even less tightly bound as we approach the end; the different bits begin to fly apart, and The Fraud’s final note is a dissonant one. It’s deliberate, Smith chooses irresolution, and yet I miss the snapped-shut finales of her earlier books.
What the book offers instead is a set of questions. Might we all be frauds of a kind, wearing a mask and performing a person who is not quite ourself? The Claimant is one kind of fraud, Ainsworth another, and yet so is Mrs. Touchet, who has kept so much of her inner life a secret; the word runs through the book and finds ever more applications as we go. And just what, above all, should we do about the experience and the history that Andrew Bogle embodies?
The Fraud’s formal and moral center lies in the long account of his earlier life that he gives Mrs. Touchet as they sit together in a London chophouse. That’s where she learns about the Hope Estate, and Stowe, as though filling in the gaps in her own British education; about his disappointment in an England where he once thought he had a home, and the struggle his light-skinned, mixed-race sons have had to find work. One of them, Henry, looks like the young Frederick Douglass, his hair “shaped into a pair of triangular wedges, one pointing up, the other down.” He speaks like him, too, and Mrs. Touchet recoils from his eloquent anger even as she thinks that in “another life” his father would have suited her very well. But Bogle is wiser than either of them, and when abolition arrives, in 1838, he asks himself “not what the celebrations would look like but what would happen the day after.” What is to be done?
We’re still asking that, in both Britain and America, though Smith puts the question not in the peremptory terms of Chernyshevsky and Lenin but rather in the puzzled, tentative tones of her beloved Forster. Abolition means that “our debt to the African is surely paid in full.” So Ainsworth tells Mrs. Touchet, and yet who, she asks, “does that accounting, exactly?” How can one balance those books, and what if the tally “falls woefully short?”
These are bigger questions than any Smith asked in her earlier novels, but as Chekhov suggests, the writer’s job isn’t to answer them but rather to put them correctly. And Smith does, mostly. For at times I felt I had to tease them out from under the weight of all that literature, Dickens and Ainsworth, accents, etiquette, titled fops, bankers, lawyers, jealousy, the Claimant’s story, and even the appearance at his trial of an ever-attentive George Eliot—all the loose and baggy and admittedly enticing details of Victorian life. There’s a thin book inside this one that’s trying to get out, though saying that raises another issue: Would it still be Zadie Smith if there weren’t too much in it? The Fraud is the work of a writer in transition. That should only make us more curious about what she’ll do next.