The Fraud: A Novel, by Zadie Smith (Penguin, 464 pp., $29)
Zadie Smith’s sparkling new novel, The Fraud, examines the sins that we commit, the loves that perplex us, and the masks that we wear, knowingly or otherwise. As befits a story set in Victorian England, it boasts a colorful set of players—lords and dandies, writers and lawyers, cads and drunks, slaves and footmen, wits and witches. The book floats deftly above the greatest trial of the late nineteenth century, despite being soggy with the progressive pieties of the early twenty-first.
We begin in the 1860s. Meet Eliza Touchet—tall, prickly, Scottish, Catholic, staunchly liberal, innately cynical, a widow. She lives with her cousin, William Ainsworth, a middling author. (Reading one of his works, an account of childhood, leaves Eliza “with the odd impression that William had never been a child nor ever met one.”) Old William, a widower himself, weds Sarah, a pompous, illiterate servant girl with whom he already has a baby. (“Eliza took a pew beside William’s three middle-aged daughters, while the fourth and youngest squirmed in her arms.”) Mrs. Touchet—as she is called throughout the story—endures a stunted, confined exterior life, working as William’s (and, increasingly, Sarah’s) housekeeper. She simmers in domestic resentment.
Rewind to the 1830s. Enter William’s first wife, Frances—earnest, idealistic, immaculately innocent. We discover that Eliza and Frances had an affair. It’s a rare moment when Smith, an undisputed master of the English sentence, loses her touch: “Two fingers entering a bloom not unlike the wild ones in the hedgerow.” Eliza and William, too, had an affair—and a sadomasochistic one at that. In a novel of the Victorian era, we’d likely look on as these unrestrained passions bring shame and then torment and then ruin. In this present-day novel about that era, we are asked to question the society that would try to obstruct them.
The Tichborne case is introduced. In 1854, a ship sank off the coast of Brazil, sending the young Roger Tichborne to the bottom of the ocean—in all probability. A few years later, Roger’s father died, making Roger, if alive, the inheritor of the vast Tichborne estate. Unwilling to accept her son’s demise, Roger’s mother, hearing rumors that he’d made his way to Australia, sprayed advertisements across antipodean newspapers, seeking information about his whereabouts. Arthur Orton, a butcher in Wagga Wagga—later known by one and all as “the Claimant”—saw one of these bills and stepped forth, claiming to be Roger himself. In 1866 he arrived back in Europe, where the bereaved mother claimed to recognize him instantly. No one else in the family bought it. The Claimant sued for his supposed birthright.
The evidence against Orton was overwhelming. Sir Roger had spoken fluent French, whereas Orton knew not a word of it. Sir Roger had received a classical education; as Smith puts it, Orton did not know “Shakespeare from Galileo,” nor whether Virgil “was a writer or a king.” Sir Roger was thin, Orton obese. Upon his return, Orton had stopped in at Wapping, his birthplace, before heading to see Sir Roger’s mother. And so on. Yet the trial enraptured the country. Orton became an avatar for class consciousness and assorted social causes. “A mother knows her own son!” the uneducated Sarah, an ardent Orton partisan, shouts. “You can’t imagine what it is for an honest working man to come up against the gentry, and the Lord Chief Justice himself, and all the bigwigs, with their secret societies.” That Orton, if genuinely Sir Roger, would himself be gentry was conveniently overlooked.
For Smith, Orton is primarily a vehicle for getting us to Andrew Bogle, a former slave and valet of the Tichborne clan who supported Orton’s cause. Eliza and Sarah attend the trial and see Bogle testify. Eliza may not believe Orton, but she believes that Bogle believes Orton, and she becomes determined to meet him. When she succeeds, she asks to hear Bogle’s life story. “A life is a long business, Mrs Touchet,” Bogle sighs. In his case, that is all too true. Smith movingly captures the horrors of slavery.
The narrative has a dreamlike quality. We are gracefully carried up and down the decades. Eliza learns that time “could twist and bend until the past met the present, and vice versa.” The reader learns the same. Eliza and William’s long and complicated relationship. The doomed lawsuit, and subsequent prosecution of Orton for perjury. Bogle’s tortuous journey. The downward arc of William’s career. Eliza’s vast interiority: cycles of grief and doubt, longing and frustration, reflection and conviction. All this and more is skillfully woven together with perfect form. The pacing is brisk, the chapters short, the prose precise.
Like much else in the novel, William Ainsworth was real. And he really did know Charles Dickens. This probably means that Dickens’s appearance here was inevitable. Yet you suspect that his irritably large role could have been profitably reduced. He dances across the pages, trying, and usually failing, to dodge Smith’s efforts to kick him in the shins. “Mustn’t it be wonderful,” Eliza thinks, for example, after Dickens “amus[es] himself thoroughly” with a quip, “to be one’s own best entertainment!” The respected figure must be taken down a peg, no less than the lesbian affair must be introduced. Readers of a progressive bent will find The Fraud a comfortable study. Others might call it a predictable one.
“What people mistook” for Dickens’s “goodness,” Smith writes—giving Boz a slap even as she’s about to compliment him—“was his close attention, which was everywhere on everything, always.” Smith is similarly alert. She is adept at laying out how conversations go sideways. She captures the futility and ridiculousness of tired family political debates. She reveals how a buoyant young man can sink, with age, into a bog of bitterness and disillusion. She can show you what it’s like to have your heart chucked off a bridge. (“The next day he held his fourth motherless son in his arms, so tiny, so in need of sustenance. In despair, he tried sheep’s milk. A week later, he dug another grave.”) She can evoke the worst chatterbox you know, the one who has “a way of making all reading, indeed all private contemplation or mental escape, entirely impossible.” She grasps the ins and outs of petty professional rivalry. Seeing William in a bad mood, Eliza checks the newspaper. It is not the culprit: “No friends suddenly dead or disturbingly successful.”
And in case you haven’t noticed, Zadie Smith is terrifically funny. The “great majority of people turn out to be extraordinarily suggestible,” we are told, “with brains like sieves through which the truth falls.” The design of a chapel proves “reassuringly rational and without beauty, like Protestantism itself.” The “many curves of the Lady Blessington now came to the hearth where she sat on her not insubstantial bottom.” If they turn this book into a film, the winning scene will be the collapse of the floor beneath William’s overexploited bookshelves:
The boy stepped forward to peer into the crater, as over the lip of a volcano. [Eliza] joined him. These shelves had held histories three volumes deep: the kings, queens, clothes, foods, castles, plagues and wars of bygone days. But it was the Battle of Culloden that had pushed things over the edge. Anything referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie was now in the downstairs parlour, covered in plaster, or else caught in the embrace of the library’s Persian rug, which sagged through the hole in the floor, creating a huge, suspended, pendulous shape like an upturned hot air balloon.
But when Smith turns to faith—the faith of her readers, not her subjects—it is time to put away the comedy. This novel is, at bottom, a solemn meditation on gender, race, and class (in that order). It proclaims the centrality of victimhood to the production of character. Oppression is the source of Eliza’s layered personality. Meeting Bogle, a victim of an altogether different sort, she has a flash of insight:
She thought of herself as having several faces to show at different times to different people—as all women have, and must have, to varying degrees—but she had never seriously considered the idea that there might exist also a class of men (aside from the obvious case of the sodomites) who, like women, wrote the stories of their lives, as it were, in cipher. To be translated only by a few, and only when necessary.
Eliza realizes, at times, that a man of another color, perhaps even a woman of another class, might be more abused, and thus more textured, than she is. Since she is our protagonist, however, the book is fixated above all on misogyny and the depredations of self-obsessed men.
Smith is not without ammunition here. As she reminds us, Samuel Johnson compared a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs. In her zeal to decry that outlook, however, she over-eggs the pudding (to borrow a phrase of Eliza’s). Johnson’s dog is trotted out three times. On this topic, repetition is everywhere. Smith depicts male prejudice, then tells you she’s depicted it. She condemns male prejudice, then tells you she’s condemned it.
Eliza is something of a misandrist, in fact, full of generalized observations and fatally loaded questions about men, their shortcomings, and the burdens they place on women. “The worst gossips she knew on earth were all men.” . . . “Nowadays, she only bit her tongue, like every other woman she had ever known.” . . . “Four talkative men” were “altogether too much for her.” . . . “All fathers should be old, reflected Eliza, young men being barely more than children themselves.” . . . “What really interested her in it all was the presumption. Of recognition, of respect—of attention itself. Why did he assume such things as his due? Was this what men assumed?”
Is Smith wise to the illusions of her flawed heroine? To a point. One of the lessons of this story is about how we delude ourselves. There are signs, especially toward the end, that Eliza is her own chief oppressor. There are even hints that she is not a neglected prodigy—an intellectual Cinderella, waiting not for Prince Charming but a sympathetic literary agent—but just another narrow-minded leftist: “Over the years she had concluded that there was no point in becoming furious with sheer ignorance . . . If he knew what I knew he would feel as I do was a formula she repeated to herself often.” In The Fraud, a man is tried and men are convicted.
That title is well-chosen. Fraud pervades the tale—Orton is only the beginning. William attends to a fraudulent social life and scribbles fraudulent words. Sarah is a fraudulent wife. Does Eliza have a fraudulent soul? Marriages. Manners. Honor. The Stuart pretenders. Buildings with classical facades. The nation of England. Bogle’s look of contentment, as he serves his masters. All fake. The effect is one of heavy uncertainty. What is fraud? What is truth? What’s the difference? And yet throughout the volume, from its exhilarating open to its rather underwhelming close, the overbearing importance of identity—everywhere on everything, always—remains an unquestioned absolute.
Smith imposes the preoccupations of her self-assured readership on her helpless fictional shades. The living are invited to smirk at the follies of the dead. Those hypocritical prigs! But what, ultimately, is on trial here—the moralism of Victorian patriarchs, or the neo-moralism of neo-Victorian progressives? Who is more judgmental? More complacent in their assumptions? More sermonizing? More easily scandalized?
Smith is a humane and enlightened literary critic. In her essays, she prods you to sit with difference and contradiction. That, she submits, is what the best fiction helps you do. A great novel “gets under your skin,” she says. It makes “an argument” that you “would have violently rejected” had it been presented “in any other form.” It makes you “doubt your own dogma.” The Fraud is a very good novel, but it does none of that.
Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for RFF