Zadie Smith Makes 1860s London Feel Alive, and Recognizable

THE FRAUD, by Zadie Smith

All over the dorm in California glinted pale-orange and tabasco-red and steel-blue copies of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” with their hard white bright lettering. The year was 2001, and “White Teeth” had been assigned as incoming reading for my freshman dorm. I remember loving the sprawling, rude, funny, slapdash narration, the magical way in which Smith brought it all together in the figure of a genetically engineered mouse.

But Smith’s age at the time — 26 — must have felt positively geriatric to me. It was only when I started publishing in my 20s that I could appreciate what a prodigy Smith was; and throughout my career she has remained a startling (and despair-inducing) beacon of what a writer can achieve at a young age. An undergraduate when she embarked on “White Teeth,” she was not yet 30 when she published — to my mind — her masterpiece, “On Beauty,” a wise, sad and hilarious book about American race relations that would have justly been called a great American social novel had the American literary scene at that time been more attuned to race as a theme.

Now, at the ripe old age of 47, Smith, having long since entered History herself, has written her first historical novel, “The Fraud.” It offers a vast, acute panoply of London and the English countryside, and successfully locates the social controversies of an era in a handful of characters.

Credit…Leigh Guldig

The “fraud” of the title refers to several figures, but primarily to a scamster in 1860s England who claims to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the inheritor of a great title and fortune who was considered dead at sea. Suing to take over the Tichborne estate, the Claimant, as he is called, is clearly a fraud — he has none of the trappings of an aristocrat and everything about his past suggests that he is an English butcher who has been living in Australia to escape bad debts. But strangely, in his quest for “justice,” the Claimant amasses an adoring swarm of fans who believe he is telling the truth and are ready to go to the death to prove that he — and no one else — is Sir Roger. The only reason the Claimant is being denied his due, these supporters say, is that the elite — the gentry, the press, the “papists” — are in conspiracy against him.

The echoes of mindless Trumpism are clear, and it is evidently why Smith was drawn to this trial, which was a cause célèbre in England at the time and was a bottomless well of populist nuttiness. The diverse crowd of the Claimant’s supporters at a fund-raiser, Smith writes, consisted of “clerks and schoolteachers, dissenters of all stripes, shopkeepers and foremen, ladies’ maids, cooks, governesses.” The Claimant was a “man with no center” who “moved as the wind moved,” a “fun-loving, beer-swilling, aristocratic man of the people.” What better way to write about Trump and Trumpism than to avoid flattering Trump with another Trump portrait?

But. This is a novel, and the novelist’s intelligence is drawn in idiosyncratic directions. What makes “The Fraud” a book by Zadie Smith and not, say, a transcript of the trial is that the central characters are not the jury or the judged, but a 60-ish Scottish widow named Eliza Touchet and an elderly, formerly enslaved Jamaican named Andrew Bogle who is serving as a witness for the Claimant.

Touchet is the most morally intelligent character Smith has written — a “spiky,” questing, watchful, death-haunted individual who is funny without being comic. A housekeeper and editor to her bumbling, graphomaniac novelist cousin (modeled and named after a real writer, William Ainsworth), she spends her days in the countryside protecting Ainsworth’s fragile ego — his reputation is in decline while his opportunistic friend Charles Dickens has been buried in Westminster Abbey — and arguing about the Tichborne case with Ainsworth’s new, much younger, working-class, barely literate, former-maid wife, Sarah, who is as pro-Claimant as one can get.

These mealtime debates about the Tichborne trial, while fun to follow, lack the preternatural precision of the dialogue in Smith’s more contemporary novels — she is working with the past, and can’t rely on her superb ear — and so the novel really takes off when Eliza accompanies Sarah to the Tichborne fund-raiser in London and finds her mind blown by the riotous circumstances and, by contrast, the sobering figure of the white-haired, neatly dressed Andrew Bogle up on the stage.

Many idiots are compelled to defend the Claimant, including an Irish lawyer who appears to be modeled on Rudy Giuliani. But of all his defenders, no one is more believable, cautious or intelligent than Bogle, who knew the Claimant in Australia and has maintained, mysteriously, even in the face of legal blows to the Claimant, that the Claimant is who he says he is. As an abolitionist and student of humanity, Touchet is inexorably drawn to Bogle and begins interviewing him with the hope — after years of being on the sidelines of literary dinner conversations — of, heaven forbid, writing her own book.

More so than any other novel Smith has written, this is a book about novelists, and it is in lambasting the egos of male writers that Smith has the most fun. “God preserve me from that tragic indulgence, that useless vanity, that blindness!” Touchet thinks, years before she takes the plunge into novel-writing herself. While discussing Dickens with Ainsworth, she exclaims: “Oh, what does it matter what that man thinks of anything? He’s a novelist!”One of her cousin’s orotund historical fictions about the court of Queen Anne is described as being “almost as dull as the reign of Queen Anne itself.”

More movingly, Smith explains in one passage why Ainsworth became a bad writer of historical fiction after a major controversy around his early, successful, contemporary novel “Jack Sheppard” drove him “off into the distant, storied past — where he felt safest … where nothing is real and nothing matters.” It is less easy, from this point, to see Ainsworth as a buffoon. And it is a way for Smith to signal to us why she, too, may wish to navigate the storms of the present on a raft fashioned from the timber of the past.

Bogle, meanwhile, tells Eliza his harrowing tale of being raised on a brutal Jamaican plantation and making his way to England as a valet. “My life has had many parts,” he says, sounding like a Naipaul narrator. It is in this section that the odd structure of the novel, cutting between time periods and characters in very short chapters, has its biggest payoff, with decades racing by in bite-size passages that yield first-rate observations about colonialism like this: “England was not a real place at all. England was an elaborate alibi.”

More often, though, the book’s structure is uneven. One wishes, for instance, that the chapters would signal their time jumps more consistently, so that one wasn’t wondering if one was with the Eliza of the 1830s or the 1870s. But these infelicities stop mattering when we are deep into the trial and the book turns into a portrait of people with thwarted ambitions, of people who, like Ainsworth, become frauds without knowing it.

In all of her books Smith has paid attention to a mixed-up London and particularly to Willesden, where she grew up. In this novel, she is quite actively digging into London’s history, trying to understand how a person like her, with European and Jamaican ancestry, came to exist here in the first place. What forces deposited Black people on these shores? With her multicultural eye she also gives us a London that is more racially mixed than that found in other novels about the period, a London of Lascar Indians, Africans, Chinese, Turks, “Black maids-of-all-work and Black cooks and housekeepers” and “Carib boys in livery at the threshold of fine houses, got up like Princes of Arabia.”

As always, it is a pleasure to be in Zadie Smith’s mind, which, as time goes on, is becoming contiguous with London itself. Dickens may be dead, but Smith, thankfully, is alive.

THE FRAUD | By Zadie Smith | 454 pp. | Penguin Press | $29

Karan Mahajan’s most recent novel, “The Association of Small Bombs,” was a finalist for the National Book Award.

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