a dazzling depiction of Victorian colonial England

a dazzling depiction of Victorian colonial England


Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, is her first foray into the world of historical fiction. The result is a stunning, well-studied examination of Victorian colonial England and some of its inhabitants.

As with other works by Smith, the novel takes a patchwork approach, with several interwoven plots taking place over a period of about 50 years. Centrally placed in the plot is the real-life and highly bizarre trial of a man claiming to be a Sir Roger Tichborne, thought to have been killed at sea and heir to a substantial fortune.

The absurd and very long trial, which had people from all communities in 1870s England hooked, is seen in the novel through the eyes of Eliza Touchet, cousin and companion of William Ainsworth, a novelist well known in Victorian England but relatively forgotten today.

In fact, Eliza and William are both relatively ill-remembered historically (all of Ainsworth’s novels fell out of print, and Touchet is memorialised largely through some letters and a signed copy of a Dickens novel). However, Smith breathes life anew into them and through them, a portrait of Victorian England’s literary scene is painted.

Remembered

Touchet is incredibly compelling and a fantastic character through which to experience 19th-century England. She is witty, intelligent and compassionate. Her relationships with her cousin William Ainsworth and his first and second wives are written with humour and heart.

Through her, we witness the hypocrisy of her environment – the nepotism, the false friends, the pretence, the fraud. Through her is also a fictional account of the campaign for the abolition of slavery which, though taken very seriously by Touchet and the campaigners she encounters, is reduced to an intellectual exercise at the dinner parties of the literary middle class.

The novel’s central legal trial introduces a connection between the Tichborne family and Jamaica. This connection makes way for the character of Andrew Bogle, an older, formerly enslaved Black man who acts as the claimant’s star witness and perhaps the novel’s most quietly captivating character.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, the novel mostly focuses on Eliza’s experiences. There is, however, a long interlude depicting the life of Andrew Bogle and his travels across the breadth of the British empire – from Jamaica to England to Australia and back again to the colonial metropole.

Bogle is described as calm and incredibly earnest and, even in 1870s England, his race does not detract from his sincerity. This episode describing his life is by far the most compelling in the novel. Smith’s description of Jamaican plantation life is nuanced and deftly crafted, and its horrors are made plain without excessive graphic detail.

Empire and connection

The Fraud is a novel about many things and, as is characteristic of Smith’s writing, it invites us to question what it means to be human by asking us to question who is telling the truth. The reader encounters so many characters that engage in self-deception and hypocrisy that we might question exactly who the titular fraud is.

The novel is also, I think, about empire and connection.

Yellow and green book cover

Penguin

Nothing that happens in Jamaica is at all disconnected from what is happening in England. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator describes England as “not a real place … an elaborate alibi”. The narrator continues: “Everything else, everything the English did and really wanted, everything they desired and took and used and discarded – all of that they did elsewhere.”

The barbarism of empire and plantation life is often discussed and often dismissed by characters having conversations from comfortable homes, but their physical distance from the horrors of the colonies does not disconnect them from it.

I found the characters compelling, the plot is full of scandal and there are many references to several well-known writers that help to ground this historical novel in something quite familiar. Smith is expertly able to interweave moments of levity and humour into a book that deals with some heaviness. I did feel like the novel began to lose some steam in the last 50 or so pages and think it might have worked as a slightly shorter novel. But it is among my favourite reads from Zadie Smith. Historical fiction suits her.


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