Review: Mindy Gillon Zadie Smith

Riotous Subjects 

The Fraud is Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, her first work of historical fiction. For an English writer to attempt an historical novel set in England has always seemed an inevitability to Smith – one she has been determined to resist. She would tell herself: ‘if you let this happen it will play to your worst, your most long-winded, your most Dickensian instincts’. However, when she read about Victorian England’s infamous Tichborne trial, she discovered within it a story that seemed like ‘[o]ne of those gifts from the universe a writer gets once in a lifetime’. The 1873 court case follows an English butcher living in Wagga Wagga named Arthur Orton. Orton responds to an offer of reward for information regarding Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the considerable Tichborne estate, and otherwise presumed dead at sea. He claims that he is Sir Roger – weighing two hundred pounds more, suffering from memory loss after a shipwreck – and is vouched for by a man named Andrew Bogle, a former slave from Jamaica’s Hope Estate, once managed by Sir Roger’s uncle, Edward Tichborne. Why Bogle so staunchly supported, and whether he at all believed, Orton’s claim remains unknown. Smith doesn’t use the novel to speculate. Instead, she frames the near three years Bogle spent testifying in court as his intervention in the politics of Victorian England, exposing the true origins of its imperial wealth – in slave labour.  

Similar terms could be used to describe The Fraud itself – as Smith’s own intervention into, and explosion of, the nineteenth-century novel. It upends the aesthetic of the genre, resisting the escapism and ‘cosiness’ of the Victorian literature the author grew up reading, whose characters remained tucked away in parlour rooms debating social concerns into abstraction. The book’s eight volumes consist of relatively short chapters, some no more than a paragraph long. There are also materials from the archive: news clippings, excerpts of trial transcript, as well as passages taken from the novels of William Harrison Ainsworth, another of The Fraud’s central characters. The chapters flit across time, covering a period of over fifty years, from 1830 to 1882, and are linked thematically. The rhythm becomes easy to follow once the reader recognises the aim is to complicate the experience of time – a long-held concern of Smith’s fiction. Her 2016 novel Swing Time, set between 1998 and 2008, is similarly non-chronological, but primarily concerned with the narrative’s sense of the past. Events from the protagonist’s childhood throw the broader plot into relief; time appears to dilate in these scenes. The Fraud, however, has looser temporal bearings. The non-linear chapters leave it to the reader to infer the overarching timeline as it unfolds. It embodies one of the novel’s central concerns about time, exploring the sudden collapse of distance that can occur between present and past – a sensation often brought on by grief, whether on an individual or global scale.  

In The New York Review of Books, Michael Gorra described The Fraud’s brisk, non-linear chapters as ‘leav[ing] [him] off-balance’. The novel does resist the reader: Smith intentionally works against the Dickensian instinct to lull, to evoke a frictionless reading experience. The Fraud’s intertwined characters, sub-plots, and timelines challenge the expectations of the realist novel, straining against its temporal limitations. The novel’s raucousness is magnified. Turbulence becomes its governing sensibility. This has led critics such as Gorra and Sean O’Beirne to question whether The Fraud’s formal ambitions have snuffed out a slimmer and more focussed book. However, in a moment when literature favours the streamlined, interior narrative, Smith is particularly interested in the form’s capacity to expand.  

In her 2009 essay on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, she wrote in praise of ‘that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound’ that makes the novel a ‘riot of subjectivity’. Smith disagrees with Henry James’s 1873 criticism of its labyrinthine plot and multiple, interwoven voices. Or, as he wrote: ‘[I]ts diffuseness makes it too copious a dose of pure fiction.’ It makes an uncanny parallel with James Wood’s ‘hysterical realism’, a term he coined almost a century and a half later to describe Smith’s debut, White Teeth

[Hysterical realism] is characterized by a fear of silence. […] a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs. 

However, this pursuit of vitality – shared between Eliot and Smith – is in the service rather than at the cost of the author’s career-long commitment to rendering the full potential of the novel. In The New York Review of Books, Smith wrote about how the ‘function’ of literature lies in its capacity for allowing the many different voices, personalities, and perspectives within her to be expressed, and even co-exist. Distinctive of her fiction and non-fiction alike is an ability to hold multiple, often contradicting, realities at once, and bring each into the context of the other so they stand on equal or relative footing, rather than being measured against any false notion of objective moral truth or meaning. In The Fraud, this juxtaposition of realities is at times jarring – and it intends to be.  

Halfway through the novel, arriving as its own hundred-page section, is ‘The History of Bogle’, which also reckons with Britain’s compartmentalised retelling of Jamaica’s colonial history. The novella-like section is prompted by Mrs Eliza Touchet – another historical figure, and The Fraud’s indomitable central character – clumsily requesting an interview with Andrew Bogle. He reluctantly agrees, and then begins by telling her that his life ‘is not what it should be’. His father, Anaso, had been the son of a nobleman, but as a nine-year-old was kidnapped and sold to a slave ship bound for Jamaica. Bogle was born on the Hope Plantation, and into the three hundred years of Britain’s history of slavery in West Africa. He becomes Edward Tichborne’s page, and when the sugar trade stops being profitable, Tichborne leaves Hope, taking Bogle with him. He won’t see Jamaica again. He tells Eliza that, despite the violence of life on the island, ‘I have no other name but to call it my home.’ 

The Tichbornes inherit an estate and become the new Mr and Mrs Doughty. Bogle moves into their grand property in Poole, where word of the 1831 Christmas Rebellion reaches him. The slave uprising, also known as the Baptist War, had begun as a peaceful strike, but, when met with violence, the strikers set fire to an estate on the north coast of Jamaica. Reading of it in the paper, Doughty suggests, ‘We’d do well to let the whole island slip into the sea.’ Bogle, meanwhile, searches those same columns for any word on Hope. He soon understands that English newspapers treat the question of Jamaica’s future as Doughty and his dinner guests do: as a financial problem, rather than a human one. When Doughty later expresses ‘relief to no longer be in any way involved with the “cursed sugar trade”’ as Bogle attends to his empty wineglass, the aim is not – solely – to make a target of his hypocrisy. It works to reveal the cognitive dissonance so rife among the Victorian upper class, whose moral beliefs about the sugar trade contradict the material foundations of their wealthy lives. This is emblematic of the book’s broader concerns about Britain’s offshore colonial practices. Throughout, the novel considers abstraction as a political tool used to keep systems of inequality in place – both in terms of the cognitive process that reduces the exploitation of human life to a matter of accounting, and in the etymological sense of a ‘withdrawal’ that ensures such systems remain entirely out of immediate view, sequestered offshore.  

From her decade-long stint at NYU, Smith recalls her students’ ‘moral amazement’ about the longevity of the slave trade. They believed that it proved the ‘backward’ ethics of societies of the past, and the inherently morally evolved nature of our own. The Fraud questions whether this habit of making moral judgments from an historical or geographical remove is a distraction enabling our own complacency about the present moment. In this way, the novel prompts readers to consider whether, in seeking relief from the overwhelming sense of social responsibility in contemporary life, we have also been complicit in practices that counter our putative moral values. 

We then skip forward seven years to 1838, when Bogle reads that the British Parliament has set a date for complete abolition: on the first of August, all those who remain enslaved will be emancipated. His feelings are mixed. What happens on the second of August? He remembers, during his childhood, his mother’s scepticism as Hope celebrated the passing of Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807). Now, as he reads of the abolitionists’ triumph, the reader experiences through him the painful gap that lies between his intimate knowledge of slavery and what little truth of it the English are given: 

when he closed the paper, [his eyes] filled with tears. So many people caught in the turning gears. Women, men, children, babies. Generation after generation. His father. His mother. The noble line of Johannas. Ground down. Minds ploughed. Bodies mangled. Souls boiled until they evaporated. Human fuel. Round and round went the treadmill. A hundred years? Two? The philosophical stable boy claimed three. Cut the people down, plant new ones in holes. Cut off their hands and their ears and their breasts. The trough of blood. In his dreams, this trough was infinite. In his dreams, he walked alongside it for ever, barefoot through the Bahama grass, screaming. Yet all that the readers of The Times would ever know of this treadmill was that it had ceased operations. 

The scale of Britain’s repression of its knowledge is revealed in this passage as Bogle is haunted by the totality of slavery, the long nightmare of its history. He considers the insurmountable task of how one might begin to assign humanity back to those who were ground down, boiled, to make human fuel. He wonders whether, within the triumph of abolition, there will be room to mourn – or even acknowledge – the legacy left behind by a practice of treating human life as an expendable resource.  

Years later, we find Bogle in Australia, married and with children of his own. He is living in Sydney when he meets the man claiming to be the missing Sir Roger Tichborne and agrees to accompany him to the trial in London. Bogle’s remaining connection to the Tichborne-Doughtys is a sum he receives of fifty pounds per annum, promised to him in perpetuity after Mr Doughty’s death. When Bogle begins giving evidence, the family sever his only source of income. They make it clear they will reinstate his annuity on the condition he recants his support, but Bogle does not yield. 

The drama of the trial gripped the Victorian public. The Claimant – as Orton came to be known – could neither speak French, Sir Roger’s mother tongue, nor did he have the tattoo Sir Roger allegedly had on his left arm. His boorish manner and error-riddled testimony seemed to endear him to the people and, as evidence mounted against him, donations to his legal fund only increased. It was an astonishing upswell of populism, not dissimilar to that around Donald Trump – in both cases, the targeting of an image of the ‘elite’, by means of blatant and incompetent deception, was key to garnering public support. However, unlike Trump, who was of the haut monde while attempting to claim his alliance with the working class, Orton was motivated by a lifetime of genuine class inequity. Accordingly, the populism that follows Orton in The Fraud is a left-wing one. Eliza watches the court fill with men and women, the young and the old, all of whom have come together under the broader anti-establishment cause. She herself is an abolitionist, although it is her fascination with Bogle rather than her political beliefs that keep her returning to the trial. Still, she finds it difficult to make sense of the hordes who idolise Orton, who believe that a man seemingly without pretence must have nothing to hide. Her feelings of alienation are channelled into an unbridled curiosity to know about other people, and especially to understand those whose lives are unlike her own. In short, we discover that she has a novelist’s sensibility. 

Before Eliza became widowed, we learn that her husband, James Touchet, had disappeared one night with their infant son, running away with their nursemaid. She understands she has no legal recourse as a mother, and believes she has no moral one as a wife. She has surmised that he somehow ‘knew what she was’ – namely, someone attracted to both women and men, a desire for which she has no language. When James dies from scarlet fever, her cousin-by-marriage, the writer William Ainsworth, helps secure her a small annuity from the money that James left behind. Ainsworth was a prolific novelist – his work briefly outsold that of Dickens – but he was also a fiendishly bad one; two hundred years on, few of his forty-something titles remain in print. 

Ainsworth moves Eliza into his countryside home. She is to help his wife, Frances, with their children while he researches his next book. Early into his nine-month absence, the women fall into an uncomplicated affair. Eliza accompanies Frances to an abolitionists’ meeting, and it is Frances’s passion for the cause that ultimately ‘transform[s] a hazy, unformed distrust of human bondage in Mrs Touchet into a burning loathing’. Frances helps Eliza unlock the vast rooms of her interior world and open them out into the life around her. Eliza conceives of the affair as a period of ‘grace that kept happening, extending itself through time’. The relationship appears just as vivid to her even decades later when she realises that, soon, ‘[her] Frances will have been dead for longer than she was ever alive.’  

Eliza would eventually become William’s first reader. Their intellectual connection remains constant throughout a forty-year relationship that is by turns sexual and platonic, fraternal and maternal. When William publishes his career-defining work Jack Sheppard, an historical novel set in eighteenth-century London, Eliza observes how the book’s commercial success is enough for William to discount its unanimous panning by critics. The novel is so ubiquitously read that his fabricated details are later mistaken for historical fact. This proof of his celebrity, no matter how short-lived, remains a source of comfort to him as each of his subsequent novels fails.  

Eliza becomes accustomed to late nights of hosting William’s ‘steady stream of literary men’, whom she finds mostly inane, except for his friend Charles. She is suspicious of Charles in the way that she is suspicious of all novelists and their tenacious lying. Writers like Dickens, she thinks, reduce people to caricatures that only appear to contain the full truth. What interests her about people is how multifaceted, how contradictory, and how ultimately unknowable they are. She recognises the many faces she chooses present to the world and considers herself a ‘decipherer’ of others like her. She makes an important distinction between Dickens’ and her own style of deciphering: she is proud of being ‘particularly intrigued when proven wrong’.  

And Eliza is often wrong. Sometimes her errors are harmless, and at other times they reveal her prejudices, particularly towards Bogle and his son, Henry. When she first expresses her desire to learn, and write, about Bogle’s story, their disinterest affronts her. She is offended when Henry suggests that ‘it is only fair that [his father] should be paid for his trouble’, then finds herself in the unexpected position of needing to plead her case to them. Eliza had set out believing that certain aspects of her own identity – as a Scot, an unmarried woman, a woman attracted to other women – meant that she and Bogle would share an understanding of how it is to exist at the margins of society. The fact that this is not the case soon forms the key tension between Eliza and Henry.  

Eliza believes that ‘justice takes time’, for freedom is granted to others, in stages, by those already in power. Henry immediately counters: ‘Who can give to me what was never theirs to possess?’ Eliza is perplexed by the depth of his feeling, and the intensity with which he begins arguing with her. She tries to understand what Henry means as he tells her that he was born with the right to his own power and freedom, that it is determined by neither race nor class – nor can it be bestowed upon him by others. Missing the point, she dismisses his apparent idealism as a symptom of youthful naïveté. Instead, she praises him for his eloquence, his impressive education. Eliza cannot understand how she has caused offence when Henry asks, in disbelief, whether she is insinuating his ‘freedom [is] to be earned…like a school prize?’ He describes how his freedom is not a reward but an ‘essential and daily battle of life’. She begins to cry, unable to comprehend the gulf between their different perspectives. 

Although her capacity for empathy and desire to understand are born of an awareness of the limitations to her subjectivity, Eliza remains fundamentally constrained by it. The Fraud thus encourages the reader to probe the rift between each character’s intimate knowledge of themselves and the assumptions others make about them. It is an exercise in what Smith calls ‘profound-other-fascination’ – the term she uses to describe her own lifelong practice of trying to understand, and embody, the beliefs and experiences of others. Her interest in contradictions manifests as the empathy that animates her writing, which makes it rife – hysterically rife – with life. The Fraud strives to rebalance complex truths; the moral imperfection of its characters, their hypocrisies, lends the pluralism in The Fraud its authenticity. It is also central to the vibrant polyphonic quality of the novel, whose cues are taken from Middlemarch.  

To read Smith on Middlemarch – ‘What twenty-first century novelists inherit from Eliot is the radical freedom to push the novel to its limits’ – is to understand The Fraud as the realisation of her earliest novelistic ambitions. In its structure and style, it is likely to challenge what readers expect from the ‘Zadie Smith novel’. It may also challenge their expectations of how contemporary fiction should read. Like Eliot, Smith is a writer ‘on the border of the New’ – which is to say that she is a novelist unafraid of risk. Whether or not criticism of The Fraud’s own riotousness – its ‘pursuit of vitality at all costs’ as Wood ruled on White Teeth – resonates with readers over time is not the author’s concern. She is committed to the craft of the realist novel, to exploring its potential to – if not contain – then embody the multitudes, the numinous contradictions, that form human experience. 

Works Cited