Review by Walter Cummins
Zadie Smith published a piece in The New Yorker about her efforts to ignore “the long shadow” of Charles Dickens (“On Killing Charles Dickens”) when writing her first historical novel, The Fraud, set in Victorian England. She gave up, realizing the looming presence of Dickens for any literary reconstruction of the period: “There didn’t seem to be a nineteenth-century pot he didn’t have his finger in.” Smith even has him as a character appearing frequently in the novel, initially as a young friend of William Harrison Ainsworth, also an actual writer whose early novel, Jack Sheppard, outsold Oliver Twist for a time. But Ainsworth, despite an output of forty books, sank into obscurity while Dickens became Dickens.
Ainsworth serves as a major figure in the novel with his fruitless literary obsession and his ongoing connection with his cousin Eliza Touchet, one of the novel’s two primary characters—the central intelligence observing much of the story’s happenings. Her name also serves as the source of a Dickens’ pun—Touché, Mrs Touchet—that only he finds funny. As Eliza Touchet first considers him, “And mustn’t it be wonderful, thought Mrs Touchet, to be one’s own best entertainment!”
And yet after this mockery she comes to realize the power of Dickens: “The most magnetic person she’d ever known was Dickens himself, and she counted herself among the few who had understood that the source of that man’s attraction was not success or fame or even money but rather something innate, for she had sat next to the obscure, twenty-two-year-old Boz, and watched the whole table turn to him whenever he spoke. Of course, most men had no such gift: on the contrary, they bored her to tears.”
The other major character is Andrew Bogle, a Jamaican former slave, presented though a narrator’s voice and through his connection with Mrs Touchet. He is a man of dignity and integrity as the primary supporter of the man who claims to be Sir Roger Tichborne, survivor of a shipwreck, whom Bogle truly believes to be the person he knew as a boy despite all the contrary evidence. This Tichborne Claimant—actually Arthur Orton, a butcher from Wapping—is the most obvious fraud behind the title.
But that’s where Dickens comes is as much more than a walk-on character. Smith has written a very Dickensian novel in its cast of inventive characters, in its humor, in its panoramic view of English society, in its irony, and in its essential connections of the affluent and low-born. As much as the rich and titled seem to exist in different realms from the poor and servile they are inextricably bound. At one point, Eliza Touchet has this troubled suspicion: “Mrs Touchet was under the singular delusion—common at this stage of the process—that everything was connected. On the one hand, she wondered if she might be going mad.”
With its long trial over the Tichborne name and fortune that seizes the public imagination with endless broadsides and assemblages, The Fraud is most reminiscent of the interminable Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce trial of Bleak House as different as the cases are. In Bleak House, for example, the haughty Lady Dedlock is revealed as the one-time lover of the seeming pauper Nemo and the mother of the illegitimate Esther Summerson, who is infected with smallpox for the diseased street urchin Jo.
Smith isn’t nearly as specific in what binds her characters, though the social classes merge. For example, Sarah, William Ainsworth’s much younger second wife, was an uneducated servant who attends the Claimant’s trial regularly with Mrs. Touchet and reveals a native intelligence in her insights. She, who scours newspapers for scandal stories, captures the appeal of the material Smith mines in The Fraud:
But no story captured her quite like the saga of the Tichborne Claimant. It had everything: toffs, Catholics, money, sex, mistaken identity, an inheritance, High Court Judges, snobbery, exotic locations, ‘the struggle of the honest working man’ – as opposed to the ‘undeserving poor’ – and ‘the power of a mother’s love’. And it was a subject that drove all Ainsworths to distraction, which was also in its favour.
Not mentioned in the novel but clearly on Smith’s mind because she notes it in her New Yorker piece is that the Tichbornes are the owners of the Doughty-Tichborne estate, and that Dickens once lived in a house on Doughty Street that is now a Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury. The Claimant could have been his landlord.
Smith shifts tone significantly near the middle of the novel from the comedy of manners approach to the Ainsworth world to the grim treatment of the slaves and former slaves on Jamaica, exploited and mistreated in their service to increase wealth for the English upper class. This is where Bogle came from to take his significant role as a defender of the Tichborne Claimant in London. The slave/servant becomes a principal. Once in London he has this realization: “The English turned out not to be a single tribe of well-fed top hats and silk skirts, … but rather a wild struggle of factions, all intent upon their own survival, and therefore, in a certain sense, not strange or unfamiliar at all.”
While the falsification of Arthur Orton pretending to be Sir Roger Tichborne is clearly a legal fraud that culminated in a jail sentence, it is hardly the only one in the novel, the gravest being the abuse of humans that generated and sustained great wealth disguised by the grandeur of showpiece great estates and displays of finery. The novel implicitly poses the question of whether Orton pretending to be a special human as a member of the gentry is any phonier than any member of this class-ridden society.
Slavery is an underlying subject of the novel as Parliament abolished formal slavery in 1833, but its aftermath lingers in the placement of Bogle and his son and in a corollary manner in the treatment of the servant class. Slavery was central in the accumulation of wealth for the Tichbornes and much of the upper class. British society and economic structure are based on what is essentially fraud, most specifically for this story the exploitation of the resources of Jamaica and the slaves who did the work on plantations.
In a lighter manner, Smith suggests that William Ainsworth, despite his forty novels, is also a fraud as a literary artist. In fact, she seems to have fun mocking the pretensions of novel writing: “God preserve me from novel-writing, thought Mrs Touchet. God preserve me from that tragic indulgence, that useless vanity …”
But ultimately, Eliza Touchet seeks what is true and authentic. Riding in a cab with Andrew Bogle, she thinks, “…perhaps, in some imagined utopia, she could be met on even, common ground with a clever soul like Bogle, who seemed to live as she had always wished to, that is, with no illusions.”
It is Bogle’s son Henry who tells Eliza a truth she has sought, words that could have been written by Dickens himself:
But it is not the prisoner’s right to open his cell that is in question, Mrs Touchet! It is the gaoler’s fraud in claiming to hold a man prisoner in the first place. The first is self-evident. The second wholly criminal. By God, don’t you see that what young men hunger for today is not “improvement” or “charity” or any of the watchwords of your Ladies’ Societies. They hunger for truth! For truth itself! For justice!’