I wanted to end this year by reviewing one of my favorite books of 2023, Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. A couple of months ago, Smith was in Washington DC to promote The Fraud, a historical novel that revisits a gripping Victorian Era Trial which sought to adjudicate the identity of Sir Roger Tichborne. Known as the Tichborne Trial, the court case followed the assertions of a local butcher who presented himself as the long lost aristocrat Roger Tichborne in order to inherit his estate and title. Complicating the issue, Roger Tichborne’s mother and former valet Andrew Bogle, supported the Claimant and publicly corroborated his identity as the real Sir Roger.
Bogle’s testimony in particular captured the country’s sympathies; here was a former slave, a frail old man, “even-tempered, simple, honest” giving an earnest testimony in the face of intense public scrutiny. No matter how many times he was called to testify, the “stoic” Andrew Bogle never wavered in his truth. This steadiness lent credibility to the Claimant’s assertions and drew the working class to his side. Many people gravitated towards the Claimant and saw his bravado as proof of his legitimacy. However, the Tichborne family rejected his story and referred to him as a fraud. They argued that he was just a simple man; his unpolished speech, crass conduct and ordinary presentation were proof of his basic upbringing.
Smith does a wonderful job of bringing the trail to life. She helps the reader understand why the dispute stirred deep emotion among Londoners and why it divided the city along economic lines. For the working class, many people saw the Claimant as a brave man taking up the fight of injustice. The court case was even dubbed “Right against Might” due to the general public’s perception of judicial abuse. The courts were often seen as tilting their decisions in favor of the rich and depressing the living conditions of the poor. Although the case was about identity, it also became a symbol of other grievances: dispossession of land, social status, and the desire to create a meaningful livelihood. The Claimant was happy to be the flagbearer of these discontents, he embraced the people’s adoration and solicited funds to continue the fight against the system.
One of the people captivated by the Trial and who tried to make sense of the spectacle was Eliza Touchet, a widow, house manager, lover, and de facto editor to her cousin William Ainsworth. Ms. Touchet spent most of her time catering to William’s ego, reviewing his novels, and managing the literary dinners he hosted for his prominent friends. One of those writers was the incandescent Charles Dickens, a magnetic, observant, succinct—and successful storyteller. This was a portrait in contrast to Ainsworth, who Ms. Touchet sums up as self-absorbed, wordy, and delusional about his talents. Whereas Dickens and Ms. Touchet study people, Ainsworth’s main interest is to document the city’s transformation not its people. His novels are hastily written and skinny on plot and character development. Because of his literary output, Ainsworth believes he is an equal to Dickens and should be recognized as such.
Ms. Touchet observes Ainsworth’s social maneuvering with a keen eye; knowing that her literary talents rival those of the male storytellers. Yet she feels boxed in by their egos. She often has to bite her tongue so as not to wound or, worse, end up as a caricature in Dicken’s novels. Ms. Touchet embraces her position on the periphery and gains entry into different social setting where she keenly observes people. She follows strangers as they walk, sit, talk, and she scrutinizes what they reveal and what parts they tuck away from view.
The trial provides Ms.Touchet an outlet to conduct her character study and immediately she is drawn in by the magnetic Mr. Bogle, a former slave. She is agitated by his role in the trail and questions his allegiance to the Claimant. She is determined to write his story, using her observations to explore the idea of fraud. She tries to understand the various iterations of fraud from mild self-deceptions to the audacious duplicity on display. She wants to understand its magnetism and hubris—as embraced by those around her.
During her book signing, Smith expressed her desire to write a historical novel that resonated with contemporary readers. Her objective was to make the characters, language, tone, and themes feel familiar even if they were centered on past events. She successfully achieves this objective because The Fraud, is a literary gem, filled with imposters and literary heroes. It highlights all of Smith’s strengths: her fearlessness, inventiveness, wit, and her unrivaled power of observations. She effortlessly, brings Ms. Touchet to life—using shifts in structure to recall old memories. Ms.Touchet emerges as a free and “unsentimental” woman at a time of many social restrictions. Like the author, Ms. Touchet holds her own among many literary giants, emerging as a sharp-eyed storyteller.