Zadie Smith’s weighty Mantel piece

Slightly academic, deeply researched, and typically self-referential, Zadie Smith’s first attempt at a historical novel is, despite its debts, novel.

Zadie Smith at a literature festival at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.
Zadie Smith at a literature festival at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Credit: Fabian Sommer/dpa/Alamy Live News.

The Fraud: A Novel, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £20

What is the point of writing a historical novel? Surely a novelist’s task is to write about the moment. The late Hilary Mantel made a good case for the genre. History fits well into fiction, she wrote, because the ‘facts are not the truth’ – and ‘history is not the past, it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past’. To write historical fiction is to get by with what you’ve got, a ‘record of what’s left on the record’. To alchemise fallible witnesses and incomplete accounts. Mantel understood this alignment keenly, but where she did so much for the genre was in her attention to the interior drama of her characters’ lives. We know that Thomas Cromwell existed, but we will never – never truly – know how he thought, felt. That ability – to put flesh, blood, consciousness, on a historical figure – was what made Mantel’s writing a rare thing.

Enter Zadie Smith. An avid admirer of Mantel’s writing, Smith has expressed her disappointment that Mantel only gained wide recognition with the ‘Tudor effect’ of her Wolf Hall trilogy, and not for her ten or so ‘weird’, bewitching, novels that came before. Smith has also avoided the genre herself, until now. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, she writes wittily about escaping England after the publication of her first novel, White Teeth: first for Rome, then Boston, then New York.

‘When friends asked why I’d left the country, I’d sometimes answer with a joke: Because I don’t want to write a historical novel,’ she writes. To do so would be too cliché. To go against the etymology of the word novel, in all its newness. But then lockdown happened. Smith moved back to England with her family. And as though to fulfil her own prophecy, she began gathering notes for a historical novel that would later become The Fraud.

We begin in the late 1800s. Eliza Touchet is our protagonist, the housekeeper to her cousin-by-marriage, William Ainsworth, a self-absorbed writer who once outstripped sales for Oliver Twist but has never quite reached the same heights again. Once upon a time, they were lovers. But William is now onto his second wife, Sarah, a class-clash marriage where it’s an open secret that Sarah was once a prostitute. Eliza disapproves and, as the sharp-tongued ‘Targe’ of the household, makes her opinions known. But then the two women bond over a mutual fascination for a legal trial that is gripping the public’s attention. With the Tichborne Case, Smith begins her story-within-a-story.

Who is on trial? Let’s start with the more obvious answer, in the courtroom. Here is the ‘Claimant’, a man who says he is the heir to the Tichborne fortune, Sir Roger, previously believed dead in a Jamaican shipwreck. Years earlier, Lady Tichborne took him in as her son, despite the evidence stacked against him. For one, the Claimant’s manners are not quite aristocrat level. There’s also a rumour floating around that he’s actually a butcher from Wapping, Arthur Orton. William is incredulous when he hears that the ‘fellow’ has forgotten that ‘he once spoke fluent French,’ whereas Sarah sides with the rest of the public, who have firmly seized on the Claimant as ‘one of their own’. As Sarah declares in an argument with William, ‘A MOTHER KNOWS HER OWN SON.’

Here we have it – the rambunctious, chaotic family that Smith does so well. Her characterisation is typically strong here, focusing on dynamics, not singular figures, if only so that tensions can draw out the unexpected. William and Eliza, for example, have a strange, BDSM-like relationship, and clandestine meetings in the stables leave William’s ‘face down in the dirt’, a ‘Lord being taught a lesson by his housemaid’. See also the courtroom, where Eliza would have ‘reverted to reading, but the new Mrs Ainsworth had a way of making all reading, indeed all private contemplation […] entirely impossible’. Touché, Touchet. But Sarah is the one who keeps Eliza ‘usefully tethered to the present, like the stays on a hot air balloon’, and soon Eliza finds out that she is not who she thought she was: a person completely captivated by a sensationalist trial.

This is the meat of The Fraud: how we surprise ourselves, can be inauthentic to ourselves and also to each other. The backdrop of the Tichborne Case is really just a springboard for this discussion – Smith is more interested in the Ainsworth household, where William, like a Victorian Florence Foster-Jenkins, is so wrapped up in his own writing that he doesn’t realise how bad it really is. Edgar Allen Poe and William Thackeray are just some of the literary celebs who mock him. ‘Am I fraud?’ he asks Eliza tearfully, when he is parodied in Punch.

Clunk, clunk, you might think. Smith is really hitting us round the head with her thematic saucepan here. But it’s pulled off far more subtly in Eliza, who becomes suspiciously fascinated with the Claimant’s leading witness, Andrew Bogle, an ex-slave who insists he recognises the Claimant. What would an old white woman have to do with a ‘young son of Africa’? William’s not too sure either: ‘It is a very annoying habit of yours, Eliza: you become fond of people at the very moment that they should be the most severely condemned.’ In other words – she’s the chronic supporter of the underdog. Or more harshly, a white saviour obsessed with a Black man. Bogle then begins to tell his story in another section of the narrative, but we’re always aware that it’s fed right back through Eliza. Whose stories do we get to tell?

I’m not sure that Smith gives us any answers. But her questions are delivered, beautifully, on a platter:

What world did [people] live in, and what unknown and perhaps unknowable mental landscape formed it? Could it be deciphered? Guessed at? What can we know of other people? How much of the mystery of another person could one’s own perspicacity divine?

If there’s ever a clearer manifesto for a novel, this is it. My beef is that, as with Smith’s almost nineteenth-century title, it reads a little heavy-handedly. She admirably hovers over a more complex form of fraudulence here – the ‘unknown and perhaps unknowable’, that is, that the Claimant could be ‘sincerely false and not know it’ – but the question ultimately loses steam, especially when Smith applies it to England’s dealings in the slave trade. Do the English subconsciously know what is happening abroad; are they ‘sincerely false’ but do ‘not know it’? Eliza concludes: ‘England was not a real place at all… Everything they desired and took and used and discarded… all of that they did elsewhere.’ It’s an interesting idea, but where it’s fleshed out – Bogle’s story of his childhood  – is the least gripping section of the narrative, and, ironically, we find ourselves straining to get back to English soil.

Is there a way of knowing other people? Perhaps not – but in The Fraud, writing and reading are ways of trying. While reading a novel by George Eliot, Eliza is delighted to discover, to William’s derision, that it is simply about ‘People’; while taking notes in the courtroom, she is even more delighted to discover the excitement of writing, something more burning than the ‘giddiness of love, and the febrile sensations of hate and fear’. It’s her way of pushing up against the ‘mystery of another person.’ And it’s Smith’s, too: ‘I read to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own.’

It strikes me, then, that the last and missing Fraud in this novel is Smith herself. It’s bad form to assume that writers draw from their own lives – allow them an imagination! – but Smith is someone who uniquely carries the weight of her own biography. She is Zadie Smith; Zadie Smith who published her first book at the age of 23; Zadie Smith who offered the media the perfect story of graduating from council estate to Cambridge University; Zadie Smith whose second book on fame, The Autograph Man, was lambasted by the critics; Zadie, in conversations with my friends, as though we know her; but not even Zadie, because before she changed her name at the age of 14, she was Sadie. Of her own, created persona, Smith is more conscious than anyone else. As Lauren Oyler writes, ‘she is constantly making fun of herself, or putting herself down’. Imposter syndrome embodied. After White Teeth, there was only one negative review, describing the book as ‘the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old’. The review was written by Smith herself.

I mention all this because Smith’s existential frettings are at their most tuned up here. In The Fraud, Smith constantly makes herself – the writers – the butt of the joke. Eliza feels instant shame in introducing herself as a writer to Bogle, because she feels this is a lie to get his attention. Then, as though to therapise Smith’s own anxieties, the joke turns on the historical novelists: Eliza can’t believe that William would ignore the ‘contemporary subject’ of the Tichborne case in front of him, in favour of a novel about the Jacobites. And in the end (Spoiler alert, look away) Smith has the final laugh, because in the last chapter, it’s revealed she hasn’t written this book at all – Eliza has.

But Smith shouldn’t shy away from her own creation. I sense that she’ll know its flaws intimately and well – that it’s slightly academic, deeply researched and the heavier for it – but it also speaks to her never-ending obsessions, and for that, I don’t particularly care. She has kept her historical novel novel. Mantel would be proud of her.


Lucy Thynne