As I was reading Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, I was reminded of my first encounter with Jane Austen’s melancholy Persuasion. Toward the end of that novel there is one of those brief economic reports that make such a difference for Austen’s financially straitened female characters. The protagonist, Anne Elliott, is visiting her impoverished friend Mrs. Smith, who
had good reason to believe that some property of her husband in the West Indies, which had been for many years under a sort of sequestration for the payment of its own incumbrances, might be recoverable by proper measures; and this property, though not large, would be enough to make her comparatively rich. (Vol. 2, Ch. 9)
I first read Persuasion before the publication of Edward Said’s 1993 Culture and Imperialism, one of the major books to blow the drawstrings off Jane Austen’s embroidered reticule. Those sailors making their fortunes on the high seas, those genteel families waiting to hear about their plantations abroad—what was the source of this income? Many Austen families would “not have been possible without the slave trade, sugar, and the colonial planter class,” wrote Said (94). In one way or another, as Said argued and many after him echoed, this Jane Austen overseas money had to be tainted by slavery, although he was “not at all” advocating for Austen’s work to be jettisoned (96).
When Edward Said prompted literary scholars to confront the ethical considerations incumbent upon “some property” in the West Indies, that meant we also had to reconsider Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, ultimately Anne’s husband. He had sailed off to the West Indies and subsequently come into great wealth. Persuasion is set during the Napoleonic Wars, and so Wentworth’s financial gains must be in part prize money from those wars; however, his wealth is so massive—£25,000, the equivalent of several million dollars—that it does seem Anne Elliott’s wonderful captain may not be so wonderful, at least from our century’s point of view.
These sorts of economic and imperialist questions, matters of exploitation and slavery, pushed their way into my sightlines as I wondered what to do with Zadie Smith’s new novel. They turned out to be questions that birthed even more questions, in profusion, but fostered very few clear answers.
Years ago, in the letters section to the Times Literary Supplement, I remember a note that said something like: “Sirs. Is Frederic Raphael all right?” I can’t recall what review by Raphael might have prompted this tiny letter, but I’ve never forgotten my snort of laughter at this brusque piece of discussion.
I had been looking forward to Zadie Smith’s new novel, The Fraud. She is a great novelist with a wide range; her essays and short stories are funny, incisive, surprising. But at the fifty-page mark of The Fraud I might have given up if the author were someone else. At the hundred-page mark I began to mutter, Sirs. Is Zadie Smith all right?
Most of the novel’s time is spent in the household of William Ainsworth, an actual writer, who, by the time of his death in 1882, had fallen out of favour. He is now virtually forgotten. Little that happens in Ainsworth’s household is of consequence. As Smith represents Ainsworth, he is full of misguided self-conceit, yet he has a circle of clever-ish women in attendance on him—two wives in succession, several daughters, and (most remarkably) his cousin and household manager, Mrs. Touchet.
In the narrative, Mrs. Touchet is called Eliza, Lizzy, and sometimes the Targe. This is confusing, but she is central enough that we sort this out. Many other things are less easy to track. We meet characters who seem important but only appear once or twice: Lady Blessington, Wedderburn, “good old Crossley” (61). Chapters are remarkably short (some only a few lines) and the time scheme leaps about for no discernible reason: 1830, 1872, 1852, 1863. Smith has given Eliza and her cousin William a desultory sexual relationship which involves sado-masochism, to no purpose that I can conjure. Eliza is also busy trying to hide from William any criticism of his (truly terrible) literary output. Eliza’s Catholicism is briefly notable, until it isn’t. The novel begins on a scene whereby the books in Ainsworth’s house have caused the floor to collapse; that wreckage is a promising symbol. But the image isn’t developed; Smith builds nothing with it. The New Yorker recently called the novel “kaleidoscopic,” which is generous, and “brilliant,” which is confounding (69). Alison Gillmor in the Winnipeg Free Press was cagey: her adjectives were “restless” and “elusive, elliptical” (E3). The TLS was blunt: “unwieldy,” said reviewer Claire Lowdon, and, also, “a bit of a mess” (4).
The Ainsworth layer of the novel is certainly a problem, but then, at the centre of The Fraud, Smith provides an abrupt change of mood and scene. For approximately one hundred pages at the book’s heart, we are catapulted into the family saga of Anaso, a nobly-born African transported to a Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1770s and, in due course, his son Andrew Bogle, who becomes a house slave and moves with his master to England. In the 1870s, Bogle turns up as a key witness in a celebrated London court case. At that point, the enslaved Bogle family intersects with the rest of Zadie Smith’s cast. The novel, self-consciously organized in eight volumes (like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the Victorian era’s benchmark moral novel), allots two volumes (six and seven) to the story of the Black characters, while the (countless) white characters control the other six volumes.
It was only when I reached the two volumes about Andrew Bogle and his family—their placement at the “heart” of the novel surely not accidental—that I felt Zadie Smith doing something quite fine. She offers vivid glimpses of slavery in 18th and 19th century Jamaica: we hear about Igwe, the yaws, cerasee, jonkonnu. The action is swift, violent, often hard to comprehend. The reader is not offered many explanations; the immersion is near total and the story proceeds at a fast pace.
But the story of the Jamaican characters is less than one-quarter of a 450-page novel, the rest of the book focusing on English society in the age of Dickens. But no, not focusing. The Fraud almost defiantly lacks focus. We have sketches of the minor and major literary figures of the day, often behaving badly, or at any rate inanely—Thackeray, Dickens, Dickens’s biographer John Forster, illustrator George Cruickshank. There’s even a cameo by George Eliot. It is Eliza who eventually emerges as the novel’s dominant (white) character, although it can be touch-and-go identifying her in the melee of some early drawing room scenes.
Who is the “Fraud” of the title? My own surest candidate would be Ainsworth. He doesn’t understand the political and social issues of his day; he doesn’t write well at all. He really did publish forty-one novels, and some sold briskly enough. Smith offers us select bits of Ainsworth’s overwrought prose; we may marvel at his insipidity, but he earned money and honours. Still, Ainsworth is only one of a host of potential fraudulent figures.
The other transparent “Fraud” is The Claimant. This (real) court case takes up many pages in yet another level of this dizzying novel. English society, from 1871–1874, was fascinated by the Tichborne case. Was the supposed Sir Roger Tichborne, laying claim to an aristocratic title and estate, merely Arthur Orton, a butcher’s son from Wapping? Several complex lawsuits were followed closely by the public; The Claimant gained favour with the masses despite the absurdity of the evidence. Zadie Smith gives us pages and pages of this insanity, not unlike the Jarndyce and Jarndyce legal case in Dickens’s Bleak House, spinning on for years until the Jarndyce estate is tapped out.
While the “Fraud” at the simplest level must be this infamous Claimant, who somehow wheedled his way into the good graces of many gullible Victorians, it is also possible that Smith means the “Fraud” to be the English legal system itself, which underpins this buffoonery. Here is one statement from The Fraud about the interminable courtroom scenes: “Once Hawkins had summarized the main points, he proceeded to reiterate them in great detail, a process that took seventeen days” (368).
Or is Bogle the “Fraud”? Andrew Bogle, former slave, is entangled with The Claimant. Eliza finds in Bogle an admirable character. Because she believes in Bogle, she is drawn into the tabloid circus of the court cases and (running counter to her usual astuteness) finds herself sympathetic to The Claimant. When Bogle tells Eliza his story—the hundred or so pages at the novel’s heart—this white woman’s sympathy for the formerly enslaved man seems finally to offer a key to unlocking the rackety mechanism of the novel. But surely Bogle does not believe this Claimant malarkey? It must be economic necessity that drives him to witness to a foolish white man’s aristocratic claim.
One might additionally posit that the “Fraud” is Eliza herself, who, upon hearing Bogle’s story (told in a very Joseph Conrad manner in one fell swoop over a meal in a chop house), went home and “wrote it all out, just as she remembered it” (334). On the last pages of Zadie Smith’s novel, the manuscript of The Fraud lies on Eliza’s dressing table; she is considering various male pseudonyms. It is possible she does nothing with Bogle’s story—which is not hers. Zadie Smith’s novel ends on this unsatisfying sentence, italicized as if revealing, which it isn’t: “The mysteries of Mrs. Touchet were, finally, unfathomable” (451).
Oh, and there is more. Much more. Eliza goes to reform meetings. She is in love with William’s first wife. She goes to concerts. She has some money coming to her from her dead husband’s Jamaican holdings—shades of Persuasion—but ignores it for a confusingly long time. Suddenly she is in a lawyer’s office, signing away the money in favour of two illegitimate Black granddaughters of the Touchet family. And so on.
Which claimant for the “Fraud” of the title should we denounce loudest? The white woman taking hold of the Black man’s story unsettles me, but Eliza does not come in for much censure from Zadie Smith’s narrator. Oddly, on hearing Bogle’s story, Eliza feels that all her own life
she had been trying to open a locked door. She had pushed as hard as she could upon it—using means both personal and metaphysical—in the belief that the door opened outwards, onto ultimate reality, and that this was a sight few people are ever granted in this lifetime—particularly if they happen to be born female. Now, without any effort on her part, the door had come loose on its hinges. Finally, she could open it! But to her astonishment, it opened inwards. She had been standing inside the very thing she’d been looking for. (333)
How can “standing inside” Andrew Bogle’s story be the solution to Eliza’s unsatisfactory life? But I detect no irony here; indeed, I identify sympathy. The puzzling nature of The Fraud put me in mind of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a wild 1966 retelling of Jane Eyre from the Caribbean side of things, a book which had the disagreeable effect of making me distrust and dislike every character, of every colour and culture.
Zadie Smith has written often of living with a mixed heritage—she has a mother born in Jamaica and a white English father. She is married to the white Northern Irish writer Nick Laird. In her third novel, On Beauty, she created a smart, funny story of a family with a Black mother and a white father; it’s a moving adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, with its strains and good intentions of working across class lines. Her ease in reworking Howards End, a landmark work of modernism and a very English sort of novel, indicated just how fluent and comfortable she can be in any literary world she chooses to enter.
There are flashes of clarity in The Fraud. As Eliza listens to the nonsense of The Claimant’s cases, she is visited by a “subterranean insight. A person is a bottomless thing!” (343). A set piece involving Prince Albert’s famed Great Exhibition of 1851 turns a cool appraising eye at the embarrassing exoticisms on display. Andrew Bogle offers an outsider’s perceptive comments on English society:
Nothing was “added-up” here. The English turned out not to be a single tribe of well-fed top hats and silk shirts, as Ellis imagines, 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. (272)
I only recently finished this novel, but I cannot recall who Ellis is. In any case, these are all quicksilver moments and gone abruptly.
The Fraud, overall, is chaotic, unfunny, thinly characterized, and full of informational clutter. Literary pastiche, sticking it to idiotic white writers who wouldn’t recognize suffering if it fell on their heads (along with their devastatingly heavy bookcases)—this all seems unworthy of Zadie Smith’s powers. Granted, at the tell-tale heart of the novel we can recognize an important story, as does Eliza. But why is the tale of Bogle and the other Black characters nearly obscured by the bric-a-brac? Haven’t Black characters in fiction been obscured long enough?
In the days since finishing The Fraud I have revisited some of Zadie Smith’s shorter works. In her spiky and strange 2018 story “Now More Than Ever,” she takes a stand against the humourless guardians of contemporary morality who, literally, stand at the windows of their tower pointing accusing arrows at each other. A young friend, Scout, browbeats the narrator because of the narrator’s sympathy with the wrong type of people. Scout insists on owning opinions which are seamless, timeless, inflexible:
You’ve got to reach far, far back . . . into the past . . .and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently. (226)
At the end of the story, the narrator ends up talking to someone who has been declared “beyond the pale” but “I felt like talking to him so I did.” Soon they are “babbling like a couple of maniacs about a whole load of things: shame, ruin, public humiliation, the destruction of reputation” (235). She tries to put him on a badness scale of one to ten: “as I understand it he is, by general admission, hovering between a two and a three” (236). Then, she tells about a scandalous poet, and “soon after that the poet got canceled and, soon after that, me, too” (237).
In a 2016 lecture “The I Who is Not Me,” Smith writes this:
For me fiction is a way of asking: what if things were other than they are. And a central component of that is to ask: what if I was different than I am? (337)
The Zadie Smith of these other works is someone who values the free circulation of ideas and creativity, who desires the suppleness of trying out different personalities, different narrative strategies, and is smart enough to realize that if she claims these rights or privileges for herself that she must accede the same for others. What the Zadie Smith of The Fraud is resolving is more muddled. Summoning memories of Middlemarch and referring constantly to Dickens, Smith might be invoking the doctrines of sympathy so important to George Eliot and Dickens, although allusive writers invoke past masters like George Eliot at their peril. Zadie Smith once affectionately and successfully took on the task of rethinking Forster’s Howards End and its famous edict to “only connect” (across class, gender, then across racial lines, nations, and centuries). Why in The Fraud does so little seem to connect?
The Fraud is such a radically disconnected experience, I can’t help but wonder if Zadie Smith is, as the English say, “taking the piss.” Might she be prodding us, testing if we will have the temerity to claim we can see the floodwaters of fraudulence lapping right at her doorstep? It might just be that The Fraud is some kind of literary caper. Here is one more (peculiarly) riddling reference, apparently a clue dropped and never retrieved. The courtroom sections about the Claimant go on and on about all things Tichbourne, but buried also in the novel’s literary minutiae are two strange Tichbourne mentions in the work of William Ainsworth. He quotes a (real-life) Chidiock Tichbourne in one book and issues another youthful book under a pseudonym: Cheviot Ticheburne (24, 25). I thought these extra Tichbourne insinuations might be a playful little canard on Smith’s part, but I did my research; these are authentic references, or (if you like) one is an authentic reference to another fraud. But why bother with this? Yes, here is another fraud and, yes, we have frauds overlapping, but the note struck is a minor one.
As the novel was being released, Smith wrote an amusing, self-deprecating piece in The New Yorker that was charming and open about the writing of The Fraud:
But already this non-novel that I was refusing to write had generated a drawer full of notes and a shelf of books. I said to myself: my studying days are over. I said to myself: if you let this happen it will play to your worst, your most long-winded, your most Dickensian instincts. Already every Tichborne thread I pulled seemed to lead to yet another rich tapestry of nineteenth-century life, one that required yet more books to be ordered, and another folder of notes to be made. . . .When I tried to explain to anyone what all these subjects had in common, I did not sound like a person writing a historical novel as much as a person who had entirely lost the plot. (“On Killing Charles Dickens” 17, 18)
I trust and respect that Zadie Smith, the one who wonders if she’s a little crazy. The Zadie Smith who has loosely screwed together the rattling contraption of her latest novel worries me. I sense she might want her readers to do something with the tangle of stunts and ruses in The Fraud, but I don’t believe there’s enough of substance there. So, I return to my original enquiry. Is Zadie Smith all right?
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1818. Oxford UP, 2008.
“Briefly Noted: The Fraud, by Zadie Smith.” The New Yorker, 9 Oct. 2023, p. 69.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Penguin, 2006.
Forster, E.M. Howards End. 1910. Vintage Random House, 1989.
Gillmor, Alison. “Fraught Fact and Fiction.” Review of The Fraud by Zadie Smith. Winnipeg Free Press, 14 Oct. 2023, E3.
Lowdon, Claire. “Costume drama: Zadie Smith’s Victorian tale of posture and impostors.” Review of The Fraud. Times Literary Supplement, no. 6285, 15 Sept. 2023, 3–4.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. Norton, 1982.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. Knopf, 1993.
Smith, Zadie. The Fraud. Penguin Random House, 2023.
—. “Killing Dickens,” The New Yorker, 10 & 17 July 2023, pp. 16–18.
—. “Now More than Ever.” Grand Union: Stories. Penguin Random House, 2019, pp. 235–238.
—. “The I Who is Not Me.” Feel Free: Essays. Penguin Random House, 2018, pp. 343–348.
—. On Beauty. Penguin Random House, 2005.