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26 August 2023updated 30 Aug 2023 12:02pm

Zadie Smith: the reluctant historical novelist

The author’s first period piece, The Fraud, is curiously absent of her usual strengths. Was her heart really in it?

By Lola Seaton

Perhaps unavoidably, given her precocious stardom, Zadie Smith’s career has been marked by self-consciousness, and by self-criticism. Not only the run-of-the-mill self-scrutiny one might expect of a novelist who is also a critic and professor of creative writing, and who completed White Teeth (2000), the book that propelled her to fame, while studying English at Cambridge learning the dark arts of “practical criticism”. Smith’s self-consciousness is of a more exalted and pervading variety. She engages with her critics – most famously, describing James Wood’s coinage “hysterical realism” as “a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth”. She is preoccupied with the history and future of the novel, and her place within both. She writes essays with old-fashioned titles such as “Two Paths for the Novel”, “In Defence of Fiction”.

This literary self-consciousness is evident in different ways in the novels themselves: in the sprawling scale and riffing prose of White Teeth; in the EM Forster “homage” of her third novel, On Beauty (2005), which borrows the plot of Howards End; in the insistent virtuosity of NW (2012), perhaps her most self-conscious novel, and to some, most accomplished, which borrows from modernism, alternates styles, experiments with typography. A certain self-consciousness also attends each novel’s relation to its predecessors, defined less by steady development or natural variation than pointed contrast and revamp. Christine Smallwood described NW as a “400-page work of literary theory”, and all of Smith’s novels are in part novels of ideas, where the ideas in question are ideas about novels.

In keeping with this restive spirit of adventure, Smith’s latest book, The Fraud, is a historical novel set in the 19th century. It is based on a court case in England that went on for several months in 1873. Standing trial was a butcher from Wapping named Arthur Orton who claimed to be Roger Tichborne, the heir to an estate who had long been believed lost at sea. Despite not resembling Tichborne and other non-trivial inconsistencies, Orton – known as “the Claimant” in Smith’s novel – captured the public imagination, and the trial drew huge crowds. The key witness, who claimed to recognise the Claimant as Tichborne, was an elderly black man named Andrew Bogle. A former slave born in Jamaica, Bogle had come to England to serve as the Tichbornes’ valet. He is the mysterious centre of Smith’s novel, accompanying the Claimant to rallies and to court, and becoming an unlikely popular hero.

One of those who finds herself riveted by the trial is the novel’s protagonist, Eliza Touchet, a tall, severe, strangely ageless old woman based on the real cousin of the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (the forgotten author of more than 40 novels, described by Smith in an essay as “mostly awful”, though one, Jack Sheppard, apparently outsold Oliver Twist). Eliza’s husband and infant son were “felled by scarlet fever” when she was in her thirties, and she subsequently became housekeeper – among other things – to her ambitious but talentless cousin. In William’s heyday, he and Eliza hosted rowdy literary parties – Dickens, Forster, Thackeray all appear – in their north London residence, Kensal Lodge, but by the time of the Tichborne Claimant’s trial in the 1870s, William is in his sixties, his career is in decline, and his straitened household has decamped to more parochial lodgings. William, who was also widowed young and has three grown-up daughters, is about to marry his boorish young maid, Sarah, who is gripped by “Tichborne mania” and convinced that the Claimant is telling the truth despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

[See also: Colleen Hoover’s tales of love and trauma]

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Eliza, initially a reluctant chaperone, eventually has her own reasons for following the case. She is mesmerised by Bogle’s inscrutable integrity: his “impenetrable glaze – impenetrable because so much itself”. Bogle defends the Claimant even though it means forgoing his annuity (the Claimant, by contrast, appears to be lying for personal gain). Eliza finds that “never in her life had she been more curious to hear a man speak”, and is bent on learning the story of his life. Fashioning herself into a kind of amateur “lady journalist”, she attends and documents the Claimant’s trial, and eventually approaches Bogle, whose story, recounted over pork chops, she then writes down, from his father’s kidnapping from Africa to growing up on a sugar plantation in Jamaica to working as a servant in England.

Divided into eight volumes, in imitation of Victorian novels (like Middlemarch) – volumes six and seven comprise Bogle’s biography – The Fraud is composed of brisk chapters, many little more than a page, some as short as a paragraph. These glancing scenes toggle back and forth in time over the several decades of William and Eliza’s multifaceted relationship. As well as being his housekeeper, Eliza is his lover (she also had an affair with William’s late wife, Frances) and literary caretaker: reading his dreadful manuscripts, intercepting critical notices, dispensing port at his raucous salons.

The major action of the novel, though curiously difficult to discern, is not the public trial – background noise that doesn’t build to a real crescendo (the reader is given no reason to be especially invested in the fate of the Claimant). Nor does it concern the vicissitudes of Eliza and William’s eccentric partnership, or the aftermath of Eliza’s tragedies: the loss of her family and then her beloved Frances. These cataclysms of Eliza’s intimate life are briefly registered in sketchy flashbacks; the personal transformation the novel tracks instead is intellectual and political – she devotes herself to “an idea: freedom”, becoming involved in abolitionism – and vocational: she becomes a writer.

These are related: her literary ambitions evolve from her fascination with Bogle, through whose story Eliza comes to appreciate how “profoundly intertwined” England and Jamaica are via the slave trade (an entanglement that touches her own livelihood – her widow’s annuity – since her late husband’s family made their money in cotton).

William, blithely at work on his own novel “‘set partially in Jamaica’, an island upon which he had never set foot”, is a clownish foil to Eliza: self-involved where Eliza is authentically interested in others, caught up in his own fantasies where she “avidly follows the news” and attends political meetings, obsessed with his reputation where she works in obscurity. William’s novels are overwritten; Eliza finds herself “light-headed” with satisfaction at the tersest of compositions: “writing the basic facts” on William and Sarah’s marriage licence. Where Eliza is diligent and self-effacing – chronicling court proceedings “without further commentary” – William insouciantly dilates on subjects of which he knows nothing.

And while Eliza is immersed in contemporary events, William writes about the “distant past”: in one early scene, anticipating reading his work-in-progress about the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Eliza dreads “struggling through dense descriptions of the various types of dwellings to be found in the Outer Hebrides, perhaps, or an exhaustive list of the various kilts worn by the Royal Company of Archers”. The joke, of course, is that we are reading a historical novel. Or rather we think we are, until it dawns that the book we are reading may be Eliza’s, who by The Fraud’s penultimate page has completed a manuscript also titled The Fraud. Yet the derisory mention of “dense descriptions” only underscores their amazing scarcity in Smith’s novel, which exhibits a perplexing lack of interest in capturing visual and sensuous detail. The Fraud leaves you with no desire to dig out one of William Ainsworth’s books, but there are so few aids to visualisation, so few sharply rendered objects or vividly imagined scenes, that one almost wishes the author was more anxious to display their research.

Take this description – perhaps notification is the more accurate word – of the Ainsworths’ move to the South Downs:

the rolling Downs rolled without interruption, and were always in view. Even the most banal activity – buying sausages! – radiated with glory, for there were the South Downs, over the butcher’s shoulder. Finally, it had happened: she no longer missed the old Kensal Lodge life. The dinners, the parties. She liked Hurstpierpoint. The quiet tea room, the bakery, the fishmonger’s.

Instead of precise evocation, this is enthusiastic naming, generic if not tautologous (“the rolling Downs rolled”). When Smith began a chapter of NW with a similar kind of pointing – “That bit of the Heath where the main road runs right through and the pavement disappears” – London-based readers at least could take pleasure in recognition, or the idea of recognition, of fiction intersecting with reality. Here, Smith’s inventory – “The dinners, the parties”, “the bakery, the fishmonger’s”, “buying sausages!” – brings nothing concrete to mind. Or consider this description of London:

All around was shouting, singing, speechifying, organ-grinding, and a bright array of signs and symbols, printed and displayed on any spare space: Colman’s Mustard, Hudson’s Soap, Cadbury’s Cocoa… A chaos of beggars and costermongers, of flower girls and fruit boys… all manner of fascinating women. And the clothes!

This informs us of variety, but doesn’t summon any instances of it. Unlike “That bit of the Heath”, the familiar brand names provide a shallow kind of recognition, knowing not intimate, factual not felt. Even when description is more specific, objects are often referred to in evasive plural: “The weather was blustery: scarves, tails, skirt hems and branches waving wildly.” In the haze, even an ordinary rendering of mundane sensation stands out: “A strong east wind blew strands of hair into her mouth.”

[See also: Jordan Peterson’s rules for selective quotation]

Of course, if we are partly reading Eliza’s The Fraud, then we might suspect parody and consider these her stylistic lapses – such as when characters are not characterised so much as summarised in a mouthful of epithets: “‘Mother’s dress!’ whispered Fanny – the oldest and severest of the daughters – to practical Emily, and ever-wounded Anne-Blanche, who began quietly weeping.” Devoutly Catholic and austerely idealistic, Eliza on several occasions remarks on the inadequacy of words in the face of ineffable mysteries: “some knowledge is beyond language”. Her facility as a stylist is perhaps stymied by such beliefs. She admires Dickens’s ability to animate objects, to fill “all the vacant dresses and coats and shoes in the window with a cast of humans, each one convincing, conjured in a sentence, overbrimming with – life”. But she herself “did not believe that souls were fully contained or described by coats and shoes”. Or perhaps her literary talents are suppressed by her emotional defences: nicknamed “the Targe” for her “spiky, Scottish, shield-like aspect”, she realises at one point that writing is ultimately distraction, a means of escaping “the void” that opened up after Frances’s death (“Weeks of tearful agony”).

Eliza is given to such abstracted epiphanies about writing (“she wondered if she was lying to tell the truth, like a novelist”). Indeed her becoming a writer is measured by her growing self-consciousness about literary matters (“Mrs Touchet liked to examine her thoughts as she had them”), not any perceptible maturation of her style. Eliza’s pat musings are sometimes preceded by satirising allusions to her cerebral cast of mind: “In trying to understand other people, Mrs Touchet generally followed the principle of Terence”; “Mrs Touchet drew yet another theory of truth from these melancholy reflections…”.

But the impression Eliza leaves is hazy. We are given facts about her character and past, but we never get a feel for her, despite having such close access. We are told that she is mysterious, “finally, unfathomable”, as the novel’s last line has it, but one can be vividly mysterious; Eliza is simply indistinct. Meanwhile, the satirising clues about her are not sufficient to sustain an ironic distance from her writing – but even if they were, and The Fraud is partly Eliza’s “internal oration” as it’s aptly referred to at the very end of the novel, why impose it on us?

The framing device doesn’t necessitate pastiche, which in this case seems a rather punishing, not to mention cerebral, strategy, and a bafflingly privative one for a writer of Smith’s gifts: stylistic versatility, ear for speech, skill at capturing the quiddity and minutiae of what it feels like to be alive, and, especially, to be self-conscious. Smith’s novels are uneven, the particular often in danger of being smothered by the generic, insights of startling penetration preceded by equally startling platitudes: “unusual thing, a happy and passionate marriage”, Smith writes in On Beauty. “Everybody thinks they’re in love at 20, of course; but Howard Belsey had really still been in love at 40 – embarrassing but true. He never really got over her face. It gave him so much pleasure.” The keen truth in that “face” is an example of Smith’s ability to bring her “native enthusiasm to the smallest matters”, as Howard’s wife puts it at one point, describing her idea of an artist.

[See also: Milan Kundera’s sexual revolutions]

There are flashes of compressed illumination in The Fraud: “Toby weight. Toby smell,” Eliza thinks, holding a baby that reminds her of own dead child; or, in the first flush of her romance with Frances: “They talked nonsense. Every word was illuminated.” But their rarity is surprising given Smith’s avowed conception of reading: the “intimate judgement of a reader… happens sentence by sentence, moment by moment”, she wrote in “In Defence of Fiction”. Belief “is, for me, a by-product of a certain kind of sentence… if the sentences don’t speak to me, nothing else will.”

James Wood once described White Teeth’s “cartoonish energy” as amounting “to a fear of silence, a perpetual mobility”. Daniel Soar similarly noted the way the book “glides over the terrifying fact of being stuck in the present moment… by pressing fast-forward”. The Fraud doesn’t fizz like Smith’s debut, but it does skip back and forth in time, and skim over moments of emotional intensity and consequence, bespeaking a different, less fruitful kind of haste.

A recent essay Smith wrote for the New Yorker promising to explain “Why I wrote a historical novel” mostly explains why she didn’t want to, and for a long time avoided doing so. She claims that when she stumbled across the Tichborne story in 2012, she “knew at once” that “it had my name all over it” and would be “perfect for my purposes”, but then put off turning it into fiction for nearly a decade. What were Smith’s “purposes”? She succumbed to the genre, perhaps, not unlike her protagonist, out of an allegiance to the idea. She may have wanted to write a historical novel, but the sentences within don’t altogether convince me that she wanted to write this one.

The Fraud
Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 464pp, £20

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con