Reviewed by Harriet
He saw of course that she was an old woman, but she didn’t move or speak like one. A high bosom, handsome, her face had few wrinkles and her hair was black. Above her chin, half moon line, turned upside down. Such ambiguities were more than the boy could unravel.
Full disclosure – I have never read Zadie Smith before. But I’d been intrigued by the description of this book as it is set in a period I know quite well, and contains characters who were already familiar to me. So when my daughter gave me a copy for my birthday last month, I was very pleased and started reading it straight away.
Here, then, we are in the middle of the nineteenth century; sometimes in the 1830s, sometimes the 1870s, and occasionally somewhere in between. But throughout we are in the company of Mrs Eliza Touchet (pronounced the French way by her preference), who is the person described in the paragraph above. Separated from an unsatisfactory husband, Eliza has become the housekeeper, and occasional lover, of her cousin, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (and for a happy while, of his first wife). Ainsworth really existed, and his early novels were hugely popular, more so even than those of his near contemporary Charles Dickens. Eliza too had a real existence though not much is known about her; but, as Smith tells us the Afterword, a first edition of The Christmas Carol, dedicated to her by the author, was sold at auction in 2009, becoming the most expensive Dickens title ever sold.
Most of the events in the novel have a historical basis, so Ainsworth’s early successes, his circle of friends, his wives and his daughters, his various dwellings, and his loss of popularity are all factually verifiable, with Eliza as it were inserted into them. The same is true of another event which forms a central part of the novel. This is the trial of a man known as the Tichborne Claimant. Roger Tichborne, the heir to the title of a wealthy Catholic family, had been presumed drowned in a shipwreck in 1854. Ten years later a man working as a butcher in Australia claimed to be the missing heir. Eventually, after several court cases, the Claimant was brought to trial in what was one of the longest in English history, lasting from April 1873 to February 1874.
In Smith’s novel, the trial catches the attention of Ainsworth’s second wife Sarah, a London maidservant who had become pregnant with his child. Sarah is desperate to go to the trial, which has become a huge public spectacle, but Ainsworth won’t let her go on her own, so Eliza agrees to accompany her. Initially sceptical but curious, Eliza becomes fascinated by the extraordinary fervour of the Claimant’s many supporters, and also by his chief defendant, Andrew Bogle. A former slave who had worked for the Tichborne family, Bogle is unshakeable in his belief in the Claimant’s identity despite so many facts that seem to disprove it. Intrigued and moved by the obvious honesty and sincerity of this man from such a different world, Eliza manages to make his acquaintance and persuades him to tell her the story of his own life, a narrative that begins in an African village and ends on a sugar plantation. Eliza secretly starts to write a novel of her own, an interesting decision since she has always despised the craft of fiction, especially in the hands of her cousin, a picker-up of untrustworthy information: ‘From such worn cloth and stolen truth are novels made’, she comments when he produces a novel about Jamaica, which he had never visited, based on a decades old pamphlet.
Who, then, is the fraud of this remarkable novel? Is it the Claimant, clinging to the truth of his story despite all the evidence to the contrary? Is it Ainsworth, sometimes desperately anxious that talent is actually something that he manifestly doesn’t possess? Or it is Eliza herself, by far the strongest person in the chaotic household in which she lives but unable to be honest about her own sexuality, forced to praise her cousin’s increasingly poor novels, and lacking the opportunity to use her own intelligence for any useful purpose?
There’s so much to enjoy here. The novel is often very funny, thanks to Eliza’s sharp-eyed assessment of the her cousin and his circle, and of the household in general. One of many such moments is when, remembering an old pamphlet of Ainsworth’s calling for charitable relief for the labouring poor, she recalls that
she had already begun to suspect that her young cousin’s primary interest in the poor might be, in fact, their bodies, liberated as they so often were from all those frustrating stays and corsets, bustles and stockings. Aged twenty-one, he was an inveterate pincher of maids’ bottoms, and already swooning over sturdy, middle-aged cooks.
It’s also very moving in places, notably when Eliza falls to her knees and weeps when she hears that Bogle has died and been given a pauper’s burial.
Finally, it’s impossible not to be reminded of recent events in America by the fanatical following of the Claimant, ‘a fun-loving, beer-swilling, aristocratic man of the people’ by his mainly working-class admirers, who see the case against him as a clear demonstration of a plot by the upper classes to grind down the less deserving.
Tremendous, entertaining, thought-provoking, and highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books, and spent many years researching one of Smith’s minor characters, the beautiful, though perhaps slightly dodgy Countess of Blessington.
Zadie Smith, The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton, 2023). 978-0241336991, 464pp., hardback.
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