The Fraud: A Novel

Image of The Fraud: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

The Fraud is a brilliant pastiche. It is clever, often entertaining, well-researched . . .”

The Fraud by Zadie Smith is a multi-genre, many-themed work: it is a mock Victorian novel that includes 18th century and modernist stylistic elements; it is about social class, racism, abolitionism, sexism, sexuality, and the Victorian literary and legal world; it is humorous as well as serious, mundane and philosophical. As Henry James commented about some nineteenth-century novels: it is a “large, loose, baggy monster.”

Narrated in the third person, and often in a close third person, The Fraud allies itself with Mrs. Eliza Touchet. As a historical novel, The Fraud centers on the life of Mrs. Touchet, a cousin and housekeeper of the second-rate popular novelist William Ainsworth, as well as on the year-long “Tickborne Trial.” The trial, which captivated English people from all walks of life, including Eliza Touchet, involved a lower-class butcher from Australia who claimed to be the rightful heir, Sir Roger Tichborne, of the Tichborne estate. Much evidence suggested that “Sir Roger” was a fraud and opportunist. But his claim was supported by Bogle a formerly enslaved man who grew up on a plantation in Jamaica where he worked for the Tichbornes. In the novel, Bogle’s sincerity and defense of “Sir Roger,” as well as his race, complicate matters. For instance, Mrs. Touchet, who supports abolitionism, believes that the claimant is lying but that Bogle is credible. The narrator asks about Bogle: “But might a person be sincerely false? That is false and not know it?”

The Fraud is well researched, comprehensive, and rich in detail. It includes numerous accounts to the trial, life in Victorian England, and many allusions and references to 19th century British writers. Further, the novel details Bogle’s and his family’s experiences on the Hope Plantation in Jamaica along with his life in England.

The narrative and organization of The Fraud is complex and disjointed. Stylistically, it includes numerous genres. Parts of the novel are modernist where the self-conscious narrator, often close to Eliza Touchet, makes meta observations about literature, justice, and various characters. The Fraud is also a pastiche of a multi-volume Victorian novel—in this case—an eight-volume novel written by a woman.

It is no accident that early in The Fraud, Eliza Touchet slyly alludes to George Eliot’s eight-part novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. The Fraud, in depicting the Tichborne Trial at length, also pays homage to Dickens’ (not coincidentally a character in the book) long, exhaustive, multi-plot trial novel Bleak House. Too, Smith’s novel even includes a slave narrative-like section about Bogle, though related in the third person, in the middle of the book.

Nor is The Fraud organized in chronological order. Rather it jumps around in time and place and includes numerous characters, making the narrative somewhat confusing. Because of the nonlinear and interrupted narrative, the stories of Eliza Touchet and the trial lack momentum and dramatic tension. Perhaps to add a narrative spark, Smith concludes many chapters with a teasing question, or philosophical musing, like a Victorian cliffhanger. For instance, when Eliza finds that she can inherit money from her dead husband, she thinks, in the last line of the chapter, “In whose debt am I?” Or another chapter concludes, “To speak of it would be to erase humiliation? Or only to add to it?” This device is effective periodically but is implemented too often seeming gimmicky.

Smith’s very apt and perfectly titled novel cleverly examines the diverse definitions of fraud. In terms of the basic plot, the novel focuses on the trial of a fraudulent claimant and paradoxically on the honest Bogle who defends the false “Sir Roger.”

The novel also explores fraud versus authenticity in relation to class, marriage, racism, and sexuality. Finally, it explores fraudulence in relation to literature asking what a true or authentic text is and who is a real author or has true authority. Smith explores these ideas in relation to known writers like William Ainsworth and Charles Dickens, as well as Mrs. Eliza Touchet. It is no accident that the central images in the first and last chapters of the The Fraud are books. Most of all, The Fraud itself is a fraudulent, namely 21st century, Victorian novel and a fictional version of a historical event and “real” characters.

In many respects The Fraud is a brilliant pastiche. It is clever, often entertaining, well-researched, and thorough---at times too thorough. Also, Eliza Touchet is a captivating character. And while she is forceful and impressive enough to unify the many components of the novel, she cannot. Instead, the many ingredients rotate and separate like paint in a centrifuge rather than blending smoothly together.