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Tuesday, February 6, 2024



It is not a book that comes to a neat, tidying-up-of-loose-ends conclusion, but is ultimately a novel of ideas, ideas about people. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

In this complex and thought-provoking novel, The Fraud, Zadie Smith has moved into the realms of historical fiction, taking real characters and a genuine, if extraordinary, court case - that of the Tichborne Claimant in late 19th Century Britain.

This was the matter of Arthur Orton, a butcher from Wapping who claimed to be the missing Sir Roger Tichborne, hoping to inherit his fortune and title. Despite the fact that the claimant could not speak French – Tichborne had lived in France in his youth - and not having the tattoos that Tichborne was known to have sported, the trials dragged on for years and attracted a huge following of Orton’s supporters.

However, Smith’s central character is Eliza Touchet, cousin of and housekeeper – and sometimes rather more – to William Ainsworth, a Victorian novelist who was initially popular but is now completely forgotten. She is a sharp-tongued realist, a believer in the abolition of slavery, in justice, truth and is also a shrewd observer of what is going on around her. This, in spite of, or because of, her position as a single woman of no fortune. And it all makes her very entertaining, fully aware of her cousin’s shortcomings as a writer and a man, but also not entirely free of the prejudices of her time and class.

Although sceptical, she gets drawn into the Tichborne case, and is fascinated by the character of Andrew Bogle, an important supporter of the claimant. He is a former slave, born in Jamaica, who knew Roger Tichborne before his disappearance, and who steadfastly supports Orton through two trials as a witness for the defence. But why? Eliza and the reader have to wonder what persuades this seemingly honest and upright man to back an obvious fraud. There’s not much in it for him, and it means he has forfeited the pension he received from the Tichborne family.

A long section gives Bogle’s background, and that of his family in Jamaica. This digression could have disrupted the flow of the novel, but Smith holds the reader’s interest. Bogle’s story is pertinent to the tale and is also as an insight into the social background of the times, the casual racism of the colonisers and the class divides of British society.

It is not a book that comes to a neat, tidying-up-of-loose-ends conclusion, but is ultimately a novel of ideas, ideas about people. What makes them tick, whether we can really understand them, or even ourselves and our motives. And ultimately, what is the nature of truth? Margaret von Klemperer

The Fraud by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton: ISBN 978-0-241-33700-4