The Fraud by Zadie Smith

Smith has written a historical novel based on a real-life crime, The Tichborne Claimant or case, peopled with those who lived at the time and set in a world of literary circles. It is a novel that asks us to consider who is telling the truth and why we believe them. Everyone in the book and many of the events are fraudulent in some way.

The story opens with a catastrophe in the Ainsworth household. The house is so old and decrepit that the library collapses with all of its books and falls through the ceiling, down to the floor below.

The sheer weight of literature you’ve got there, well, that will put a terrible strain on a house, Mrs Touchet. A terrible strain.


And so, right from the start, we know that this is going to be a book about the dead weight, the excessive weight, of literature.

Eliza Touchet and William Ainsworth, a writer, share a household being cousins and lovers. Ainsworth surrounds himself with other writers, Dickens and Thackeray in particular, and is constantly critiqued and criticised by them. He sits in his office that becomes smaller and smaller each time they move house, and writes historical novels that even Eliza Touchet can barely bring herself to read. It is often said that writers ‘borrow’ from others but here ‘it is from a worn cloth and stolen truths’ that the novels are made.

Eliza, William and his second wife Sarah become caught up in the Tichborne Case where Sir Roger Tichborne was thought to have drowned on a ship that sank only to appear years later. He had apparently been living in Australia all this time and had come back to claim his inheritance. The country was divided into those who thought he was Tichborne and those who didn’t. Eliza and Sarah attend as much of the trial as they can, it goes on for about a year, and have opposing views about whether this man is a fraud and how we can tell. The book asks us to reflect on what we can ever know about other people.

Andrew Bogle, Tichborne’s man servant, accompanies him throughout the trial, swearing that he is Tichborne and that he knows things that only the real Tichborne could know. Eliza is very taken with Bogle, his manners, the colour of his skin, and his seeming lack of ego suggesting to her that he is telling the truth although she still doesn’t believe the man who says he is Tichborne.

Sarah and the working classes see Tichborne as a symbol of their oppression: he speaks like them, behaves like them and this creates a division in society with the educated thinking he is a fraud. Where have we heard this before? At one point it is stated that Tichborne had a tattoo on his shoulder but this man doesn’t.

. . . but such dry and inconvenient facts were of no consequence here, in this ocean of feeling.


Smith skilfully brings race and slavery into the story with Bogle being black and from Jamaica. She tells us that London and Jamaica are ‘two sides of the same coin’ joined at the hip by slavery. This enables us to reflect on what freedon means for women, Black people and those who were enslaved. Working in the sugar cane fields meant that often children of the men who ran the business turned up staking a claim on someone’s money. This had personal relevance for Eliza whose own father had children outside of wedlock and this may have coloured her view.

There are so many frauds in this book that it would be easier to list who or what wasn’t. Andrew Bogle didn’t seem to be but everyone else was. Eliza had affairs with William and his first wife, The claimant was a fraud, Ainsworth was fraudulent in thinking of himself as a literary giant and the belief that abolution meant the end of slavery. Bogle was the only person who felt a fraud when living a contented life in Dorset.

Dickens is present in this book – successful but not without criticism. It is said that he was a purveyor of the poor, Ainsworth hardly able to look when they were out.

One might even say he grew rich demonstrating the bond.


I know that Smith has been likened to Dickens but in this book she kills him off – well, he dies -and so she is free of him as is Ainsworth.

This is a big book in every way. Divided up into eight books, just like Middlemarch, the book that Eliza was reading and enjoying. Chapters are short, some about a third of a page in places, but with a scene or snapshot or part of the story. It means the pages keep turning. Historical fiction is meant to illuminate events or people of the present day and I can’t help feeling that with all the current fascination with people’s own truths and lack of concern about facts, this book highlights policiticans here and overseas.

At one point, Sarah states

Aint it a marvel how he ties them all up in knots! The more the lawyers talk, the more he proves himself.


Or, how about

. . . making up stories from whole cloth, which then become indistinguishable from the truth, even in their own minds


Roger Tichborne raises money from the population who believe him, those who can least afford to give, in order to set him free. Didn’t Trump raise a lot of money when accused of election fraud?

A successful foray for Smith into the historical world to shed light on today.

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