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Zadie Smith on the problem of the good white woman

The Fraud, a Victorian novel for the post-Trump era, is elegant, flawed, and sharp as a knife.

The Fraud by Zadie Smith.
Penguin Press
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Midway through Zadie Smith’s elegant new novel The Fraud, Smith offers us a striking description. She’s writing about the man at the center of a court case, currently appearing before a crowd at a rally being held in his name.

“One saw at once that here was a man who moved as the wind moved,” Smith writes, in the cool, gently judgmental prose that characterizes The Fraud. “A man with no centre, who might be nudged in any direction, depending. The watery eyes plainly revealed he was out of his depth. But then, too, that he enjoyed this crowd and was willing to believe in their belief if they after all felt so strongly. ... In fact, if it came to that, he did believe! In fact, it was an outrage that anyone could doubt him! And yet: what if they found him out?”

The paragraph is the most precise and most damning portrait of Donald Trump’s psyche that I have yet read: the hollowness, the complacency, the knowledge of one’s own inadequacy that is too frightening to ever be looked at in the light of day. It is not, however, officially about Trump.

The man Smith is describing here is a true historical figure who spent much of the 1860s and ’70s trying to prove that he was Sir Roger Tichborne, the son of a baron. He was in fact almost certainly (as Smith’s point-of-view character well knows) a butcher of no particular consequence named Arthur Orton. For Britain’s working classes, the Tichborne Claimant, as Orton was known, became a symbol of the working man at last making good, muscling his way into the ranks of the aristocracy. They loved him, mostly because he kept insisting that he was not one of them.

It is the Tichborne Claimant, with his love of a crowd, his skill at comedic repartee on the stand, his ability to embody a populist cause for which he himself has no particular loyalty, who is the clearest of the frauds in The Fraud, the first Zadie Smith novel to be written in the Trump years. But other, less obvious frauds populate the pages, whispering deceit to everyone around them, including themselves.

At the center of The Fraud is Mrs. Touchet, a stern and acid-tongued gentlewoman in reduced circumstances, working as a housekeeper for her deceased husband’s cousin. Mrs. Touchet’s employer, William Ainsworth, is a prolific and reportedly terrible Victorian novelist. At the height of his career, Ainsworth outsold Charles Dickens; within 30 years of his death, he’d become all but forgotten. Ainsworth is another of the clearer frauds of this novel: a hack writer masquerading as a literary man, maintaining friendships with other novelists who flatter his ego.

“Not infrequently, he wrote twenty pages in an afternoon,” Mrs. Touchet observes. “He always appeared entirely satisfied with every line.”

Mrs. Touchet is characteristically clear-eyed over Ainsworth’s writing ability, but she is affectionate toward him nonetheless. In their youth, they play with whips and tethers together; in old age, they bicker companionably. He is, she thinks, the only person in the world who truly knows her, because only he has known her through the whole 40-year scope of this novel.

Yet Mrs. Touchet keeps secrets even from Ainsworth, both big and small. As his friend, she never tells him how much she dislikes his writing. As his housekeeper, she manages him with a vast slew of tiny white lies to keep him from making choices she herself finds inconvenient. Most importantly, she never tells Ainsworth that she was in love with his dead wife, Frances, and that she went to bed with Frances, too.

It is her secret attraction for other women that Mrs. Touchet considers to be her own fraud, one she can never reveal to anyone else. Otherwise, Mrs. Touchet tries to live a life authentic to her conscience. She is a political progressive: a feminist, an abolitionist, a radical Catholic who campaigns to end British slavery and rolls her eyes at the complacent liberalism of Ainsworth and his wealthy writer friends. With her sardonic, intelligent voice, she is a thoroughly lovable protagonist, a character it’s easy to identify with.

Smith, however, makes it clear that Mrs. Touchet has been unable to thoroughly internalize all her laudable political beliefs. Her fraudulence becomes most clear in the most fascinating section of The Fraud, when Mrs. Touchet becomes obsessed with a formerly enslaved Jamaican man named Andrew Bogle, a witness in the trial of the Tichborne Claimant.

Bogle is one of the only figures admired on both sides of the Tichborne dispute, and the one everyone agrees has been hard done by, both within the novel and historically. He used to be a servant in the Tichborne home, and now he’s testifying that he recognizes the Claimant as Sir Roger. By so testifying, he’s lost the pension the family guaranteed him. Reporters on both sides emphasize Bogle’s innate nobility, how clear it is that in a world of frauds, Bogle is an honest and straightforward man who has gained nothing by testifying.

Mrs. Touchet sees, in Bogle’s palpable honesty, a match for her beloved lost Frances. She starts to follow him. She will not let up until Bogle tells her his story, which at last he does in a long, searing interlude that takes up the central third of The Fraud.

Bogle’s story begins with his father’s capture and enslavement at age 10. It tracks the brutal regime of life on a Jamaican sugar plantation, the violence, the maiming. Bogle is pulled off the plantation to work as a valet at age 16 more or less by sheer luck; he finds out he’s free when the man he works for casually tells him he’s going to be added to the payroll. When he makes it to England, life becomes less violent but still brutal, free of respect or love.

Mrs. Touchet sees Bogle’s life story as the revelation of a great truth: The problem of Jamaica is alive and present in England, too. “It was and had always been everywhere, like weather,” Mrs. Touchet marvels. She is overwhelmed by Bogle’s tale, and she imagines that they have formed a great intimacy. If he has confided so much in her, surely he understands that she is a good white person?

Bogle, however, is unmoved by Mrs. Touchet. He feels no particular closeness to her. He tells her his story because he is honest, but he has no interest in the pieties of her political beliefs.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Touchet shrinks away from direct physical contact with Black people. She finds herself willing to overlook her own political beliefs when they become particularly inconvenient to her. Her fraudulence emerges slowly, and then all at once, all the more upsetting because Mrs. Touchet means so well and thinks so hard.

The Fraud is a more successful Zadie Smith novel than her 2016 outing Swing Time, which contained striking images and interesting ideas but was hampered by a deliberate lack of center. The heart of The Fraud is flawed, charismatic Mrs. Touchet, who is so intelligent and yet not quite intelligent enough to see all the ways she fails herself.

Still, the three stories of this novel never quite cohere into one grand piece. We hop back and forth between the Tichborne case and the Ainsworth house and Bogle’s story without ever quite finding any connective tissue outside the pleasure of seeing the world through Mrs. Touchet’s sardonic eyes; that, and the petty workaday horror of fraud after fraud after fraud.

In our own fraudulent age, with our man with no center making his way back to the front of his beloved crowds for another presidential campaign — well, there’s so much joy in watching Zadie Smith deconstruct a lie that the flaws in this book might not matter all that much. There’s enough that works.

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