Leave it to Zadie Smith to include a political Rorschach test in her latest novel. In one of The Fraud’s pivotal encounters, set in 1875, the novel’s protagonist, Eliza Touchet—Scottish housekeeper, abolitionist, aspiring novelist and former lover of the English novelist William Harrison Ainsworth—has just come back from a visit to the Hackney Downs riots, where thousands upon thousands pulled down fences enclosing what had once been land held in common. Frazzled, she breathlessly recounts all she’s seen to Henry Bogle—a young black man who has relocated to England to support his father—and congratulates herself on her progressive notions. After she speaks, Smith’s narration shifts to Henry’s perspective: “It was not her political ideas or the lack of them that were of interest to Henry. It was her freedom. Her freedom of movement.”
The ensuing argument may be familiar to anyone exposed to clichés about supposed generational rifts regarding social reform—the conflict between the young and the old, between demands for immediate social transformation and equally unrealistic stories about the arc of history bending toward justice. Henry calls Mrs. Touchet out on a basic premise: Why should anyone wait to be granted their freedom when it is their right? Mrs. Touchet, incapable of answering, resorts to the knowing condescension every indignant young person of color has faced at one point in their lives: What an eloquent boy Henry is! His father must be proud. “It is not the prisoner’s right to open his cell that is in question, Mrs Touchet! It is the gaoler’s fraud in claiming to hold a man prisoner in the first place,” Henry finally thunders. “Whoever sees and comprehends the truth of this illegitimacy must reveal it, it is essential that he does, that he make it his life’s work, with every breath that he takes.” Mrs. Touchet professes sympathy for Henry’s impassioned commitment to justice at the same time as she snippily notes his use of the male pronoun (what about women?). She “could no more envisage” living this way, she concludes, “than she could imagine crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon.”
Echoes of Smith’s obsessions from her nonfiction—generational misunderstandings, social change, race relations, the positionality of the novelist—reverberate through this conversation. For liberal critics, Mrs. Touchet shares with her author a “basic aloofness,” per Adam Kirsch in Harper’s, as well as the “open-mindedness, even to the point of moral ambiguity,” requisite for understanding (and representing) our times. But these same qualities have become a lodestone for criticism of The Fraud from left-leaning reviewers. “Eliza’s blind spots, far from disqualifying her, testify to the slow, uncertain work of becoming morally serious,” writes Andrea Long Chu in New York, which only goes to show that Smith prioritizes psychology over analyses of power, conceiving of “the novel as a little liberal machine for making more little liberals.” Notwithstanding their political differences, critics are agreed that Mrs. Touchet is a mouthpiece for Smith herself, the novel an occasion to sublimate the author’s personal gripes about Charles Dickens and populism. In so doing, they evince a tendency to view Smith’s fiction as an extension of her nonfiction—an understandable temptation, as Smith is an uncommonly lucid essayist—and collapse criticism of her novels into a referendum on her politics. It should be self-evident, really, that this 464-page novel, involving a cast of characters real and imagined and taking place over a century in two different countries, ought not be read by serious critics as a ventriloquized affirmation of Obama-era liberalism. But here we are.
Reading reviews of The Fraud, you’d think Smith had made an entire career out of “when they go low, we go high” sanctimony. Her novels, however, are certainly not beloved for being sophisticated morality plays. In place of a unified style is a no-holds-barred satirical sensibility that has motivated her novelistic oeuvre (and won her dedicated readers, of which I am one). Not many social phenomena or institutions have been left unscathed in her work: animal-rights groups, academia, Buddhism, celebrity, conservatism, dance moms, the English legal profession, fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, glee clubs (“the revenge of white boy soul”), Hollywood films (yellowface and blackface)—and that’s just the first third of the alphabet. All of the people in her novels are depicted as lightly ridiculous, especially those who say one thing and do another. (Indeed, the most common neurosis of her characters is that of being “found out.”) It is all the more bewildering, then, that she is not read as part of the same lineage that has given us John Lanchester and Martin Amis—in other words, as a practitioner of the English social novel, invested in depictions of people as part of the main. Far more self-aware than her critics give her credit for, Smith knows interrogating how someone betrays their purported political commitments through small, unthinking acts is far more interesting an aesthetic project than offering commentary about the correctness of “the olds.” Not for nothing are her novels concerned with attempts to live authentically, whatever that means to each person, despite extenuating circumstances and societal inequities that make doing so impossible—racism and economic precarity being chief among them.
The Fraud is superficially a departure for Smith—it is her first historical novel, as reviewers have tirelessly pointed out. But in all the ways that count, it marks a return to form. As with her previous novels, it is partially set in northwest London, Smith’s beloved Willesden; as with the others, there is a thwarted suicide, infidelity, an ultimately unsuccessful lesbian affair that induces a protagonist to return to heterosexuality, a predilection for redheads. A white progressive is revealed to be a hypocrite. And because it is a social novel, everything must go in: class, gender, race, disability, sexuality and so on. The obvious difference, of course, is that it is set in the nineteenth century. And yet—when Smith writes of Mrs. Touchet looking out the window in 1848, yearning for revolution to come to England, she is speaking not from the perspective of an eccentric with republican sympathies, but from the vantage point of a woman who has been spared from the very real possibility of revolution that had marked the era. All the legal reforms that Smith references in the book—the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and then the practice of slavery itself—were concessions made after decades of petitions, campaigns, suppressed riots and uprisings and conspiracies. None of which stops Mrs. Touchet from thinking to herself: “Nothing real happened in England. Only dinner parties and boarding schools and bankruptcies.” It is the expression of a woman existing in a post-revolutionary age—which, The Fraud suggests, is where well-meaning liberals, even those with novelistic aspirations, may be doomed to live.
When James Wood decried Zadie Smith’s “hysterical realism” as having vacated literature of the human in a 2000 review of White Teeth, he named Dickens as the genre’s literary primogenitor. Only in that sense was he correct. What we today call the Anglophone liberal social novel is in no small part the direct consequence of Dickens’s call for spiritual renewal in the face of popular uprising.
Revolutions, riots, uprisings, war: all entrench history as a collective experience, a struggle from which no one is exempt. The historical novel as we understand it today, according to Georg Lukács, emerged out of the socially engaged nation-building projects of the eighteenth century. The novel form, over time, became inculcated with a sense of history being made by average (“mediocre, prosaic”) people, who, in their distance from demonstrable sociopolitical power, see and feel the instability of social change that much more keenly. From the vantage point of the emergent English middle class in the 1830s and 1840s, it was not so much that they did not experience history, but that they experienced it as a frightening imposition. News came of uprisings in the colonies, in Barbados and Guyana and Jamaica, of bloody revolutions in France, all hitting rather too close to home. Land once held in common had been privatized, the working class had shifted over to working for wages in factories, and postwar recession coupled with crop failures resulted in widespread immiseration. A fervor for reform swept the country, and with it, military suppression and begrudging concessions by landed interests in Parliament in the form of the 1832 Reform Act, when the franchise was extended to middle-class property holders, but not the working poor. All this would lead to one of the biggest working-class movements in British history: Chartism, which called for enfranchising all men over 21 and reforming Parliament. Massive social unrest under the Chartist banner compelled the Scottish intellectual Thomas Carlyle to call for a thorough investigation of “the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition therefore or the wrong disposition, of the Working Classes of England.” In his pamphlets he went on to describe the trials and tribulations of factory workers, arguing that England had better introduce universal education and minor reforms and encourage immigration to the colonies to ease overpopulation, if they wanted to stave off their own version of the revolutions in France. The first task of the emergent intelligentsia was to raise awareness of industrialist greed and worker impoverishment, and in so doing instilling sympathy for the oppressed.
Dickens was an ardent fan of Carlyle—his own historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, drew on Carlyle’s book on the French revolution—and he dedicated Hard Times, his “condition of England” novel depicting the dehumanization of factory workers, to the writer. Many others would publish their own “condition of England” novels during that period, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Charlotte Brontë, all disquieted by revolution and sympathetic to the suffering of the working poor, all deploring the social ills of industrialization. “The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England,” observed a somewhat obscure journalist named Karl Marx, “have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” But then the revolutions of 1848 came and went, and England, having suppressed the Chartists and their revolutionary ardor, managed to avoid the upending of the social order.
The tensions inherent to any attempt to depict the condition of society in a novel persist in assessments of the novel form today. The aesthetic was positioned in opposition to the excesses of what we now call modern capitalism; even as Dickens serialized his novels to sell newspapers, even as books emerged as mass-produced commodities for leisure, art became an uncertain panacea. Dramatizing social problems in literature became its own form of institutional critique and a call for social change. Whether said problems were judged to be (a) real or (b) accurately represented became an aesthetic criterion for social novels. Accusing writers of exaggeration, of caricature, of sneaking in a more radical political agenda (“didacticism”) certainly helped dull the edge of the critique. But in the ensuing years, the “condition of England” novel slowly narrowed its scope—no more forthright depictions of the working class, however misguided or condescending—and shrank its remit. Of David Copperfield and its tenuously connected subplots, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Dickens made his books blaze up, not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire.” By contrast, dwelling in moral ambiguity and extending sympathy even to wretched pedants like George Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon is what “grownup people” do. The younger Zadie Smith would quote Woolf at the same time as she described Middlemarch as one of the “social novels” that had most influenced her.1
The central backdrop of The Fraud is the sensational Tichborne case, about an impostor who emerges from nowhere to lay claim to a noble family’s fortune. A lesser novelist than Smith might have made the trial theatrics the sole subject of their novel, and in The Fraud, the witty Mrs. Touchet attempts to do just that. Left alone in the world when her miscreant husband absconds with her nursemaid and her infant son (all subsequently died of scarlet fever), she ends up staying at the house of her cousin-in-law, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, to help his wife Frances take care of their children while he is away in Europe. Courtesy of Ainsworth’s salons, the novel is populated with the literary titans of the Victorian era: we spend time with Dickens in Manchester; a drunken, judgmental Thackeray at a Christmas party; and even catch a glimpse of the elusive Mrs. Lewes at the first Tichborne trial. Ainsworth is no longer widely read like his contemporaries, and judging from the excerpts Smith reproduces in the novel, it’s tempting to remark that good taste won out in the literary marketplace after all. Smith, however, is clearly less interested in ridiculing poor writing than she is in foregrounding that exact debate—what a novelist’s relationship ought to be to their times.
Ainsworth and Dickens wrote novels about the underclass in the tumult leading up to 1848—criminals, the working poor, “fallen women,” young men with no respectable fortunes. Dickens had Oliver Twist (1837-39), but it was Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839-40) that truly dominated the public imagination. A burglar and a petty pickpocket, Sheppard was a real historical figure from the eighteenth century who became infamous for breaking out of prison numerous times. In Ainsworth’s hands he turns into a young man with a conscience, who loves his destitute mother but is corrupted by a crime lord posing as a justice-minded vigilante. Ainsworth did not have a bleeding heart and wrote for entertainment, as is clear from the more lurid descriptions of the socially unacceptable (see, for example, Sheppard’s hanging at the end). He was wildly successful. Jack Sheppard was licensed for plays and paraphernalia, and Ainsworth became, for a moment, “the English Victor Hugo.” Unlike Hugo, however, his tale of a thief’s redemption came too early, at a time when the answer to immiseration was not piety but policing. Sympathy for a thief, a refusal to explain burglary as solely the province of evil men, the notion that thief catchers might themselves be corrupt: this was enough to alarm the same intellectuals calling for a greater understanding of the lives of the downtrodden and abused. Crime was, after all, rising. “All the Chartists in the land are less dangerous than this nightmare of a book,” wrote one critic. When a butler murdered his employer, and purportedly claimed Jack Sheppard as his inspiration, Ainsworth’s literary reputation was sealed: nothing more than a peddler of “poorly written, morally corrupting” novels. Suitably chastened, he spent the rest of his life writing novels about a past so remote it could plausibly be assumed he had little to say about the present.
Dickens, protective of his reputation, was smart enough to grant his delinquent protagonists pathways to respectability. He could critique the workhouses, child labor and the inequities of the criminal justice system, but his malfeasants always managed to ascend shakily into the middle class, and his miserly merchants would, in the end, come around to extending charity to the needy. Social commentary is much more acceptable if it ultimately reinforces the norms of the day, and Dickens, if nothing else, championed the notion that the world was “presently hurtling towards utopia” (in Smith’s apt phrase from late in The Fraud).
Smith, anxious about the legacy of the social novel and its reformist instincts, seems determined to find another way. Instead of trying to write from within our endlessly discussed, kaleidoscopic moment, The Fraud would deploy historical distance to look at History itself. It would refute Dickensian triumphalism about moral and economic progress, which she would literally put in the man’s mouth multiple times across the novel (“And thus, Mrs. Touchet, the wheel of free trade turneth!”). Smith would use her heroine to combat the notion that “the brotherhood of man and the strength of the pound were much the same thing … and peace on earth signified only the smooth flow of goods, from Liverpool to Bombay, from Melbourne to Manchester.” She would, finally, go a step further, and identify the institution of slavery as the foundation upon which modern prosperity has been built. Where to begin?
Before all the hand-wringing over populism ruining democracy, before the rise of televised trials as popular entertainment, there were the Tichborne trials of the 1870s. A Claimant, previously known as Tom Castro and other names besides, had come all the way from Wagga Wagga, Australia, back to England to make an astonishing assertion: he was the missing Sir Roger Tichborne himself, long presumed dead after a shipwreck off the Brazilian coast. Prim as it was, Victorian England was hungry for melodrama, and this trial had all the makings of a terrific spectacle: a contested claim to an inheritance, claims of imposture, shipwreck, amnesia, familial intrigue, a putative romance between two first cousins, not-so-sublimated contempt for the working classes, not-so-sublimated contempt for whatever remained of the gentry.2 The star witness for the Claimant happened to be a formerly enslaved man named Andrew Bogle, who was born on a Jamaican plantation and taken back to England as a page for a Mr. Edward Tichborne. Tichborne eventually inherited the baronetcy; Andrew was eventually given an annuity for his services. He married, had children and moved to Australia when Sir Edward died, and it was there, on the outskirts of the British Empire, that he reencountered his erstwhile employer’s nephew and claimant to the Tichborne baronetcy, Sir Roger. Now an old man, Bogle testifies in the civil suit that the Claimant is really and truly the man he had known as a slave and then an employee of the late Sir Edward Tichborne. And it is his story, his seemingly sincere belief in the Claimant, that draws Mrs. Touchet further into the case.3
The Fraud begins in the year 1868 but moves back and forth over the span of a hundred years, notwithstanding a sudden leap to the twelfth century, when the Tichbornes come under a curse that threatens to end their family line if they stop providing for the poor (which, evidently, they did). Unlike in the classic social novels of the nineteenth century, the exposition of a century’s worth of historical context is filtered in through one- or two-line comments attributed to minor characters, conversations in drawing rooms (in one instance, a stalled carriage), newspapers that are read out loud. Gone is the wickedly funny narrator who makes her presence (and opinions) known. Gone are the painstaking depictions of each character’s interior life to prove that no one is beyond judgment. Gone are the lengthy disquisitions that characterize so many nineteenth-century novels. The omniscient narrator of a Middlemarch or an Anna Karenina is so effaced in The Fraud that the vast majority of the novel is simply focalized through one character or another. Much more than its subject matter, it is this retreat of the roving narratorial spirit with its own moral and intellectual center that makes The Fraud so obviously and immediately of our time. Even as Smith tries to lay the groundwork for addressing the condition of society as a whole—which is to say, the primacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the plantation colonies to the country’s tumultuous transition into full-blown industrial capitalism—Smith’s characters are so alienated and cordoned off from one another that she does not depict Mrs. Touchet and Andrew Bogle simultaneously from the very beginning of the novel. Instead, each character occupies separate but equal narrative space. History can only be depicted now through the fractiousness of individual consciousnesses, forever sundered from one another and even from their own linear biographies.
And what of Mrs. Touchet? Smith grants her a barbed wit and the final word on most of the lettered luminaries that flit in and out of her life. Years of entertaining tipsy novelists and artists and managing the household for her cousin-in-law have left her rightfully disdainful of literature as an occupation. What could a novelist truly know of the world that would ever be useful to anyone but himself? But then Mrs. Touchet reads Middlemarch and goes to the Tichborne trial with the new Mrs. Ainsworth, a former maid. Folly upon folly is on display in the courtroom—and this, including the appearance of Andrew Bogle, is what grants her “an excitement of the blood that was yet under the total control of her mind.” Why would Bogle lie for the Claimant? Why would anyone believe the Claimant when he is “so obviously out of his depth, caught in an ever-widening lie that had outgrown even his own substantial girth”? Lines like these seem perfectly redolent of liberals’ lurid fascination with Trump. How does he keep getting away with it? All the Claimant’s absurd lies only reinforce his stature in the eyes of the public as a man persecuted for telling the truth. “Back in the courtroom, to convince herself she wasn’t going mad, Mrs Touchet resolved to simply write down whatever passed between Coleridge and the Claimant, without further commentary … But there was just too much of it.” Merely representing the events themselves is no longer sufficient; we live in an age that has made satire impossible and critique ineffectual.
What salvages her rendering of the trial from MSNBC-level commentary on the Trump campaign or Brexit is the link Smith draws between the impulse to write fiction as a performance of political or social understanding and Mrs. Touchet’s self-congratulation as an open-minded liberal. For Mrs. Touchet, novel writing is an act of self-actualization insofar as it offers her the opportunity to reassure herself of her superior knowledge of and sensitivity to the suffering of the oppressed. In the Tichborne theatrics, Eliza’s curiosity finally finds an outlet; in the Claimant and Bogle she discovers two muses. Watching a post-trial rally in support of Bogle, Mrs. Touchet is struck by how little the mob knows about him:
They heard only the quiet voice, speaking lilting words in a certain arrangement. And mistook all of this for a person. Kindly, simple, old “Black Bogle.” They could not know what he had seen, nor where he had been. But perhaps, reflected Mrs Touchet, this is always the case. We mistake each other. Our whole social arrangement a series of mistakes and compromises. Shorthand for a mystery too large to be seen. If they knew what I knew they would feel as I do! Yet even once one had glimpsed behind the veil which separates people, as she had—how hard it proves to keep the lives of others in mind. Everything conspires against it. Life itself.
So uniquely attuned to Bogle’s plight is she that “Mrs Touchet once again felt an urge to rush forward, to let him know that she, alone, understood,” and, in her ruminations about her deep empathy, completely tunes out what Bogle says in his speech. Smith is deliberate in her portrayal of Mrs. Touchet as a white woman who can hold her own against the hypocrisy of other liberals, who sincerely declaims the monstrosities of slavery and evidently cares about the welfare of those unlike herself. But Smith is equally deliberate in depicting the ultimate indifference of a Mrs. Touchet type. Her encounter with Bogle, who is gracious enough to tell her a story about his pain, has all the hallmarks of a conversion narrative, but it never results in any real change in perspective. It is heavily implied that Mrs. Touchet stops visiting the Bogles after her argument with Henry, which punctures her self-conception as a progressive-minded person; she finds out about Bogle’s death secondhand.
Indeed, Mrs. Touchet’s main way of engaging in political life, it seems, is to turn everyone she encounters into a character in a social novel, herself included. Smith’s style is so smooth that upon first or second reading, you can glide over the fact that Mrs. Touchet, after breaking into hysterical sobs over the dead body of her cousin by marriage and onetime lover, can only return to her first and foremost interest: herself. She imagines that William, dead—his face forever fixed in “affectionate, puzzled interest”—was considering her “for a character: The mysteries of Mrs Touchet were, finally, unfathomable.” It is a subtle but devastating end to the story of Mrs. Touchet—abolitionist, critic of capitalism, great unrelenting narcissist.
Smith has many a narcissist in her novels; this much is not new. But if her previous books presented solipsism masked as empathetic concern as a basic human failing, The Fraud argues it is an especially writerly one. Perhaps, it suggests, the empathetic imagination is always delimited by prejudice, only made worse by the egotism of the novelist. Novelists, Smith seems to say—Mrs. Touchet, Dickens, Zadie Smith herself—rely on an ultimately frictionless conception of the world, in which actual injustice is reduced to an occasion to feel deeply, and little else. Recall the analogy Mrs. Touchet used in her heated debate with Henry Bogle: the idea of devoting her life to a crusade for justice was more preposterous than crossing the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon. But just because Mrs. Touchet suffers from a distinct lack of political or actual imagination does not mean the endeavor in question is doomed to fail.4 After all, we do end up figuring out aerial transatlantic travel, as Smith knows well (it’s a trip she has made countless times). The Fraud, then, is less an apologia for novels as a means of inculcating sympathy—“all gums, and no white teeth,” as Andrea Long Chu memorably put it—than it is a subtle condemnation of the novelist as an acrobat of faux-empathetic reasoning.
Why did Andrew Bogle testify for the Claimant, when doing so made him lose his small but respectable annuity from the Tichbornes? This is the question at the heart of the novel. And Mrs. Touchet’s anxious perplexity about Bogle’s motives is not without purpose; she’s able to sense that Bogle’s choice is related to some of the fundamental antagonisms of his, and our, time. As Eliza keeps fretting over it, her main tactic is to imagine herself in his place, on the principle “that if she had ever thought or felt something, well, then it was extremely unlikely that she was the only one to have ever done so.” Perhaps his insistence was just a result of sunk cost; perhaps he was just lying to himself. It never occurs to her that he might be driven not by self-interest or self-delusion but anger, rooted in an experience of oppression that her sentimental imagination proves incapable of bridging—and that Smith’s novel, likewise, can only seem to gesture toward. What Bogle wants is retribution. Payback.
The social novel, at its best, has always been an exploration of the experience of historical consciousness. How do ordinary people come to understand their present in relation to a past? How should that bear on where they go next? At the outset, discussion of the “condition of England” novel took for granted that one could seize destiny in one’s own hands—that in fact there was something akin to a collective destiny, as part of a nation-state, empire, commune or some other emergent form of collectivity (say: an underclass). At the same time, empire circumscribed what the Europeans considered History, and those who would not submit would have to be exterminated. (Carlyle, for instance, defended the horrific crackdown of the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, which receives a passing mention in The Fraud, maintaining that the formerly enslaved ought to be denied food and land of their own unless they accepted their lot and continued to produce all the commodities the British desired.)
History is perhaps too placid a word. Millions of ordinary people across the British Empire, despite their precarity, despite their enormous vulnerability and complete lack of resources, made the conscious choice to lie, spy, steal, maim and kill their plantation overseers and military commandants. Most if not all paid dearly for it. Administrative massacres, public torture and executions littered British colonial history—a handful make their way into The Fraud as points for drawing-room debates—and still people continued to fight. One of the most affecting passages of the novel is the millenarian prophecy issued by Little Johanna, the love of Andrew Bogle’s life, who has been tortured so badly she can no longer live a normal life. A chapter referencing the plantation owner’s abject cruelty toward Little Johanna’s mother is followed by another depicting the same man feeling physically ill from talking to the sexually depraved Thomas Thistlewood, whose graphic diary, a record of all his raping, maiming and murdering of the enslaved, is so extensive and detailed that historians still use it today to understand the extent of the inhumanity of plantation life in Jamaica.
“What is the correct artistic response to history like that? Which aspects should be obscured or tidied away or carefully contextualized to protect the viewer’s sensibility?” Smith asked in a review of Kara Walker’s work, written a few months before George Floyd was murdered in 2020. “In what relation do we stand to our ancestors if we insist we cannot now even stand to hear or see what they themselves had no choice but to live through? Is not the least we owe the sufferings of the past a full and frank accounting of them?” Smith’s attempt at an answer seems to consist not in reproducing the bloody, bodily violence inflicted against the enslaved as spectacle, but in drawing attention to its lesser-known indignities, such as being denied the rites of matrimony. Smith makes Andrew Bogle an enslaved man who did not physically work in the plantations, who was able to avoid torture and yet was taken to England against his will, continuing his enslavement there under the guise of being employed as a page—a slave, in short, without the markings of a slave that many contemporary readers are primed to see. In depicting slavery as coerced captivity and control beyond the whip, Smith gestures to the transmutation of slavery into wage labor within the same person.
One might expect, then, that the novel would engage Bogle as a historical agent and investigate in forthright terms why an otherwise good but abused man could knowingly testify against the truth. Yet Smith does not provide much in the way of explanation. We are given many descriptions of Bogle’s weary, self-abnegating temperament—Bogle knew that “hate would never come to him as easily as despair, or the feeling of no feeling”—but, pointedly, he does not partake of the extended ruminations Mrs. Touchet permits herself. His rage, his grief, his emotional reasoning can only be expressed through gestures (newspaper, incinerated; glass, shattered) and displaced fantasies. In one such moment, Bogle agonizes over lineages and inheritances. How is it that a Thistlewood who reveled in torturing his enslaved charges could be the uncle to yet another Thistlewood, executed for conspiring to assassinate the prime minister in the name of universal suffrage and complete land redistribution? “It must have helped in some way to at least have a father to curse, and a home to destroy,” Bogle finally decides. “That was surely like having a target for an arrow.”
A target for an arrow: this line helps to clarify why Bogle ends up testifying for the Claimant. Even prior to his disappearance, the original Roger had already been such an embarrassment to the Tichborne family that he was banned from the estate; the Claimant is keen on exercising the financial benefits of the Tichborne baronetcy, with none of the behavior befitting the title. Whether or not the Claimant was in fact a fraudster is almost beside the point. Bogle’s testimony ensures that the Tichborne line can only ever be seen in the public eye, and known to posterity, as one with an heir so contemptible that the unwashed masses claim him as one of their own. Bogle destroys the one thing that truly matters to them: their family name. In other words, he chooses to punish the Tichbornes. He takes history into his own hands, even as the possibility of liberation and recompense shrinks evermore, and seeks vengeance for the horrors committed against himself and his father.
Part of the moral horror here is that Bogle has no other recourse. Any story about him should have to address the impossible moral bind his life represents: What can justice look like in a society where one’s suffering is not recognized as such? How does a person so systematically sundered from community come to terms with the necessity of revenge? How does the choice to seek vengeance alter one’s soul? Regrettably, these questions are engaged only obliquely in The Fraud. (When revenge is mentioned at all, it is not that of Bogle, but of Lady Mabella, the woman who originates the Tichborne family curse, and who in this formulation would be using Bogle as her pawn.) They are perhaps the questions a social novelist—at least, a social novelist with an overt investment in the self as the site of moral accounting—finds hardest to reconcile with her valorization of sympathy. Bogle has turned his back on the moral codes that undergird Mrs. Touchet’s existence; his course of action implies a rupture between himself and the world, a willingness to stake his entire life on the ruination of his enemies that she is unable to fathom. What is curious is that The Fraud, while registering this disjuncture between Bogle’s motives and Mrs. Touchet’s empathetic powers, has so little to say about what drives Bogle at all.
The Fraud, of course, is under no obligation to present Bogle as a complex man wrestling with difficult moral dilemmas, or be interested in parsing the problem of historical retribution. It is perfectly legitimate for Smith to want to write a scathing satire of an aging liberal white woman who thinks she’s still got it, conscripting an actual historical figure into a side narrative about slavery to reinforce the critique. The ignominy of an enslaved man’s death illuminating said white woman’s life, if you will. (Many such cases!) The problem is that in failing to address the rationale for Bogle’s actions—in leeching the novel’s moral center—Smith compromises her ability to provide an account of Mrs. Touchet’s moral cowardice. It is rather difficult to critique the limits of empathetic projection without illuminating exactly what it is that Mrs. Touchet can’t understand, or ought to have done differently. Take, for example, Mrs. Touchet’s greatest ethical quandary in the novel: whether or not to pay out the inheritance her late husband had set aside for the illegitimate child he had had (possibly with an enslaved woman), which was to revert to Mrs. Touchet upon the child’s death. His orphaned black grandchildren, barely preteens, have come asking for their mother’s small portion of his fortune. Mrs. Touchet forfeits the money. This gesture, we are made to understand, is a strenuous one; the money would have allowed her to stop providing free household labor for Ainsworth and move into a place of her own. Yet all of that overshadows Smith’s brief gloss of what actual responsibility would have entailed: instead of leaving the children out in the streets, she could have taken them in as her wards, just as she has cared for Ainsworth’s children. An event that should have been freighted with immense moral significance resolves itself in half a page and is never spoken of again.
What The Fraud truly cannot confront, then, isn’t the abject inhumanity of slavery, or liberal hypocrisy, or populism seeded by revolutionary defeat. It is the problem of actually entering history—of human beings recognizing that they are responsible for things and people beyond themselves, that they can act for ideals beyond self-interest, that they are sometimes willing to self-immolate if it means they could bring even just a fraction of the rotting structure down. Self-sacrifice, courage, cowardice, fear, solidarity, ressentiment: these are words that the social novel has nudged out of its vocabulary, even as they are the prime movers that inspire people to act for and against their own interests and those of their group.
As she tries to dramatize the grim material of history, an all-too-justified bitterness about the depths of human depravity crowds out Smith’s usual levity and wry humor. In its place a denuded, flat affect occasionally makes way for irony dripping in bile. What is the condition of England? What can be said of a country founded upon personal fraudulence and the systematic defrauding and mutilation of others? Debt is the keystone upon which the world of The Fraud—our world—is built. Estate sales are sprinkled throughout the book—possessions accrued by way of human suffering, now divvied up to pay off the creditors. But everything the novel has to say about its characters’ complicity in the immiseration of others returns to the empathetic-projection model, where understanding is the beginning of reason, and reason allows us to empathize with an implicated person, or at least to withhold judgment until the very end. No one in the novel, meanwhile, does anything that amounts to much.5 The effect is not unlike that of our sense of history nowadays: episode after catastrophic episode pile on top of one another, time sweeps us along, but no meaning coheres. The plot of The Fraud can only resolve in death.
Smith diligently repudiates a triumphalist narrative of progress—the present casts its long shadow over the novel—but she offers no theory of history in its place to explain how the Mrs. Touchets and the Andrew Bogles of times past have produced our current moment. Failing that, Smith hedges, resorting to presenting her characters as analogues of familiar actors in our time: the aging white woman liberal, the elder who has nothing to lose, the fiery young organizer. But the analogues are facile. Even the most cursory glance at a history textbook would tell you that the social conditions that produced an Andrew Bogle no longer exist in meaningfully similar ways; that the afterlives of slavery persist as structural barriers and state-sanctioned acts of violence; that the cruelties of the past continually assume new forms.
Like all liberal novelists with a social conscience, like every great novelist both past and present, Smith wants to ask how history moves. Despite herself, she answers: it does not.
The representation of social totality, mediated by artfully wrought sentences; instances of ordinary people’s triumphs and failures to change themselves and/or the world amid the unrelenting passage of time—all of this has felt unfashionably ambitious, if not foolish, for the past eighty or so years. Encapsulating historical consciousness is a decidedly difficult task in an era when people are so disenfranchised and atomized that they barely understand themselves to be part of anything at all. The present feels leeched of connection; “community” is no more than aggregations of alienated individuals. And yet history still moves! People remain out in the streets. Riots, uprisings, war, stillborn bourgeois revolutions—they characterize our time as much as 1848. In the past three years alone the metropole has seen a pandemic, an uprising, concessions made by local governments, ensuing political repression, wars, an influx of migrants and refugees. It may appear that the Anglophone social novel is too mired in moralism and the sorts of writerly narcissism that Smith describes so well to ever deliver artful condemnations of the ways society has been organized in our time. (Arguably, the predominant strain of contemporary Anglophone literature is vacuous critique of gender relations or downwardly mobile gig work.) If the social novel is to survive, it has to engage once more with the ways we are unwittingly imbricated with one another’s fates, how our own indecisiveness and hesitations and bad choices indelibly affect the lives of complete strangers. What is it like to chafe against the contours of your own existence? How is it that possible forms of life have already been circumscribed for us before we even gain consciousness? How do people come together, against the odds? How do we relate to one another?
In her best work, Smith comes closest among our contemporary novelists to understanding the task at hand. Even if she could not always imagine her characters protesting or participating in alternate forms of collective action as she did in White Teeth, Smith could still, in her subsequent novels, imagine her way into the inchoate excitement of social mobility, the pain and disappointment that come with abandoning one’s origins. NW is in part a great tragedy about the disintegration of friendship and genuine connection in the pursuit of middle-class wealth; The Autograph Man and Swing Time both explore craven self-promotion at others’ expense in the churn of the celebrity industry. What is striking is that Smith seems increasingly nihilistic about the possibility of true friendship—the smallest unit of collective life in our world—across race or class or gender lines with each successive novel. On a moving reconciliation between two old friends in The Autograph Man, Smith writes: “The world is made out of letters, words. Under every friendship there is a difficult sentence, that must be said, in order that the friendship can be survived.” Crucially they manage to speak it. By the time of The Fraud, Smith can no longer write of any possible connection between two people without resorting to the language of coupledom. (There are intimations that Mrs. Touchet has a crush on Andrew Bogle.) Even then, words rend. There are secret words now, “which, if said aloud by either party in a marriage, would curse that union and destroy it.” Few things other than concealed self-gratification motivate anyone to reach out to a person unlike themselves now in the Smithian imaginary; no friends, no comrades, just lovers and masters.
In the afterword to The Fraud, Smith shows that she may be at least partly aware of her latest novel’s failures. When Smith notes that Henry Bogle had many children—“England must therefore be dotted with Bogles, although few of them can be aware of the connection”—it is a charming reference to Nathan Bogle from NW, a onetime primary school heartthrob and an up-and-coming soccer player who ends up a drug-dealing pimp and a possible accomplice to murder.6 Smith’s preoccupation in that novel is not how Nathan ends up this way, but she allows him to speak his heartbreak with all the Willesden panache he can muster: “Everyone loves up a bredrin when he’s ten. With his lickle ball’ead. All cute and lively … After that he’s a problem. Can’t stay ten always.” The afterword gestures at a historical lineage, connecting the past to the present in a manner Smith ultimately could not do in The Fraud itself. Andrew Bogle’s legacy is Nathan Bogle, and with him, an underclass born of historical injustice. Not a son of revolution, not a descendant of Paul Bogle, a Jamaican national hero, but the next of kin in a long line of men once born as chattel, now held in other forms of bondage—and in NW, a sacrificial offering for the sins of the past and the petty inconveniences of the present. Not that Smith has any working theory for how Andrew, son of Anaso, might have come to beget Nathan. In The Fraud, a genealogy of our past is refashioned into an analogy for our present; history is replaced by empty chronology (or the eternal return of the same).
The old social novelists knew they were staring down the barrel of a gun when they sat down to write. This is not at all to discredit their compassion—quite the contrary. It takes mettle to meet justifiable class hatred with a call for the spiritual regeneration of the nation and the cultivation of sympathy, not the working classes’ complete subjugation. Smith cannot reasonably present Andrew Bogle with the forbearance of a Bob Cratchit now—she is too honest an artist to provide the same mollifying, bleating call for compassion in the face of oppression as Dickens. But in pointing an accusatory finger at her own class of novelists, Smith remains committed to the ideal of sentimental education, as if the seemingly intractable class and race antagonisms she depicts in The Fraud are merely awaiting the artist with the right tools to describe them. Moralism about the middle class, endemic to the social novel, is fine-tuned and reproduced as moralism about producers of art.
What would it mean to not only keenly observe but to take responsibility for the suffering of a Mrs. Touchet or an Andrew Bogle? Any social novelist worth the title would tell you it would involve ratifying the irreducible singularity of each person (“complex” and “complicated” as they are). Smith would agree. But when a novelist takes up the mantle of their pain, fictional characters they may be, she assumes an ethical duty—not to act on their behalf but to take account of the atrocities that vanquished them, that still lay us low today. A story, then: events becoming charged with emotion and significance when the speaker makes a case for their interrelation. Not the manufacture of fellow feeling for hypothetical pain, not the purveying of socially conscious cheap thrills, not bourgeois wish fulfillment, but an account of how individual desire becomes collective will. In implicating herself and us in the world of her novel, the social novelist would restore actual stakes to narrative. A story is never innocent, as all the great novelists once knew, and a tale told too well might make you tilt at windmills. The real Andrew Bogle did not write a novel, but tell a story he did. The rest, as they say, is history.
Art credit: Gretchen Scherer, “The Circuitous Staircase,” 2017. Oil on panel, 18 × 24 in. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York.