I listened to Zadie Smith read her fictional work about squabbles and disagreements in the Nineteenth Century literary world among authors William Ainsworth, Charles Dickens, George Cruikshank, and William Makepeace Thackery. The work also turns to the true story of a man who claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the heir to a baronetcy. Sir Roger was lost at sea in 1854; his mother posted ads in newspapers around the world and in 1866 a butcher in the town of Wagga Wagga in Australia, claimed the title. There were two trials, first a civil suit, then the Claimant, as he was known, was charged with perjury, found guilty, and was imprisoned for 10 years. The affair captured public attention, with working class folks charmed by his Cockney accent, ready to believe he was the victim of a conspiracy of the press, the papists, and the upper classes.
The book opens with the widowed Mrs. Touchet, a cousin by marriage of William Ainsworth, dealing with a large hole in the second story floor of his house caused by the weight of his large collection of books. Ainsworth is a long-forgotten novelist, who wrote 41 novels that were very popular in their time. His first featured an actual highwayman named Dick Turpin. Mrs. Touchet (which she pronounced touché) became a member of his household at the request of his wife who needed help while he traveled at a leisurely pace in Europe. She remained in the household after the wife’s death and continued to help Ainsworth after he married Sarah, the former maid. Mrs. Touchet tried to intercept mail from others in that literary world that Mr. Ainsworth would find distressing in his later years as respect for his work diminished.
One of the joys of the audiobook is hearing Zadie Smith enjoy herself with the words of the Cockney Sarah defending the Claimant as a victim of the upper classes. She also enjoys being the Scottish Mrs. Touchet. It’s always challenging when a fiction book has characters who were historical figures and this one required more than one visit to Wikipedia.
There were countless brilliant moments that escaped me, given my lack of knowledge of British literature. Nevertheless, I listened with pleasure to this book. Among the gems is the following enumeration of the wonderful reasons Mrs. Touchet was happy to be welcomed into the household by the first Mrs. Ainsworth. Out on an early morning walk, Mrs. Touchet thinks with happiness that she will soon walk back to the house of “steamed rags, strung up rabbits, drying linens, and chubby baby ankles, small hands with food on them, the smell of bacon, fruitcakes wrapped in cloth, the swampy whiff of pea soup, and the simplest chords of Bach played clumsily but with good humor.” I especially appreciated the notion of a swampy whiff of pea soup.
In the Afterward, the author said that in 2009 the 1842 edition of The Christmas Carol by Dickens that was inscribed to Mrs. Touchet became the most expensive edition of a book by Dickens ever sold at auction.
Zadie Smith, Fraud, Penguin, 2023, 454 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.