Middlemarch (Penguin Classics)

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The Ambitious Anachronism of ‘The Fraud’

In 2009, a first edition of Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol was sold at auction for $290,500. The book had been inscribed by Dickens himself to one “Mrs Touchet.” This Eliza Touchet was cousin by marriage to a novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth, and served as his housekeeper and as a witty hostess for literary parties at his home in Kensal Green, many of which Dickens attended. Touchet is also the central figure of Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, The Fraud. Nearly unread now, William Harrison Ainsworth was in his time a commercial success with a series of historical and sometimes Gothic novels. The Fraud includes much of this literary background, but its main action is connected to the Tichborne case, a legal cause célèbre of the 1860s and 1870s. The Tichborne case involved a butcher named Thomas Castro living in Wagga Wagga, Australia, who claimed to be the disappeared and presumed dead Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne baronetcy and a significant fortune. Along with Ainsworth’s second wife Sarah, Eliza becomes intrigued by the Tichborne case, attending many days of the trial in London. Sarah, formerly Ainsworth’s maid, actually believes that the claimant is indeed “poor Sir Roger,” up against the Lord Chief Justice, the secret societies, the Hebrews and Papists, and his own family who say they don’t recognize him. Eliza is more interested in a key witness named Andrew Bogle, who grew up enslaved on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, then became Roger’s uncle’s butler, and now vouches that this claimant is that same Roger. The story begins in 1830, when Eliza is hired by Ainsworth’s first wife Frances to help with the children, continuing through the early years of Ainsworth’s popularity and on to the decline that followed. The novel is divided into eight volumes, equivalent to the installments of the popular serialized novels of the era. Its chapters, titled like those in Victorian novels, are much shorter than Dickens’s or Thackeray’s, some as short as a single paragraph. The titles are varied from prosaic place names (“Upton Park, Poole”), to summary (“Only Half the Story”), to chin-stroking questions (“Who Am I, Really?”, “What is Real?”, and “What Can We Know of Other People?”). These may be perennial questions, but Smith’s way of working them into the novel makes for curious anachronism. Besides these marquees announcing uncertainty, there is a motif throughout of language’s limit. We have Eliza, for instance, commenting on Ainsworth’s passivity—they are more than kissing cousins—as a “strange but unmistakeable acquiescence,” but ultimately “impossible to explain in words,” and her first meeting with Frances, her secret love, as a significant memory “somewhere deeper, past language.” Eliza’s husband ran away with their son Toby, and both died soon thereafter of scarlet fever; she wonders if he knew “what she really was” and speculates that such knowledge is ”beyond language.” It seems that love, the lack of love, and perhaps anything to do with intimacy, are beyond words. Eliza is not unpredictably revealed to be the author of The Fraud, and we are to understand that a story with such disclosures could not be published in its time, but we might also feel it could not have been written then. Those baffled chapter titles have intruded, and the questions have opened out from love’s mysteries to life’s mysteries, so that by the time we get to the courtroom crux, Smith is making a half-hearted interrogation of signification itself: “The world is so much, and so various, all the time—how can it be contained? Language? When does the trial begin? One woman asks another. Today, comes the reply. But the word ‘today’ may hide multitudes.” Thankfully, Eliza has a critic’s talent for pith when she’s not fretting over what “today” means. When Dickens makes a killing with A Christmas Carol, she feels that he’s gone “beyond mere sales to mesmerism”. In Eliza’s account, Ainsworth’s declining powers are both pathetic and comic: “Old age had only condensed and intensified his flaws. People ejaculated, rejoined, cried out on every page. The many strands of the perplexing plot were resolved either by ‘Fate’, the fulfillment of a gypsy’s curse or a thunderstorm.” Eliza is much more wary of novelistic convention than Ainsworth, and can’t be properly honest with him about what she thinks of his work, but she is intrigued to discover that life can resemble popular entertainment: “the boy’s [face] flashed round the room like lightning. A formulation straight out of William’s pages! But she could think of no other word.” Ainsworth neglects the ailing Frances in favor of literary hobnobbing, yet the sentiments he sells in serial are the same that occur to Eliza at the lady’s deathbed: “Can you die of a broken heart? In novels you did. You could also be ‘too good for this world’. These clichés Mrs Touchet abhorred, and yet here, in this dismal room, they rushed in to greet her, robed as truths.” Ainsworth’s work, parodied and criticized in publications that Eliza tries to conceal from him, is to fall away while Dickens’s lasts. Smith has Thackeray say at a party that Ainsworth “too frequently mistakes information for interest,” which we can certainly observe in excerpts that Smith provides of his novels. As for Dickens, Eliza has more to say of his character than of his work. Though she credits him with a good eye and ear, the right equipment for their materialistic “age of things,” she also notes his obsequious way with his social superiors and calls him a sentimentalist. The criticism had been made at the time—see Anthony Trollope’s caricature of Dickens as “Mr. Popular Sentiment” in The Warden—though Eliza’s rendition is prompted by the inscription on Mary Scott Hogarth’s gravestone, written by Dickens, her brother-in-law, which calls her “Young, beautiful and good.” Eliza ends the very same chapter with the thought that “if anybody truly understood what is signified by the word ‘person,’ they would consider twelve lifetimes too brief a spell in which to love a single soul.” In Andrew Bogle’s account of his life before the Tichborne case, Eliza is to find what Ainsworth had neglected: a story, like hers, in which people are “struggling, suffering, deluding others and themselves.” The extent to which she feels these realities can be found in Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, et al. is unclear; she later enjoys a novel we deduce to be Middlemarch in a scene which in trying to be coy is a little cringe-making (“The Eliot fellow?” Ainsworth asks.) She intercepts Bogle after a court session, and in a nearby chophouse asks him to tell her his whole story. The framing is ambiguous, with what starts as Bogle’s narration to Eliza becoming two volumes and close to a hundred pages, with epigraphs, letters, and a chapter consisting of a monologue, starting and ending mid-sentence, called “The Prophetic Circular Dream of Little Johanna,” with lines like “I have seen the SECRET ENGINE OF THE WORLD!” Bogle’s voice, it turns out, contains others. His story starts with his father Anaso’s childhood and enslavement, his life on the Hope Estate plantation as “Nonesuch”, then switches to him, born into slavery, taken up as page to Roger Tichborne’s uncle, traveling back and forth between Jamaica and England. Smith has adapted and filled in Bogle’s life without really integrating it or its telling into Eliza’s, but the material is intriguing enough—and Eliza’s interest in it credible enough—that it works. “God preserve me from novel-writing,” thinks Eliza early in her tenure as Ainsworth’s housekeeper, “God preserve me from that tragic indulgence, that useless vanity, that blindness.” She will feel later that the novel, indulged enough, is just the thing to bring together London court scandal, the arc of a novelist’s career, a Jamaican sugar plantation, and a housekeeper’s many stifled sentiments.