September 6, 2023   7 mins

Why bother with fiction? That’s one question. Why bother with history? That’s another. And they’ve both been torturing Zadie Smith, who has now produced the sort of fiction she once dismissed as “aesthetically and politically conservative by definition” — a historical novel. But apparently her years teaching in the United States persuaded her what fans of the genre (among whose number I include myself) have long known: “Not all historical fiction cosplays its era, and an exploration of the past need not be a slavish imitation of it. You can come at the past from an interrogative angle, or a sly remove, and some historical fiction will radically transform your perspective not just on the past but on the present.”

As a form however, historical fiction is bristling with risks. Most saliently, anachronisms — to be pointed out by pedantic readers. The exemplar in such matters is Charles Dickens. A draft of his first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841), contained a minor character who was hanged “for passing bad one pound notes”. A correspondent who had seen the proofs wrote to inform him that it was only after 1797 that notes under five pounds were issued; Barnaby Rudge was set in the lead-up to the Gordon Riots of 1780. Dickens checked, assented, and replied to this Victorian pedant, wishing him: “Very many thanks… for your kind care.” (It’s noteworthy not just that he was grateful but that he took care to double-check first.)

Dickens is himself a minor character in Zadie Smith’s new novel, The Fraud, a work of historical fiction set in the 18th and 19th centuries, partly in the bit of northwest London which has inspired most of her non-historical fiction and partly in Jamaica, the narrative spreading over multiple characters and storylines. There is, to start with, the world of the real (but largely — and deservedly — forgotten) novelist William Harrison Ainsworth: his numerous but terrible books, his smug self-satisfaction and his complex domestic arrangements. These are sardonically observed through the eyes of his cousin and housekeeper Eliza Touchet — which Smith takes her to pronounce, with Dickensian aptness, “touché”. But Mrs Touchet’s attention is distracted, like that of countless others in England, with the (also real) cause célèbre of Arthur Orton, a butcher who implausibly claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the long-missing heir to a large inheritance.

But the Tichborne affair, wild from start to finish, provides Smith with her situation rather than her story. Her plotline — or the best of her several — is the one woven around the Tichborne Claimant’s star witness: a Jamaican man named Andrew Bogle who insisted, even when there was little else to support Orton’s claim, that he recognised Sir Roger, a man he had once worked for. Bogle’s own story — of his enslavement and his freedom — ends up being as or more interesting than that of the other people involved in and those breathlessly following the Tichborne Case.

Smith’s handling of Bogle involves a deft synthesis of fact and fiction. And the book comes with a short paragraph acknowledging Smiths’ principal academic sources and thanking one scholar of the period in particular for having read the book in manuscript. Being at best a part-time student of this period, I suspect that I will only embarrass myself if I go about seeking anachronisms. But in any case, this isn’t the sort of book whose interest in history starts and ends with getting the facts right. If that’s all there were to it, why bother fictionalising it at all?

Much mainstream historical fiction does engage in that lower literary pleasure Smith warns of: “cosplay”. And what man doesn’t look better dressed in Mr Darcy’s shirt, or Sir Lancelot’s armour, than in a tracksuit? But historical fiction of this kitschy kind — Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels are the recent exemplars — also gives us the chance, rare in the modern world, to look at the world through concepts few of us can use today without irony: chastity, honour, vengeance. The popular taste for this sort of fiction, and indeed for the pseudo-medieval worlds in which much fantasy is set, tells us something about our longings for a world before liberal democracy, before “health and safety”, before political correctness.

But these aren’t Smith’s reasons for succumbing to the lures of history. She evidently intends to write the less kitschy sort of work associated with Hilary Mantel, and before her, Penelope Fitzgerald. Smith is a talented parodist, as anyone would need to be who dabbles in this genre. But a book that contained nothing but parody would be a wearying thing. That is itself a reason why the pedant’s impulse to read with an eye to anachronism misses the point of the best historical fiction. Here, for instance, in a passage describing the Jamaican witness, Bogle, accompanied by a mysterious teenager, appearing before a curious public, is Smith letting us know that she can write “period” when she wants to:

“He [the son], too, was a negro, but of lighter complexion. His extraordinary hair… had been shaped into a pair of triangular wedges, one pointing up, the other down. Surely a son: they had the same narrow, almost Oriental eyes. But where Bogle’s were a shrewd exception in a soft and inconclusive face, the boy’s flashed round the room like lightning.”

The racial terms — “negro”, “Oriental” — are not, of course, Zadie Smith’s, but those of Mrs Touchet, the Victorian character through whose eyes we’re viewing the scene. The same goes for the description of the boy’s “extraordinary” hair, and the inference she — and we — make: “Surely a son.” The clichéd simile at the end, as Smith allows Mrs Touchet herself to observe, is like something from the hackneyed prose of her cousin, William Ainsworth. Lovers of Victorian fiction will recognise Smith as one of them; she has read the same books they have, and doubtless a good many more.

What, then, of Smith’s contention that historical fiction might come at history from an “interrogative angle”? That isn’t true only of historical fiction; it is what any historian worth his salt does anyway. Not even the most vulgar kind of historical narrative can be simply a list of facts about the past. They must be held together by something, usually a question: not just “What happened?” but “How?” and “Why?” And there’s no anachronism in approaching the materials of history — documents, oral testimonies, archaeological remains — with the questions and concerns of the present. Indeed, that approach is what produces the kind of history we can learn something from, an account of the past that has something to tell us. It only produces bad history when it turns out that the past tells us exactly what the present tells us.

Zadie Smith’s own life, lived under the glare of public scrutiny from her bestselling debut, White Teeth, published in when she was in her early 20s, can encourage the view that her concerns are “presentist” in the bad sense. She was for many years, as she has self-deprecatingly described, British fiction’s “multicultural (ageing) wunderkind”. Sceptics put down her success to everything other than the quality and popularity of her books: her mixed racial heritage, her striking appearance, and her flattering the right-on political prejudices of the Anglo-American chattering classes.

These judgments really are unfair, and readers tempted to hold them should try (for evidence of her literary seriousness) her essays on E. M. Forster and George Eliot, (for evidence of her political unclassifiability) her dark and haunting short story about a West African woman effectively the slave of a Muslim family “The Embassy of Cambodia”, and (for evidence of her insight as a critic of contemporary culture) her reviews of such films as The Social Network and Tár. And similarly, the pages of The Fraud are not filled with Left-wing clichés, but ask questions that were always there to be asked about the past.

For instance, one doesn’t need to overstate how many black people there were in Victorian England to be curious about the lives of the small number there indubitably were. A lovely passage in this book has Mrs Touchet take notice of “a band of Ethiopian minstrels” who “had joined forces with a chaunter, singing the broadside he was selling for a penny a sheet” — a simple image of a real London scene that doesn’t need analysis. One can see the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a real evil while acknowledging the complicity of African elites in it and indeed that its abolition, while a real achievement, was only the beginning of a process of emancipation. As Mrs Touchet puts it to a too-complacent dining companion, “No, Mr Chapman, it is not at all an end to the matter. The plantations remain in operation. You might as well say the fire is out while a man still roasts atop the coals.”

It is impossible to avoid the echo of 21st-century activist slogans when we find that there were working-class Londoners, used to being patronised by the legal system, carrying signs that read “BELIEVE BLACK BOGLE”. But Smith allows the reader to entertain the full range of possibilities — that Bogle was the schemer behind the whole affair or that he was in earnest but mistaken. The question of who took Bogle’s testimony seriously is interesting quite apart from the question of whether he was, knowingly or not, lying. The past is, in that sense, exactly like a foreign country. The Mikado has virtually nothing to do with the real Japan because its Japanese setting was never supposed to be anything other than a proxy for England — the real target of Gilbert and Sullivan’s gentle mockery. By the same token, if a novel’s historical setting is supposed to be more than merely incidental, it had better have the capacity to surprise the reader.

Few people today are going to be much surprised by being told that there were black people in Victorian London, that conditions on British plantations in the Caribbean were often dire, that there was a human zoo at the Great Exhibition of 1851. We are told that often enough now. My favourite scene in The Fraud is the one where Mrs Touchet, in raptures at church over the singing of former slaves (“Had she ever truly heard music until this moment?”) is introduced to one of the singers and finds herself disappointed that the lady is less moved than she is by the occasion. “Why was this young lady so determined to behave as if she had done nothing more remarkable this evening than clean a kitchen or serve a meal?”

A young black man, clearly besotted with the singer, wishes to take the singer on a tour of London, to see “our ‘Big Ben’”. Poor Mrs Touchet cannot handle the ordinariness of people she wants to see as “noble sons and daughters of Africa — filled with the grace of suffering, illuminated by freedom”. She feels shamed by their evident desire to be rid of this earnest do-gooder so they can resume their flirtation. This is often the most surprising thing about history: what it constantly tells us about the banal humanity of human beings.

Nikhil Krishnan is a Fellow in Philosophy at Robinson College, Cambridge. His book, A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford: 1900–1960, will be published by Profile in 2023.