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Image: Canva.

Earlier this year, Richard Bell’s installation Pay the Rent displayed at the Tate Modern in London. A rapidly accelerating counter, the digital figure showed rent owed to Indigenous peoples in Australia tailored to Britain’s specific years of occupation between the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and Federation in 1901. The figure doesn’t take compensation or reparations into account. Because there’s yet to be any recourse, the speed at which the number increased with interest is overwhelming, sitting in the eighteen digits in press images, north of a quadrillion dollars. Pay the Rent was the first artwork visitors were confronted with as they entered the main hall of the gallery. A member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities, Bell’s powerful exhibition talks back to empire.

It’s hard to underestimate the significance of this work in a country that actively avoids its colonial past. I’m thinking here of the UK national curriculum, which makes the teaching of the British Empire optional while mandating the study of the Roman Empire and its consequences on Britain. Pay the Rent is the kind of agitprop art that challenges Britain’s historical amnesia through provocation. The installation is a commentary on Australia’s settler colonialism too, particularly the fantasy of white innocence fabricated through values like the ‘rule of law’ and ‘fair go’, obscuring efforts for truth-telling and land rights. In a similar fashion, Zadie Smith’s new novel, The Fraud, unsettles the nation’s delusions about race, imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

At first, The Fraud seems a conventional narrative of William Ainsworth, a forgotten Victorian novelist, and his Scottish cousin Eliza Touchet. It isn’t too different from other Victorian stories I’d watched and read over the years growing up in London (think factory workers, workhouses, repressed women). Dickensian stories of crime and poverty (like A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations) are taught across primary and secondary school, while Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s Middlemarch are popular literature study choices for their depiction of class, sex and love in a high-minded society. These stories continue to be deeply embedded in contemporary British culture, reflective of the country’s nostalgia for 19th-century history and literature.

Zadie Smith’s new novel unsettles the nation’s delusions about race, imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

Though The Fraud opens with a predictable scene between Eliza and a chimneysweep, Smith soon diverges from these tropes. Eliza critiques novelists of her time for indulging in ‘moralising’ narratives—Smith’s nod to an obsession with ethical behaviour in a time of collective panic over social and political upheaval. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the abolitionist movement and an accelerated colonial expansion into Asia and Africa­, England was reinventing itself. Across culture, a national myth-making project bound together by religious, legal and philosophical values was taking place. Maybe it was this historical flex point that drew a contemporary writer of race and identity to the Victorian literary tradition—for Smith to investigate the foundation of England’s colonial character.

As the engine room for industry and political power, a lot of Victorian literature was set in London. And though her eleven-book oeuvre is varied, what remains a preoccupation for Smith is her detailed love of North West London: Willesden, Kensal Green, Kilburn. Her debut novel, White Teeth, was set in the Willesden of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and explores tensions as immigrants arrived from former British colonies. In her campus novel, On Beauty, the American–English Belsey family travels from the USA to Willesden, the former home of the English professor Howard Belsey. Swing Time is set in London too, while the polyvocal, experimental NW is specifically located in North West London’s social housing. And though Smith’s first historical fiction novel moves across England between 1826 to 1877, it is when Eliza Touchet returns to London later in Iife, where North and West London combined, ‘that she felt most at home’.

During this visit, Eliza finds herself in the centre of a people’s protest for land and freedom in East London, and she’s shocked by the ‘daily battle of life’. But this reality check doesn’t hit immediately. Smith builds up to this by entwining middle-class white lives, the abolition movement and slave trade with an identity-theft criminal case. A real-life court case and national scandal, the Tichborne case caught the population’s imagination in the 1860s; against all evidence and reason, the case’s working-class defendant Arthur Orton was believed to be patrician Sir Roger Doughty Tichborne by his supporters until death. Much of the book’s plot is centred around the drama surrounding this court case.

Though her eleven-book oeuvre is varied, what remains a preoccupation for Smith is her detailed love of North West London.

While the novel’s central voice is Eliza’s, her primary inquiry is into William Ainsworth’s life—his overlooked novels and his rivalry with Dickens is key, but his self-absorption, a kind of stand-in for the ‘mediocre white male writer’ and his ego, is interrogated as well. When William moves to Italy early in his marriage so he can pursue writing, he leaves behind his wife Ann and young daughters. At the request of Ann, Eliza moves in to support the family. Eliza herself is a widow who over time becomes the Ainsworth’s housekeeper when Ann prematurely dies. She also coordinates William’s literary salons and becomes an informal editor and critic of his novels which she can’t bear to read (‘How could it be that everything he had ever written was nonsense?’). In his sixties, William goes on to remarry the ‘new Mrs. Ainsworth’, Sarah, a former housemaid. An enthusiastic follower of the Tichborne case, Sarah and Eliza attend court over several months to watch the drama unfold.

Image: Andre Bogle c. 1873. National Portrait Gallery, London.

A key witness to the case is Andrew Bogle, an enslaved man ‘born on the Hope Estate in Saint Andrew, Jamaica’. As an abolitionist, Eliza becomes enthralled with Andrew’s stoic intellectualism and is desperate to get to know him. Unbeknownst to Eliza, Andrew and his son Henry find her behaviour overbearing and awkward. It’s these types of delusions that Smith pokes fun at throughout the book. Speaking of William and his contemporary novelists, Eliza reflects that she’d ‘always known who had talent and who did not, and as long as her cousin asked no further questions, her discreet, ironic and yet absolute God would wink at it’. What I appreciate most about The Fraud is how Smith takes the self-serious English literary canon and disrupts it through satire, irony and humour. William mocks women, Eliza mocks William, and the narrator mocks Eliza. This spectacle becomes an extended joke between the narrator and reader as character behaviours shift from comic to ironic to ridiculous.

The comedic critique of English sensibilities also gestures to the ideologies of the time: the white man’s burden, social Darwinism, Christian values and eugenics together invented a national and racial superiority then used to justify invasion, genocide and pillage in the colonies. Smith parodies this superiority complex by taking aim at seemingly harmless characters like William who represent the elite culture. Though we already know Eliza thinks William’s writing is terrible by this point:

She saw for herself how much pleasure writing brought him. He dipped his nib with a smile on his face, liked to speak the especially gory parts aloud, and sang his cockney ballads as he invented them. Not infrequently, he wrote twenty pages in an afternoon. He always appeared entirely satisfied with every line.

William’s ego is fragile; what he’s most afraid of is criticism from his peers (‘Are they making fun of me, Eliza?’). Though Eliza tries to be mindful of William’s insecurities, there are long sections where she continues her disparaging reviews-to-self:

No matter how briskly she tried to move through it, this new novel, Hilary St. Ives proved disheartening. Old age had only condensed and intensified his flaws. People ejaculated, rejoined, cried out on every page.

This is his ‘Jamaica novel’, a place Eliza notes he has never been to; his descriptions of the island are inspired by a pastoral postcard portrait and his characters claimed to be ‘lifted from life’. When William asks Eliza what she thinks of the book, Smith writes, ‘“A triumph!” ejaculated Mrs Touchet’, making both characters the butt of the joke.

Underneath Eliza’s snarky comments is a real grievance about the literary establishment (though she, too, is secretly writing a novel). Writers are thieves who create novels from ‘worn cloth and stolen truth […] more and more the whole practice wearied her, even to the point of disgust’. The line between Arthur Orton’s identity theft and William Ainsworth’s novels is membrane-thin—both men take memories, ideas and stories of others to spin it as their own, for their personal gain and profit.

Smith takes the self-serious English literary canon and disrupts it through satire, irony and humour.

Such stories of deceit are scattered across Smith’s books. In NW, the protagonist’s father shows him a photographic collection of his life in Garvey House in the 1970s, a council estate on which he still lives. Though the images evoke nostalgia, the father is frustrated that it costs ‘twenty-nine quid!’ and that a white man took photographs without consent or payment—another unfulfilled reparation:

‘How you gonna just sell that under English law? There’s no way. In a public building from the council? I don’t think so. Go to the library, look at the law books. Where’s my money? He’s selling my image on the Internets? My image? I don’t think so. Where’s my rights under the English law?’

The legal system works as system of trust, good faith and promise, constructed to deliver justice. But when it’s used to legitimise British colonisation (the Crown’s acceptance of terra nullius or the East India Company’s expansion into India are some examples), it’s obvious this ‘fairness’ applies only to a select group. Although Britain prides itself on being the first country to abolish slavery (William feels ‘our debt to the African is surely paid in full’), it fails to remember how Parliament legislated compensation to slave owners for their loss of ‘property’ in the years that followed.

A believer of this justice system, Eliza takes pride in her abolition work and ‘liberal passions’. Yet beneath this veneer, she displays a different, more insidious strain of racism, at least next to William’s; Eliza is ‘astonished’ at Bogle’s articulate questioning of the justice system and patronises his arguments as she ‘raised her eyebrows, like a teacher surprised at a bright student’. For Henry, it’s clear that the law is a farce:

‘Where does this come from? This power? To bestow freedom. Every Englishman I meet seems to think he has it.’

This criticism of the English legal system is further interrogated in The Fraud as the Tichborne case unfolds. Towards the end of court proceedings, ‘it occurred to Mrs Touchet that the law—much as she idealised it in her own mind—did not itself have sufficient rules, and some of the ones it had felt somewhat arbitrary’. Here, England’s facade falls apart. Although the Slavery Abolition Act passed in the British parliament in 1833, the novel depicts deeply distressing details of its continuation in colonial Jamaica for a further four years. Cotton from the Caribbean continued to arrive in Manchester. Eliza’s annual pension is revealed to be ‘sugar money’ through her dead husband.

Underneath Eliza’s snarky comments is a real grievance about the literary establishment.

We can see how Smith’s preoccupations have amalgamated, coming to the fore much more clearly in this new work. The lessons of the Tichborne case appear in NW’s contemporary setting too, when a university professor delivers a lecture to law students:

‘Hundreds of witnesses stand in the dock: good friends, ex-teachers, ex-nurses, ex-lovers. They all say: That’s Tichborne. The man’s own mother gets up there and points: That’s my son. Reason tells us the real Tichborne could speak French. And yet. And when “reason prevailed”, why did people riot in the streets. Don’t put too much faith in reason.’

This case is a successful example of deception, ideal for ongoing interrogation: Orton’s lies become true over time, enough for a whole nation to believe him. It’s a microcosm of Britain’s myth-making project; arguments about the country’s superiority are repeated enough times for them to become embedded into the nation’s psyche. As Dickens writes so impotently of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which showcased ‘exotic bays’ of ‘everything the British had ever done’ on display:

We are moving in a right direction towards some superior condition of society—politically, morally, intellectually and religiously.

Fictionalising this identity search leads Smith to connect many different threads across The Fraud. By interrogating the idea of ‘truth’, she reveals that the real thief and fraud in fact is Britain itself. And though there are no easy answers to settler-colonial realities today, it’s clear from works like Bell’s Pay the Rent that compensation isn’t enough. And while the debt cannot ever be repaid, Bogle’s words are a reminder that ‘Parliament hands down the laws that govern us, yes. It cannot bestow freedom itself.’ The Fraud offers a new angle to unmask these colonial delusions—by having a laugh but also continuing to ask questions.