71 pages 2 hours read

Zadie Smith

The Fraud

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


The Fraud (2023) by Zadie Smith is a piece of historical fiction set in Victorian England in the 1870s. The novel explores the controversy surrounding the Tichborne case, in which a lower-class man claimed to be the lost heir to an aristocratic family fortune. The novel intertwines the stories of Elizabeth Touchet, a white woman and housekeeper, and Andrew Bogle, a once-enslaved man from Jamaica. Throughout The Fraud, Smith blends famous and lost-to-history British figures to craft her story about authenticity, racism, and gender roles.

Zadie Smith is the award-winning author of five other novels, one play, several nonfiction essays and short stories. She has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is a consistent New York Times bestseller.

This guide uses the 2023 edition of The Fraud published by Penguin Random House.

Content Warning: This guide discusses racism and enslavement, including explicitly racist ideas from the 19th century.

Plot Summary

Eliza Touchet is a Scottish Catholic who marries into a wealthier family. When her husband leaves her for another woman, taking their son with him, Eliza is left without parental access and without stability. Her husband’s brother, William Ainsworth, a novelist, takes Eliza in. When it is discovered that her husband and son have died of an illness, Eliza is alone in the world except for William.

Eliza becomes an intimate part of William’s life. She falls in love with his wife, helps take care of his daughters, and encourages his literary career. She and William also have an affair, complicating her relationship with his wife. William’s wife falls ill with heartbreak and dies. Eliza and the daughters are devastated, but William moves on from his wife’s death quickly because he is so obsessed with his literary career. In the ensuing years, Eliza helps William build and maintain his literary reputation. She hosts literary salons for William’s elite group of literary friends, including Charles Dickens. Eliza is included in the salons, but as she grows older her opinions are cared about less and less.

Though William has some success as a novelist, his career ultimately lags, then fails. He loses his family’s wealth and downsizes the family home. Meanwhile, he watches with envy as Charles Dickens becomes rich and celebrated. As William and Eliza enter their elder years, William gets a young maid, Sarah, pregnant. Though it is considered scandalous, he marries her. Sarah thus rises in her status from an illiterate maid, the daughter of a sex worker, to a gentleman’s wife.

Nevertheless, Sarah never forgets who she is or where she comes from. She convinces Eliza to join her in watching the speeches and events held for the Tichborne Claimant. The Tichborne Claimant is a man claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, who was believed to have died in a shipwreck. The claimant declares that he survived the shipwreck, ended up in Australia, and took years to remember his past life after the physical traumas of the shipwreck. The claimant has an important ally, Andrew Bogle, a former enslaved man who has worked for the Tichborne family for decades. Bogle, his son Henry, and the claimant travel around England sharing the story of the Tichborne Claimant to drum up support. Most fans of the claimant are people like Sarah, who come from the poorer classes. Upper-class Britons, such as Eliza and William, have no doubt that the claimant is a fraud.

Despite not believing in the claimant, Eliza becomes convinced by Andrew Bogle. In Bogle, she sees a reflection of her own code-switching and mask-wearing. His persona inspires Eliza to become a writer. She tracks Bogle down and convinces him to sit for an interview with her. Bogle tells Eliza his life story. He was born into enslavement in Jamaica and was trained to do clerical work around the plantation. Sir Edward Touchet, an agent for the man who owned the plantation, saw Bogle’s potential, and brought him back to England to work for the Touchet family, then the Doughty family. Bogle’s story is full of heartbreak, resilience, and honesty. He explains to Eliza how he and his second wife and two sons moved to Australia because England was too racist a setting for his well-educated sons to find good work. In Australia, he ran into Sir Roger Tichborne and together they planned a return to England so Sir Roger could claim his rightful role.

Eliza becomes engrossed with Bogle and the case. However, as she gets closer to Bogle’s son Henry, who assists in her research, it becomes clear that Eliza is writing a story that she is not entitled to. An argument with Henry exposes Eliza’s subconscious biases against Black people. Undeterred, Eliza writes a book called The Fraud about Bogle and the Tichborne claimant. It takes her years, and when she is finished, she chooses a male pen name so she can publish her novel. When William dies, Eliza mourns the one person who knew her unconditionally throughout her life.