The Fraud

Penguin Pr. Sept. 2023. 464p. ISBN 9780525558965. $29. F
The cultural and literary life of Victorian England erupts vibrantly from each page of this extraordinary novel by Smith (White Teeth; On Beauty). Drawing upon the career of historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, Smith takes readers into the Ainsworth salon where Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, and Dickens drank until dawn, opining on the issues of the day. Also introduced is the marvelous Mrs. Touchet, a feisty Scot with a biting wit, the widowed cousin by marriage to William upon whom, as a single woman must, she depended for her keep. Eliza, in love with Ainsworth’s wife Fanny but not above carnal romps with her cousin, ran the household impeccably and became William’s first reader, feigning enthusiasm for his mind-numbingly lengthy novels. But it’s the commencement of the infamous Tichborne trial that creates strange bedfellows of Mrs. Touchet and the illiterate former maid, now William’s second wife. Their attendance at the hearings of the Australian butcher claiming to be the lost heir to the massive Tichborne estates awakens Eliza’s consciousness to the litany of injustices perpetrated upon the enslaved people of Jamaica by Britain’s aristocracy.
VERDICT Smith wrestles contemporary themes surrounding women’s independence, racism, and class disparity from centuries-old events in her beautifully crafted historical. Readers of Geraldine Brooks or Hilary Mantel will be enthralled.
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