Sunday, Apr 21, 2024 | Last Update : 10:11 AM IST

  Books   25 Feb 2024  Book Review | Writer’s muse parses a Victorian court drama

Book Review | Writer’s muse parses a Victorian court drama

THE ASIAN AGE. | ALOKE ROY CHOWDHURY
Published : Feb 25, 2024, 1:20 pm IST
Updated : Feb 25, 2024, 1:20 pm IST

Zadie Smith’s novel encompasses the Tichborne case but its scope is far wider

 Long after these events passed into history, the case would continue to capture the popular imagination — books would be written, films made and it would even feature in TV series such as the Simpsons.  — By Arrangement
  Long after these events passed into history, the case would continue to capture the popular imagination — books would be written, films made and it would even feature in TV series such as the Simpsons. — By Arrangement

At the heart of this novel is a notorious court case in nineteenth century Britain which came to be known as the Tichborne Trial.

In a nutshell, Arthur Orton, a butcher’s son, claimed that he was none other than Roger Tichborne the heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. Roger Tichborne was presumed to have died in a shipwreck off the South American coast in 1854. In 1866 Arthur Orton then living in Wagga Wagga in Australia came forward claiming to be Roger Tichborne.

The case in British civil and criminal courts would continue for over a decade till Orton’s claim would be dismissed and later he would be convicted of perjury and sentenced to serve a long prison term. This bare outline fails to convey the social tumult, the public debate, the outrage and controversy that resulted as the legal proceedings moved forward.

Long after these events passed into history, the case would continue to capture the popular imagination — books would be written, films made and it would even feature in TV series such as the Simpsons. For many the Tichborne Claimant remained a legitimate heir denied his inheritance because of his working class background. For others, he was a fraud as established by the judiciary.

Zadie Smith’s novel encompasses the Tichborne case but its scope is far wider. Our starting point is the household of the English novelist, William Ainsworth, his young wife Sarah and cousin Eliza Touchet.

The literary gatherings at the Ainsworth home which we witness through Eliza’s eyes are described with gentle satire. There is Dickens, Thackeray and a host of literary characters who flit in and out of the house as bottles of port wash parch throats. Ainsworth’s novels aren’t remembered today but they had their fair share of success in their time.

But it is Mrs Eliza Touchet, Ainsworth’s cousin who holds our attention. Gradually as if through a puzzle of scattered images we come to know her past. She was abandoned not long after marriage and lost her husband and daughter to illness far away. Thus she seeks shelter at Ainsworth’s home. She would manage home, read Ainsworth’s yet to be published books, guide his illiterate newlywed young wife, Sarah, while painfully remembering the first Mrs Ainsworth, Frances, whom she loved. She is also William Ainsworth’s muse, she creeps into his writings unknowingly. Victorian England comes to life through the early pages of the book. Midway through the narration, the focus changes to the Tichborne case. Sarah and Eliza are drawn to listen to the proceedings.

The book focuses on the legal proceedings of the Tichborne case till judgment is passed. Eliza gets absorbed in the life of Andrew Bogle who had stood witness to Orton’s claim. Bogle is a Jamaican who had worked long years in the Tichborne household. Eliza wants to know his story and perhaps write her own book. It is not easy listening to Bogle’s account, how his father was kidnapped in Africa, his life in the Hope plantation in Jamaica and the extreme torture of enslavement.

A striking feature of the book is the way events and characters pass by, giving the reader a fleeting glimpse of a historical pageant. Here is a very modern author delving, skimming, and quickly moving away from the past only to return at will. A few lines which illustrate this.

“Mrs Touchet had a theory. England was not a real place at all. England was an elaborate alibi. Nothing really happened in England. Only dinner parties and boarding schools and bankruptcies.” This is the gossamer touch.

Then the history and the fiction: Where does one end and the other begin? Harrison Ainsworth is firmly based on a historical character but Eliza Touchet, in many ways the person who holds the narrative together, is largely Zadie Smith’s creation. That is historical fiction for you.

As an afterthought, this reviewer found echoes of another trial in Bengal in the 1930s, that of another so-called imposter who came back from the dead to claim his inheritance. That trial also shook the country. The narrative history of the trial, known popularly as the Bhawal Sanyasi case, can be found in Partha Chatterjee’s Dead Man Wandering.  It is a great read and it is not fiction.

Aloke Roy Chowdhury is a retired publisher.

The Fraud

By Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton

pp. 464, Rs 799/-

Tags: the fraud, zadie smith