These mealtime debates about the Tichborne trial, while fun to follow, lack the preternatural precision of the dialogue in Smith’s more contemporary novels — she is working with the past, and can’t rely on her superb ear — and so the novel really takes off when Eliza accompanies Sarah to the Tichborne fund-raiser in London and finds her mind blown by the riotous circumstances and, by contrast, the sobering figure of the white-haired, neatly dressed Andrew Bogle up on the stage.
Many idiots are compelled to defend the Claimant, including an Irish lawyer who appears to be modeled on Rudy Giuliani. But of all his defenders, no one is more believable, cautious or intelligent than Bogle, who knew the Claimant in Australia and has maintained, mysteriously, even in the face of legal blows to the Claimant, that the Claimant is who he says he is. As an abolitionist and student of humanity, Touchet is inexorably drawn to Bogle and begins interviewing him with the hope — after years of being on the sidelines of literary dinner conversations — of, heaven forbid, writing her own book.
More so than any other novel Smith has written, this is a book about novelists, and it is in lambasting the egos of male writers that Smith has the most fun. “God preserve me from that tragic indulgence, that useless vanity, that blindness!” Touchet thinks, years before she takes the plunge into novel-writing herself. While discussing Dickens with Ainsworth, she exclaims: “Oh, what does it matter what that man thinks of anything? He’s a novelist!” One of her cousin’s orotund historical fictions about the court of Queen Anne is described as being “almost as dull as the reign of Queen Anne itself.”
More movingly, Smith explains in one passage why Ainsworth became a bad writer of historical fiction after a major controversy around his early, successful, contemporary novel “Jack Sheppard” drove him “off into the distant, storied past — where he felt safest … where nothing is real and nothing matters.” It is less easy, from this point, to see Ainsworth as a buffoon. And it is a way for Smith to signal to us why she, too, may wish to navigate the storms of the present on a raft fashioned from the timber of the past.
Bogle, meanwhile, tells Eliza his harrowing tale of being raised on a brutal Jamaican plantation and making his way to England as a valet. “My life has had many parts,” he says, sounding like a Naipaul narrator. It is in this section that the odd structure of the novel, cutting between time periods and characters in very short chapters, has its biggest payoff, with decades racing by in bite-size passages that yield first-rate observations about colonialism like this: “England was not a real place at all. England was an elaborate alibi.”