"So many stupid things,” says Zadie Smith, recalling the projects she was offered after the publication of her sensational debut novel, White Teeth, in 2000. “Fashion things. Reality TV. TV, generally. Lots of TV. There was a real belief that you would only write a book to get to somewhere else. But I just wanted to write books, so it wasn’t a difficult decision.”

It’s absurd to imagine a world in which Smith, rather than contributing potent personal essays and criticism to the New York Review of Books and other publications, or writing four more novels (The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and, most recently, Swing Time) and a story collection (Grand Union) teeming with big ideas, sympathetic characterizations, and roguish wit, had instead spent the past two decades morphing into a Kardashian. But as dark comedy, it’s not so far removed from a joke that Smith weaves throughout The Fraud (Penguin Press, Sept.), her latest novel and first work of historical fiction.

Speaking over Zoom from her study—maroon walls, Paris Review tote bag, Huey Newton peacock chair by the door—in the northwest London suburb of Kilburn, where she was raised and returned to full-time in 2020, after a decade spent teaching creative writing at NYU, Smith describes her curiosity about another neighborhood resident, the prolific 19th-century author William Harrison Ainsworth. “I just thought it was so funny,” she says, “that there was such a famous and successful novelist around the corner from me who was completely forgotten and had written over 40 books that nobody reads anymore. That always entertained me—how fleeting literary reputations are. It’s hilarious.”

(It should be noted here that Smith, the daughter of a Black Jamaican immigrant and a white working-class British WWII veteran, who has been pushing back against the various labels—“multicultural,” “wunderkind,” “hyper-realist”—assigned to her since she published White Teeth at age 24, does seem to find the idea of literary obsolescence genuinely funny. Her laugh when she tells me that “99% of Victorian literature is pulped,” and that “exactly the same” thing will happen to her and her peers, is bright, disarming, and unbidden. A deliberate and often quizzical-looking respondent, Smith appears most at ease when she’s amused—usually by an unexpected, and slightly perverse, turn of her own mind.)

Back to Ainsworth. In the 1830s and ’40s, he was one of the brightest lights of literary London, outselling his good friend Charles Dickens and hosting raucous dinner parties attended by such luminaries as William Thackery and Wilkie Collins. Then came the fallings-out and the long, intractable slide into obscurity.

The Fraud, which tracks Ainsworth’s decline over decades, casts novelists and their “vampiric” hunger for other people’s stories in a vividly unflattering light. “Writers are badly behaved, but have nothing on poets,” says a grinning Smith, who is married to the poet Nick Laird. “We’re angels compared to poets, who are just devilish.”

But Ainsworth, perhaps inevitably, is not the star of his own story. That honor is shared by two other real-life figures, whose presence in The Fraud more directly signals that Smith, one of contemporary literature’s most perceptive chroniclers of the legacy of colonialism and the complexities of identity, is at the wheel.

The first of these characters is Eliza Touchet, Ainsworth’s widowed cousin and housekeeper. The real Mrs. Touchet died in 1869, 13 years before her cousin. In The Fraud, Smith extends her life beyond Ainsworth’s and enriches it in ways only hinted at in the historical record.

“It was such a pure idea,” Smith says. “I only had one sentence about her, which is in somebody’s letter. I can’t even remember if it’s Dickens or Thackeray, just saying, ‘Oh god, is Mrs. Touchet going to be there tonight? She always makes me nervous.’ And I thought, ‘That’s so weird, that this woman would make a load of male writers nervous. What could she have been like?’ ”

From there, Smith extrapolated a character as intelligent, prickly, romantic, stubborn, prejudiced, and incisive as any she has created. A staunch abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and “the consciousness through which the novel is filtered,” Mrs. Touchet develops an unexpected friendship with Ainsworth’s vulgar second wife, Sarah, a former maid turned pampered lady of the house whose ardent interest in one of the era’s most sensationalized legal cases eventually brings the novel’s other main character into focus.

First, though, a bit about the case. On one side stood the Tichborne claimant, a heavyset man with “the face of a simpleton and a chin-strap beard,” as Smith writes. In 1866, he arrived in England from Australia purporting to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy and estates, and was recognized as such by Sir Roger’s mother before she died. On the other side were the remainder of the Tichborne family, pointing out that the real Sir Roger, presumed to have died in a shipwreck off the coast of South America in 1854, was slender, spoke fluent French (which the claimant did not), and had zero connection to an East London butcher named Arthur Orton (which the claimant, who looked just like Orton and made a secret visit to the Orton family on his way back from Australia, clearly did).

Though the logic of the Tichborne claimant’s supporters was incoherent—as Smith puts it, “The argument was, ‘Poor men never get a fair go in this court. So, this man is Sir Roger’ ”—their loyalty was fierce. (Smith says she was reminded while writing of the “rhetorical reversal” Donald Trump has managed to pull off: “How do you sell yourself as a man of the people-stroke-millionaire? It seems like craziness, but Tichborne’s exactly the same. He’s a working-class aristocrat.”) Working-class Britons came out in droves to hear him speak and even bought shares in the land he sought to inherit.

The key man in the claimant’s corner was Andrew Bogle, a former slave on the Hope Estate in Jamaica and valet to Sir Roger’s uncle. Described as “respectable looking” and “having an intelligent face” in newspaper accounts of the trial, Bogle met the claimant in Australia, came back with him to England, and delivered the most persuasive testimony on his behalf.

For Smith, who first encountered the Tichborne case in a Jorge Luis Borges story (“Tom Castro, the Improbable Impostor”), the discovery of Bogle’s involvement was a revelation. “It’s 1870, but there’s a Black man in court giving testimony for two years, something impossible in America. And he’s married to a white woman. He has all these things that are impossible in America, but of course, did happen in England. Not because it was any less racist, but because we just did not have racial laws. I wanted to remember that because, if you spend too long in America, you start forgetting that not everywhere is like America.”

Though Borges imagined that Bogle was the mastermind of the fraud (which resulted in a 14-year prison sentence for the claimant and the loss of Bogle’s pension from the Tichborne family), Smith leaves his motivations more of a mystery. Instead, she brings Mrs. Touchet, who has begun attending the trial with Sarah and feels compelled to write about it, and Bogle together for a series of interviews and encounters that raises penetrating questions about the nature of human rights, and the order in which they’re granted.

Explaining that in 19th-century England, those seeking expanded rights were being encouraged in “this teleological idea of ‘all in good time, we’ll do the middle-class men first, then the working men, then maybe we’ll get to the women, then we’ll consider the colonies, then we’ll think about the Blacks,’ ” Smith says that she wanted to “take seriously the idea that everybody involved is in need at the same moment—and so then by consequence, is unbelievably frustrated and oppressed at every moment.”

Or, to put it more plainly: “I didn’t want to write a cozy book about how everything was nicer or quieter or greener back then. The truth was not cozy.”