A great English comic novel celebrates its centenary. The funniest femme fatale of all time turned 100 this year.
Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm, first published in 1911, is a quintessentially English comic novel: sparkling with irony and affectionate critique of a country, constrained by decorum, where form is always more important than content. It tells the story of an Edwardian “It” girl, sultry granddaughter of the Warden of Judas College, who takes Oxford by storm during a short visit in which she snubs all her admirers while parading about in flamingo-pink dresses and pink and black pearl earrings that have a habit of finding their way into men’s shirt studs.
So electric is her effect upon the male undergraduate population that, in a couple of short days, she becomes the toast, the idol, and then the nemesis of the university, as the student body by common consent plunges into the river, determined to die for what it cannot possess: shouting the name “Zuleika” (pronounced as in “shrieker” not “hiker”) from lips that can come no closer to her than her name. Zuleika is momentarily contrite, considers entering a nunnery, but then on reflection instructs her maid to book a Special Train to Cambridge—presumably to wipe out Britain’s second-oldest university, too.
Mass suicide is rarely hilarious. But Beerbohm makes it so. He is, of course, teasing. His novel instructs us from its first pages that it isn’t to be taken at face value: Like Zuleika herself, it is an essay in style, so artful that it remains always just beyond the reader’s reach.
In the story, Zuleika’s grandfather disinherited her parents. She was a poor orphan, forced unwillingly to work as a governess, who accidentally learned a few cheap conjuring tricks. Given the extraordinary magnetism of her appearance, however, she has become a sensation as a female magician, breaking hearts from New York to St. Petersburg. In a sense, her trip to Oxford is a revenge mission. She is about to disinherit her grandfather. He will be left presiding over a college that exists only in form: a bastion of classical tradition whose students are as extinct as Latin and Greek. The lesson Zuleika Dobson teaches the academic establishment is quite similar to the lesson Eliza Doolittle will teach Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, written in 1912: Looks trump books.
In a sense, Zuleika Dobson is also Max Beerbohm’s loving revenge on Oxford. He read classics at Merton College in the 1890s, but failed to take a degree. Instead, he was busy sketching and writing ironic essays with precocious flair. This was the era of Oscar Wilde’s reign as the leading wit, dandy, and intellectual of the hour. Aesthetics ruled. Realist novels were hypocritical and (worse) dull. Life imitated art, and beauty, not truth, was the end of art. Max drew an imaginary Oxford exam paper; it was on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Implicitly, it argued that posing your own questions was much more interesting than answering other people’s.
After Oxford, Beerbohm—a slight, camp figure, impeccably dressed—became himself a celebrated character, publishing quirky essays in literary magazines, reviewing theater, and drawing brilliant caricatures. He settled in Italy and lived quietly at this cultural remove, pretending to be outdated while producing Zuleika Dobson, a novel that is, despite its pretensions to triviality, an important work in the history of the comic novel in English.
Beerbohm’s brilliance lies in his self-conscious play with the conventions of genre, voice, and plot. He pretends to have got special permission from Clio, the muse of history (who is a secret pulp fiction addict), to be both factual and omniscient. He depicts himself floating above Oxford, hovering at windows and observing men and women arranging themselves in front of the mirror. He deploys language theatrically, creating magical scenes while simultaneously inviting us to peek behind the curtain and acknowledge the artifice in which we collude.
Zuleika’s appearance, for example, is described in terms of pastiche and exaggeration, the very qualities Beerbohm’s own prose purveys:
Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been. An anarchy of small curls was her chevelure, a dark upland of misrule, every hair asserting its rights over a not discreditable brow. For the rest, her features were not at all original. They seemed to have been derived rather from a gallimaufry of familiar models. . . . The mouth was a mere replica of Cupid’s bow, lacquered scarlet and strung with the littlest pearls. No apple-tree, no wall of peaches, had not been robbed, nor any Tyrian rose-garden, for the glory of Miss Dobson’s cheeks. Her neck was imitation-marble. Her hands and feet were of very mean proportions. She had no waist to speak of.
Each of the heroine’s faults is in fact an erotic magnet. She is unoriginal—and irresistible. Beerbohm plays with paradox. Zuleika is smitten with the Duke of Dorset, the very model of an English aristocrat, precisely because he pays her no attention. His indifference is wildly arousing. When, however, he falls in love with her, Zuleika is bitterly disappointed. She can only adore a man who doesn’t adore her.
The Duke of Dorset, meanwhile, finds himself in an equally impossible situation. Honor demands that, spurned by the only woman he has ever loved, he should commit suicide. But Zuleika clearly isn’t worth it. He wrestles with the quandary and decides to live. But too late. According to tradition, the night before a Duke of Dorset dies, two black owls perch, hooting, on the battlements of his ancestral castle. On the morning when he has decided not to drown, the Duke of Dorset receives a telegram from his butler:
Deeply regret inform your grace last night two black owls came and perched on battlements remained there through night hooting at dawn flew away none knows whither awaiting instructions Jellings
This is a masterstroke. The Duke of Dorset is a figure titled by and belonging to history. Hence his decision to change his mind in the present and give himself a future is completely futile. He has been pre-scripted. He thus dresses himself in the full regalia of a Knight of the Garter and plunges into the river, followed by the rest of the male undergraduate population. Beerbohm here is commenting slyly on the self-defeating aspects of the British class system. As Zuleika says, when the Duke proposes to her, offering her land, ceremony, and peasants: “I think you are an awful snob.” On the whole, although Zuleika is shallow and vain, we don’t blame her for her disastrous effect on Oxford because we perceive that the love she inspires is essentially narcissistic and has deep roots in the institution she has overwhelmed. It is a love of the unobtainable ideal—the paradox of self-fulfillment in self-destruction—which originates with Romanticism, with Byron and Shelley, and finds its apotheosis in the decadent pose of Wilde: his open self-love, yet self-destructive wantonness and preoccupation with death.
Zuleika Dobson is, then, partly a commentary on Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic cult in Oxford. Beerbohm channels Wilde’s theatrical energy: his self-conscious love of epigram, irony, and pastiche. But he also parodies the excesses of the late Romantic frisson in Oxford: the susceptibility to sentiment, to celebrity, to style above every other consideration.
It is intriguing that Beerbohm’s novel, in which an overwhelmingly male university is sunk by female power, was published in a decade when women were fighting for the vote and for equal rights in education. Zuleika Dobson could be seen as espousing the cause of the New Woman, determined to enter the male Establishment. The character of Zuleika is, however, far from intellectual. Her arts are very traditionally female: She adorns her body, she performs tricks that draw attention to her own bewitching form. Indeed, in one of Beerbohm’s illustrations to the novel, it is very noticeable that Zuleika and the “Demon Egg-Cup,” her conjuring tool, are identical in shape.
Rather than arguing for a new deal for women, Beerbohm’s novel raises a camp eyebrow at classical ideals of masculinity. The Duke of Dorset is a model of masculine virtue, who excels at every sport and study; but he loves nothing better than to dress up in his cape and garters, and when he catches a cold (Zuleika having poured cold water on him), he is terrified that he will expire. Beerbohm compares the undergraduates’ enthusiasm when they all swear to die for Zuleika to “the noise made on the verge of the Boer war.” Zuleika inspires a kind of hysterical virility—which turns them into a “great passive monster” bent on pointless self-sacrifice.
It is an oddly prophetic text. Between 1914 and 1918, Oxford, like every other town in Britain, was emptied of its young men. The novel’s blackly comic finale became a tragedy of real and devastating proportions as men flung themselves, at Britannia’s bidding, into the jaws of death. It is too much to say that Beerbohm foresaw the needless self-slaughter of World War I, but he does point a suspicious finger at jingoism and the mob effect.
Although Zuleika Dobson was a popular success, some critics were mystified by it. Arnold Bennett wrote Beerbohm a letter complaining that:
I must be serious and raise great issues about this book, as it raises great issues in our art. . . . Can a humorous work end tragically, with propriety? I doubt it. By which I mean that I know damned well it can’t.
Bennett hadn’t understood that Beerbohm’s novel was deliberately thumbing its nose at the kind of po-faced social realism that Bennett himself practiced. It dared to mix the plausible and the absurd, the comic and catastrophic. In doing so, it unpicked the rules of the Victorian novel (where orphan governesses advance through marriage) and opened the door to something much more modern. Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh were among those who understood and learned from Beerbohm’s style. To Waugh, he was simply “The Master.” Waugh’s ruthless comic precision owes much to Beerbohm’s influence.
If you take a trip to Oxford now you can see Arnold Bennett’s recently rediscovered letter to Beerbohm in an exhibition at Merton College that also features some wonderful caricatures by Max. Here are Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a plump Machiavelli) and Algernon Swinburne (a long-haired elf). Here is the bewhiskered Warden of Merton College from Beerbohm’s undergraduate days, and here is Max himself, making fun of his own bad habits. One drawing shows the youthful Max stealing a book from the Merton library and a bent, white-haired figure (Max in imaginary old age) finally bringing it back.
Beerbohm loved appropriating books, in various senses: His copies are full of doodles and fake footnotes, sketches of the author and other graffiti—he transforms existing literature into something of his own making. In his world, books outsmart their authors and fictional characters often prove stronger than their inventors.
You might even take this centenary opportunity to do a Zuleika tour of Oxford. You can see the spot outside the Sheldonian Theatre where Zuleika performed her magic tricks; wonder which house on Broad Street was inhabited by the Duke of Dorset; and visit Wadham College, with its Judas tree, which some say is the original of Judas College. You could indulge in a decadent afternoon tea with champagne in the Randolph Hotel, which is adorned with Osbert Lancaster’s 1952 illustrations to the novel.
If you do, I hope you will raise a toast to Beerbohm’s wayward but winning heroine. Siegfried Sassoon pronounced Zuleika Dobson “perfect.” The lady herself would have accepted the adjective as no more than her due. After all, Helen of Troy only launched a thousand ships. Zuleika capsized an entire generation.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.