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Opus Maximus

A comic master’s comic masterpiece turns 100.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By SARA LODGE
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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.

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