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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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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.

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