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: