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What a long time a hundred years is, especially in literature. Several literary fashions have come and gone in the century since Zuleika Dobson first appeared, and today it reads more than ever like a period piece. A delightful, amusing period piece perhaps, but still just that. Which is strange, because although in many ways the novel exemplifies the spirit of its pre-First War times, in others it was always a maverick one-off.
Zuleika Dobson is sub-titled 'An Oxford Love Story', and is very much an Oxford book (think Waugh, Crispin, Morse - though ZD predates them all), redolent of dreaming causes and lost spires. I'm glad to say that I'm not ancient enough to know whether the 'old Oxford' lovingly portrayed in ZD existed in actuality or only in Beerbohm's idealised imagination. "Idealised?" a modernist might retort to this. "It was a silly place, a snobbish place, divorced from reality and in no way ideal; moreover the story ends in a kind of tragedy." Well, perhaps tragedy of some kind or other is always a concomitant hazard when you have a Love Story, especially one with capital initials, but that in no way contradicts the fact that the novel is essentially comic rather than tragic. Oddly so, given that the mainspring of the plot is unrequited love of a particularly hopeless kind, when the requital nullifies the love.
* "A prettier compliment had never been paid her" *
The story opens with the arrival at Oxford railway station of the eponymous heroine. She has come to visit her grand-father, the warden of Judas College, to whom she is a virtual stranger because he did not approve of the marriage of his son, her father, to a circus performer. Now an orphan, Zuleika has made her own way in the world as a conjuror, famed not so much for her prestidigitatory skill, which might politely be described as ordinary, as for her irresistible sex appeal. Not quite beautiful, she nevertheless exudes a magnetic allure, and no young man who so much as catches a glimpse of her from afar can fail to be drawn, helpless, into her orbit. For her part, whilst she basks in their worship, long habit has caused her to despise her worshippers. "She was an empress, and all youths were her slaves... but no empress who has any pride can adore one of her slaves. Whom, then, could proud Zuleika adore?"
Does the answer to this question lie in the person of John Albert Edward Claude Orde Angus Tankerton Tanville-Tankerton, fourteenth Duke of Dorset, Marquis of Dorset, Earl of Grove, Earl of Chastermaine, Viscount Brewsby, Baron Grove, Baron Petstrap and Baron Wolock - these being just his titles in the Peerage of England and omitting those in other peerages across Europe - as near perfect an example of a young aristocrat as could possibly be found putting in his stint as an undergraduate at Oxford? Given that he is not only titled but handsome, charismatic, brilliant, athletic and gifted in almost every imaginable way, one might think he would be in there with a shout. But it is not his effortless superiority that attracts Zuleika as his apparent indifference to her charms, an indifference she has never previously encountered. When they first meet at dinner in college, he spurns her in favour of conversing with a dowdy don's wife.
The following morning she arrives, smitten, at his lodgings all ready to throw herself at his contemptuous feet, when he commits a fatal error, declaring that he himself has been smitten by her. Instantly her love evaporates, as she equally instantly makes clear to him. His pride wounded by her rebuff, he declares that he prefers death to life without her love, and will drown himself in the Isis. The river in question, however, is fully occupied with Eights Week, the annual inter-collegiate rowing regatta, which it would be unthinkable to disrupt for a mere suicide, even that of so august a personage as the duke. His demise must be postponed until the oarsmen have finished their business the following day. During the intervening evening, the duke dines at the Junta, a sort of super-Bullingdon club of which he is the president, and lets slip his intention to his fellow-diners, who, to a man, declare that they, as equally unrequited admirers of ZD, will follow his example. Word passes round, and in no time the whole of undergraduate Oxford is committed to a similar self-destructive gesture.
And so the fatal day dawns. Will the duke's love survive further contact with Zuleika and her vapid vanity? And, if it does not, will her love for him revive? In either case, will he fulfil his suicidal undertaking? And will his friends and followers do likewise? If so, how will this affect the university, as personified in Zuleika's warden father? Not to mention the effect on the lady herself...
If you don't already know the answers to these questions - or even if you do - may I recommend you read the book, since it repays a second as well as an initial reading?
* "It had shaped itself in his mind as a short ode in Doric Greek" *
How to describe Beerbohm's style? Classical in structure, orthodox in usage, exact in choice of word. Witty too, urbane. Readable always, but oh so dated in its self-conscious allusions and conceits - the conjuring up of muses and myths, and the quotations in numerous languages. You couldn't get away with that kind of thing nowadays; it would be called pompous, and maybe rightly so. Because it suits the era and the subject-matter, Beerbohm just about carries it off. But if, as his contemporary Oscar Wilde said, the aim of art is to reveal art while concealing the artist, Beerbohm errs on the side of self-advertisement. He wears his erudition lightly, but no less ostentatiously for that, cunningly contriving to have things both ways. Beerbohm lays it on thick, but not so much with a trowel - how vulgar an instrument that would have been - as with a palette knife. Amid all the florid language (e.g. "he affixed to his breast the octoradiant star"), the reader is surprised by occasional images of vivid simplicity (e.g. "the shadows crept out across the grass, thirsty for the dew").
The narrative technique matches the style in its tendency towards over-elaboration, though it never really flags. One or two chapters could have been truncated, even omitted, without losing much of either meaning or atmosphere. Whilst the book is not excessively long (my Penguin edition weighs in at just 252 pages) the story could certainly have been more succinctly told. Typically, the final chapter could do with being just three paragraphs shorter, in my view at least, since those three paragraphs take the edge off what could have been one of sharpest endings in English literature. Actually, it's pretty sharp even with them there. Characterisation is, on the other hand, kept straightforward, partly by making most of the characters caricatures. I do not say this as a criticism since it fits the nature and purpose of the book, and because the least caricaturish figure is that of Zuleika herself. Beerbohm is very clever in making her not quite beautiful, not quite charming, not talented nor even very bright, but captivating all the same, in contrast to the excessively and irritatingly flawless duke. The novel is aptly named.
* "A figure orgulous and splendent" *
I was somewhat surprised to learn, in checking the background for this review, that Zuleika Dobson was Max Beerbohm's only novel, surprised since I had always understood him to be a significant figure in the literary world of his time. So it appears he was, but as much for his personality as for his output. A natural wit and a dandy, he became a protégé of Wilde and Beardsley, at the same time as being well-connected in theatrical circles by dint of being half-brother to the then-famous actor Beerbohm Tree (though the quotation attributed to him "vulgar without being funny, like my brother's Hamlet" is apparently apocryphal). He left Oxford without taking his degree, and published 'The Works of Max Beerbohm' at the ripe old age of 24, works that at that stage consisted mainly of essays and theatrical reviews. He succeeded Shaw as theatre critic on the then-influential Saturday Review, but continued to write essays on other literary topics as well as a handful of short stories. He was also a talented cartoonist, and his caricatures of contemporary figures and archetypes appeared in various publications. Having blazed a brilliant trail when young, for most of his life he seems to have been content to express his talents in correspondence and conversation with a wide circle of friends, residing in semi-retirement in Italy until he died in 1956. Zuleika Dobson apart, it seems to have been more what Beerbohm was than what he wrote that made him memorable.
* "That crackling of tissue paper is driving me mad..." *
...may be a rather irrelevant heading, but one has to introduce the tiresome details somehow. Zuleika Dobson appears no longer to be listed by Penguin Modern Classics, but it is not hard to come by a copy. The Collector's Library has published a Centenary edition at £9.99. A 'Classic Reprint' edition published by Forgotten Books is available in paperback, cover price £8.62. Both are, I'm sure, to be found more cheaply on the web, and there are plenty of second-hand copies in various editions to be found.
* "A lithe and radiant creature" *
Yes, like its heroine, Zuleika Dobson the novel is still radiant after all these years, lithe even, despite its potentially ponderous archaisms. Let us remember how Beerbohm himself regarded his masterpiece; many years after it appeared he wrote: "Some people seem to think it was intended as a satire on such things as the herd instinct, as feminine coquetry, as snobbishness, even as legerdemain; whereas I myself had supposed it was just a fantasy; and as such, I think, it should be regarded by others."
Regard it, then, as a frivolous fantasy and an exemplar of its era, and you'll find it pleasure to read. Beyond that, whilst it wouldn't do to seek too many higher, or even lower, meanings, you might just find them too.
Five stars out of five for being so perfectly what it is, imperfections included.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011