Wednesday, 25 April 2001

Max Beerbohm: Zuleika Dobson (1911)

Edition: Yale University Press, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 804

While this famous comic novel has much in common with the writing of Oscar Wilde and Saki, it has at its centre an extravagent gesture all of its own, far beyond anything attempted by these other writers.

Zuleika is an incredibly beautiful young woman, famous as a conjurer, who visits Oxford as the guest of her grandfather, Warden of Judas College. There she meets the extremely eligible Duke of Dorset, an undergraduate, who leads the other students first into falling in love with her and then into suicide because of her. The death of thousands of students is the extravagant gesture, and much of the novel is about the day leading up to this, at the climax of Eights Week (the main rowing competition between Oxford colleges).

The deaths may seem a strange central episode for a comic novel, and it does occasionally threaten to overwhelm the humour, particularly in the description of the last hours of the Duke's life, when he realises that Zuleika is not worthy of the sacrifice he is making but that he is compelled by his honour and the appearance at his ancestral home of the owls that mark the death of the head of the family to go through with it. The Duke is a far more sympathetic character than the vain, selfish, shallow and not terribly bright Zuleika, and it is a task which has taken much skill from Beerbohm to balance the reader's sorrow over his fate with the humour of the novel.

One question which I cannot answer is whether Zuleika Dobson has any meaning beyond what it appears to have on the surface. If it had been written after 1914, it would fairly clearly have seemed to be a reference to the destruction of youth by the war; but this is impossible. What destroys the youth of Oxford is something which appeals to their desires in a fairly superficial way - Zuleika's appearance; she isn't even a particularly good conjurer. Maybe she represents the lure of the world outside the college cloisters, corrupting the elite of the country; she is after all an outsider in Oxford.

This particular edition contains delightful eccentric illustrations by Beerbohm, unpublished in his lifetime but reproduced from one of his copies of the novel.

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