This Really Like this Book podcast scripts catch-up is about the incomparable Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm, from 1911. Tremble at the tale of her assault on the august traditions of Oxford and its university, when she made every student fall in love with her, and worse, after which she went home to have a relaxing bath before taking the Cambridge train the next day. How could so many young men lose their minds for a mere woman? How could a mere woman, who didn’t appreciate anything about Oxford’s traditions, enthrall so many young men of, we assume, normal or even above-normal intelligence? Max Beerbohm is the answer, since for several years his professional purpose had been to puncture Oxford’s pomposity, its self-regard and its noxious habit of thinking itself better than any other place.
Beerbohm was one of the great fin de siècle satirists. Before 1900 he was most famous for his contribution to The Yellow Book, that reputedly scandalous but actually rather pretentious quarterly magazine that was published mainly for those who wished to be seen reading it. His contributions are remarkably unpretentious, because he is always poking fun at the avant garde writers and artists of the day. They had very little sense of humour, and so could not defend themselves from his clever wit. He began his satirical career while at Oxford as a student, as a caricaturist, and parodist, mingling with the wits and following the path of Oscar Wilde. He left Oxford without the bother of taking a degree, and developed a career as an artist and writer. George Bernard Shaw called him ‘the incomparable Max’, an amazingly high accolade from the grumpiest man in the English theatre. By the time of the Second World War he was still a highly regarded Grand Old Man of British humour, and his collection of short pieces, Seven Men, is a work of comic genius.
Beerbohm’s drawings are exquisite, really clever and very beautiful watercolour illustrations. As a writer he skewered the lumbering behemoth that Oxford had become; as a cultural artefact (its architecture, its monuments, its geography), and as a social mountainside for the inadequate to fall down from, and for the magnificent to sit astride. Gosh: Max’s style is infectious. I will try to revert to normal speech patterns.
Zuleika Dobson is the granddaughter of the Warden of Judas. This is the first important thing we learn about her, and already the terms have to be explained for those who don’t know Oxford as much as Oxford expects them to know it. And before all that, I have to explain that by ‘Oxford’ I mean the university and its colleges, not the town, which (in the early 1900s) was held as negligible, a mere provider of food, beds and service for the students. Oxford University is made up of colleges, in which students live and from which they are taught. Each college at Oxford is run by a man (now also by women) of either great learning, great moral stature, great achievement or great connections, and his formal title is something like the Warden, or the Master. He has administrative and legal power, but is not necessarily a great scholar (though often is). So Zuleika comes from a Victorian scholarly family. This is a good thing for boys, but for girls its principal advantage is that it makes her socially acceptable. Judas is an invented name for a college, so no real college will be demeaned by the actions in the novel, and Beerbohm can invent as many rituals about Judas as he wants. Dorothy L Sayers also did this some 20 years later in her novel Gaudy Night, where Harriet Vane’s college, Shrewsbury, is a complete and perfect invention for plot purposes only.
Zuleika Dobson is not perfect; her eyes are too large, her waist too small, her hair too curly, her regard too intense, and so on. She is a governess, but has had to take a second career, as a professional conjuror, a turner of tricks for the masses, because she is an orphan, obliged to support herself. She had to avoid serial proposals of marriage in every house she entered as a governess, until one day she was given a conjuring set by the besotted eldest son, and absconded that night to develop a career beyond the reach of soppy boys. She becomes an international sensation, receives proposals of marriage by the barrow-load, but she is not interested. She vows that she will never love where she is loved. This is important: her decision is a satire on the perverseness of women, but is also a neat and perfectly executed fact on which the plot of the novel will turn.
On arriving at Oxford to visit her grandfather, Zuleika observes, as usual, with a little ennui, that all the men she passes stare at her as if conjured into immobility; except one, the Duke of Dorset. (That’s another invented title: Beerbohm was not interested in libel suits, not after Wilde’s trial.) And Zuleika smiles. This is the beginning of the duke’s downfall that will lead to the immolation of Oxford’s youth (again: not the townsfolk, just the students. The townsfolk have more sense.)
The Duke of Dorset is the most august and noble undergraduate of whom Oxford can boast. Yet Beerbohm asks us to notice that the Duke eats to the same standard as his peers, lodges in simple college rooms like every other man, and does not presume, very much, on his personal and hereditary magnificence. He knows the importance of humility when it has a place. And then he falls in love with Zuleika, who will not have him precisely because he is in love with her. When he is angry with her behaviour, and her rejection, she falls back in love with him, briefly. Their matching pearl ornaments change colour in indignation. She throws water at him when he will not stop pestering her. But he is obliged to escort her about the town, and down to the river, because a gentleman must obey a lady’s commands, even when he is also on his way to the river to commit suicide for love of her. He obligingly promises to call out her name as he jumps, and to make sure that everyone will know that he does it for her alone. But the grandeur and folly of his quixotic action is utterly ruined by all the other Oxford undergraduates. Not that Zuleika cares. As I said, after seeing this great act of youth’s devotion, she walks home happily in the rain (though also very sorrowfully and nobly, bearing her great responsibility with satisfied pride) to have a bath.
Why is this novel so funny? The most important factor for modern readers is its speed. Edwardian literature can be ponderous; it took the First World War to make rapid-fire wit and a snappy storytelling pace popular. Beerbohm was a great wit, which always requires good timing, and this comes out beautifully in the pace of the story.
The second factor is the bathos, the juxtaposition of the high with the trivial, the magnificent with the low. Any joke picked at random from (say) Monty Python is bathetic, because it takes a serious theme (eg death) and a common or low subject (eg a parrot), and releases them together into the world to be ridiculous. Beerbohm is satirising Oxford society, and the pretentiousness of the very proud and the very self-important, and it is always attractive to read about high society and its stupidities, and to laugh at them.
The third reason why this novel is funny is that Zuleika Dobson is absolutely not an object for adoration and desire. Yes, she is beautiful, a dazzling, elegant and modern young woman wearing clinging gowns in sophisticated fabrics, but she is greedy, selfish, stupid, ignorant, ill-educated, self-obsessed, uncaring and inconstant. If all the youth of Oxford fall for her pretty face (big eyes, tiny teeth, curly hair and all), what stupids they must be. She isn’t even particularly good at her conjuring. She was taught her art, but did not develop it. She has no natural talents except for dressing, and her French maid does most of that for her.
The fourth source of humour is the stupendous arrogance of the Duke of Dorset. I have to say, this apparent paragon of Oxford youth and of the British nobility always reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey, because Dorothy L Sayers eulogised all his perfections too, some 15 years later, but without any sense that she might have been over-egging the cake of her adoration. At least Wimsey has an intellect. Dorset’s intellect – for instance, his capacity to write poetry in seven or eight different languages and styles as an after-dinner amusement – is simply too ludicrous to be endured.
I love this book because Beerbohm deliberately messes around with the forms. He is constantly addressing the reader; he is perpetually hopping off to visit the Muses on Parnassus (because this is supposed to be a satirical tragedy and Melpomene, muse of tragedy, is dragged through the story looking more and more distressed). He changes his tone willy-nilly, and he builds in irreverent, extended jokes. My favourite is the one in which he speculates about how Lord Byron would have grown old, had he not died at Missolonghi, deteriorating into a pompous old bore with Dundreary whiskers, always writing letters to the Times.
In this novel pomposity is pricked perfectly. Arrogance and the accretion of traditions for no good reason, fossilised unchanging rituals and the dominance of the classics, are all ridiculed. Women are of no importance in Oxford, and are treated badly by the youth, either ignored and abandoned when Zuleika is in sight, or trampled underfoot in a rush for another sighting. So, in a way, it’s rather nice that Zuleika can leave these ridiculous men to go back to college in peace for a nice bath. How many women can take this comfort after a trying time caused by men?