Sunday, July 10, 2011

Zuleika Dobson: Or an Oxford Love Story

Oh Zuleika! What can be done about her? Apparently, not very much. Zuleika Dobson is Max Beerbohm’s only novel and was published in 1911. (It doesn’t appear frequently in bookshops but can be found online with relative ease.) Zuleika Dobson is an orphan, a former governess and a mediocre conjurer. This doesn’t stop the adorable young woman from breaking hearts from every stage on which she appears in Europe and America. Unfortunately for Miss Dobson, the scores of men who dote on her are missing the one thing she requires: the appearance of not loving her at all.

The thing is, Zuleika simply can’t bring herself to love a man who grovels at her feet. This seems about to change when she goes to stay with her elderly uncle, the Warden of Judas College, Oxford. Of course, heads turn and new devotees assemble the moment she alights at Oxford station. But Zuleika hadn’t reckoned on the Duke of Dorset, easily Oxford’s most eligible bachelor. So determined is he not to fall in love with any of the young women who had always been so determined to woo him, the Duke assumes a frosty manner and rebuffs all of Zuleika’s early advances. All too soon, however, Zuleika begins to exert her usual potent magic and the Duke’s heart is lost. Naturally, this means Zuleika must fall out of love with him as quickly as she fell into it. In an attempt to demonstrate his boundless affection, the Duke declares his intention of taking his own life. As soon as this fact becomes generally known, every other undergraduate in the university vows to follow his fine example.

This is a good story, lightly written and often humorous. It does have the distinct feel of a very long and convoluted inside joke – perhaps it was intended for a certain type of Oxford alumnus. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of others, but gives the sense that the enjoyment would be increased for anyone with personal experience of the University. Zuleika Dobson shimmers with wit and rare words, as if Beerbohm had written the whole thing while giving a quiet chuckle, and the dictionary open beside him. While it is amusing, the novel lacks any real variation in tone or pitch. It is a good book, which, with some careful editing, could have been half as long and twice as good.

‘Bright eyes, light feet – she trod erect from a vista whose glare was dazzling to all beholders. She swept among them, a miracle, overwhelming, breath-bereaving. Nothing at all like her had ever been seen in Oxford.’

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.