Zuleika Dobson

or, An Oxford Love Story

“Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action.  But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their hey-day. If the Colleges could be transferred to the dry and bracing top of some hill, doubtless they would be more evidently useful to the nation. But let us be glad there is no engineer or enchanter to compass that task.”

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Max Beerbohm, caricatured by himself

Max Beerbohm, caricatured by himself

Have you ever watched swallows swooping and diving in the late afternoon? They gracefully make split-second turns, dropping suddenly from the sky before sweeping off in a different direction. Just when you think you’re about to witness a head-on avian collision, they race past each other. With amazing precision they’re riding thermals and seizing hapless insects, but to an observer it seems that they are playing a game of tag, pursuing each other in arcs across the sky, like dolphins of the air.

Zuleika Dobson has that same element of skilled playfulness, that sense of something small and light zipping away, little champagne bubbles of thought floating upwards. The novel is a satire of a male-dominated society thrown into chaos by one beautiful and talentless woman.

There are, so I’ve read, over 500 novels set in Oxford. Zuleika Dobson (1911), Max Beerbohm’s affectionate, if tongue-in-cheek salute to the Oxford of the Edwardian era, is one of them. Zuleika Dobson’s sub-title is An Oxford Love Story and Beerbohm included the dedication Illi Almae Matri—which translates, I think, as “To her (Zuleika Dobson’s) mother”—because the story is as much about the romance of Oxford as it is about romance in Oxford.

Emperors' heads, Oxford

Emperors’ heads by the Clarendon Building, Oxford

There are a few passages in Zuleika Dobson that were— for me—worth the price of admission alone. They are like postcards that encapsulate my memories of Oxford. Thanks to Max Beerbohm, I will never be able to see the Emperors’ heads by the Sheldonian Theatre the same way again; they will forever be mute but all-seeing witnesses, a silent Greek chorus to Oxford’s history.

“From those pedestals which intersperse the railing of the Sheldonian, the high grim busts of the Roman Emperors stared down at the fair stranger in the equipage. Zuleika returned their stare with but a casual glance. The inanimate had little charm for her.

A moment later, a certain old don emerged from Blackwell’s, where he had been buying books. Looking across the road, he saw, to his amazement, great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors. He trembled, and hurried away. That evening, in Common Room, he told what he had seen; and no amount of polite scepticism would convince him that it was but the hallucination of one who had been reading too much Mommsen. He persisted that he had seen what he described. It was not until two days had elapsed that some credence was accorded him.

Yes, as the landau rolled by, sweat started from the brows of the Emperors. They, at least, foresaw the peril that was overhanging Oxford, and they gave such warning as they could.”

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Beerbohm sends up Oxford rituals, the lack of worldliness in an academic society and the antipathy between students and dons. The novel’s finely wrought sentences and affectations are intended as a send-up of the Aesthetic movement of the late Victorian era and shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Oscar Wilde caricatured by Max Beerbohm

At one stage, Max Beerbohm referred to Oscar Wilde as ‘The Divinity’, but here he caricatured him.

The funniest moments in the novel are when the god Zeus clumsily attempts to woo the muse Clio, the most unlikely of men becomes a romantic hero, and the dons reveal their indifference to students. My only criticism of this fanciful satire is that I would have liked more of the student and academic life and less of the (deliberately) farcical ‘romance’ between Zuleika and the Duke of Dorset. Zuleika, as fatal as she is, is the least interesting character in the story. (Since the Duke of Dorset, who unwittingly inspires all Oxford’s students to commit suicide for the shallow Zuleika, is largely a send-up of Beerbohm’s one-time friend and mentor, Oscar Wilde*, it’s hard for me not to see the whole story as a criticism of Wilde’s influence over young men and Zuleika as a caricature of Wilde’s fatal lover, the spoilt and dangerous Lord Alfred Douglas.)

If you are in the mood for a light confection, a whimsical fantasy that reads like a comic operetta set in Oxford, then Zuleika Dobson is a delight. Don’t pick it up when you are feeling serious; you’ll bring the graceful swallows of Max Beerbohm’s imagination crashing down.

© JD Ellevsen


*Like Beerbohm’s Duke of Dorset, Oscar Wilde was a fastidious dandy, poet and a Victorian Socrates who was fluent in Latin and ancient Greek. Zuleika Dobson even makes references to the ‘Doric mode’, echoing the homosexual allusions in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some of the Duke’s qualities, such as his punctuality, are inversions of Wilde’s traits.

During Wilde’s lifetime, Beerbohm exhibited grotesque images of the man he’d once called the ‘Divinity’, and Beerbohm continued to publish satirical pieces about Wilde after Wilde’s imprisonment and death. Oxford was where both Wilde and Beerbohm created their public personas, and Wilde returned there to dazzle the undergraduates, just as he himself had once been dazzled by John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Cardinal Newman.

'A Dream of Decadence on the Cherwell': Oscar Wilde (smoking) and Lord Alfred Douglas (in a dress) lampooned in 'The New Rattle', Oxford, May 1893

Oscar Wilde (smoking) and Lord Alfred Douglas (in a dress) lampooned in ‘A Dream of Decadence on the Cherwell’ in ‘The New Rattle’, Oxford, May 1893

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