AKA a very weird book indeed. Over the years quite a few people have asked me if I’ve read Zuleika Dobson (1911), since it is often seen as the quintessential Oxford novel (after Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, but with the advantage of actually being in Oxford for the whole thing). Well, I hadn’t – and now I have. And what a strange little book it is. This review, incidentally, will have quite a few spoilers – because it’s difficult to write about otherwise, and because they’re probably pretty well known, and some covers give them away. I certainly knew most of the plot before I read it, and it didn’t much matter.
So, what happens? Zuleika opens the novel by turning up to Oxford; she is the niece of the Warden of Judas College (which, incidentally, does not exist – here’s a fun Wikipedia list of fictional colleges) and is there on a visit. Despite being ‘not strictly beautiful’, she is certainly beguiling. And beguile she does. Literally every man she meets (blood relatives excepted) falls in love with her on sight. It’s tiring.
Chief among these admirers – though initially the least disposed to reveal it – is the Duke of Dorset. He is diffident and buttoned-up, and doesn’t appear to be in love with her at first – which sparks off her love for him. Only when he reveals that (but of course) he does adore her does her love fade. It’s all very silly, but isn’t intended to be taken at all seriously. How can one take seriously a novel where nobody behaves with the slightest rationality?
It gets worse. And this is where the spoilers come in. The Duke swears he will die for her, if she does not love him. The idea spreads. And, as rowers race down the Cherwell or Isis or whatever that stretch of the Thames is called (after 11 years I still can’t remember), almost every single undergraduate in Oxford drowns himself for love of Zuleika.
Does she feel guilt about this mass suicide? She does not. Indeed, she remonstrates with the sole undergraduate who chickened out of the thing – in one of the most wonderfully composed insults that I can recall reading:
“You,” flashed Zuleika, “As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved today by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge.”
What makes such a bizarre and surreal novel enjoyable? It certainly isn’t any spark of realism. Indeed,it is closest to a Greek myth. Zeus and Clio are introduced halfway through, but even before this it feels like mythology – in people’s heightened reactions, unlikely actions, and superlative traits. Zuleika is essentially a goddess of beauty – albeit one with occasional feet of clay, and a rather unpleasant character. But it was a moment of genius to make her an amateur (and terrible) magician. Some glorious moments of comedy come from that.
Most importantly, though, Beerbohm writes like a dream. He can turn a sentence beautifully, in the way of people like Oscar Wilde or Saki (whatever else these gents’ works have in common). The prose is a delight to read, but it does open to the accusation: is it all sparkle and no substance? Perhaps, but I don’t mind that, if the sparkle is done brilliantly. Zuleika Dobson is often described as a satire, but I couldn’t work out what it could possibly be a satire of. A satire must have a grounding in truth, and I couldn’t spot it here – unless it is that love makes people do stupid things.
But it doesn’t matter. I doubt a novel like this could exist outside of, say, 1890-1914. It is absolutely of its time. But I never think anything is ‘dated’ – I never know what people mean by that term; a discussion for another day, perhaps – and this curiosity is still great fun to read. Just don’t go looking for a moral.