Saturday, 30 July 2011

Penguin no. 895: Zuleika Dobson
by Max Beerbohm

The moon, like a gardenia in the night's buttonhole - but no! why should a writer never be able to mention the moon without likening her to something else - usually something to which she bears not the faintest resemblance? ... The moon, looking like nothing whatsoever but herself, was engaged in her old and futile endeavour to mark the hours correctly on the sun-dial at the centre of the lawn. Never, except once, late one night in the eighteenth century, when the toper who was Sub-Warden had spent an hour in trying to set his watch here, had she received the slightest encouragement. Still she wanly persisted.

Zuleika Dobson has some special quality that young men cannot resist. It seems to be innate, and its effect universal: every young man that sees her is so taken with her that he immediately falls in love. She has taken advantage of this quality to make her way in the world and amass her fortune, but its importance in her life is something much more fundamental. She needs the constant admiration of men, she feeds upon it, desires its public display; all her thoughts and actions are directed to seeking it out and encouraging it. And her life is delightful because she is assured of finding it wherever she goes. Having won men's hearts across two hemispheres, she sets her sights on Oxford, a city of young men.

But Edwardian Oxford offers her something new: her first encounter with a man apparently unmoved by her beauty. The Duke of Dorset is a man of outstanding talent and wealth, and Zuleika's equal in vanity and self-absorption. And although he falls for her just like all the other young men in Oxford, he has decided on a life of celibate dandyism, and so he ignores her, and then avoids her, and in doing so inadvertently wins her heart. Their romance is shortlived; he is rejected the moment he confesses his true feelings, and in his despair his thoughts turn to suicide. The idea catches on and soon the entire undergraduate community plans to sacrifice itself in Zuleika's honour. And Zuleika couldn't be happier: before her is the prospect of unprecedented public acclaim.

It captures the idea of the Sirens in The Odyssey: the bewitching maiden luring men to their deaths. And in its chasteness, there is a reminder of the medieval conception of courtly love. For the love being felt and expressed throughout this story appears to be something of the mind, without any element of physical expression. Although strongly felt, it is curiously passionless and innocent, without any reference to desire or seduction. And this lack of a sexual element makes it impossible for me to conceive of Zuleika as femme fatale, as I've seen her elsewhere discussed. This is love conceived as an ideal. This reads as a book in which the author has borrowed ideas and themes from the past, presumably ones familiar to an Oxford-educated audience, and presented them in a contemporary setting. The result is ludicrous and absurd, intentionally so, and this effect is only heightened by the fact that the woman involved is so unlovable.

This book was originally published in 1911, and in 1946 the author appended an intriguing note cautioning against treating this as anything more than a fantasy, and lamenting that the old Oxford lovingly reflected in this book no longer exists. The alternative title of Zuleika Dobson is An Oxford Love Story, and I am sure it could be read as referring either to the plot, or to the author's feeling for the University. This is a celebration of the city, and the author intimately evokes its streets and buildings, its parks and river, its history and traditions.

And all the while he mocks its literary conventions, and this is the aspect that makes it rather delightful to read. The plot is a little drawn-out and tedious,  the characters are unpleasant, the story went in directions I wished it hadn't. But it was also light-hearted and amusing, frequently witty, and the ending was perfect.


  1. Another author and novel that I have never heard of before -- one of the many reasons why I adore your blog so much, it is full of so many great recommendations that I never would have otherwise discovered. I'm curious about this novel because from your review, it seems as if it might be a very early example of magical realism. Great write-up, as always!

  2. Thanks for that lovely comment, Jason. A quick google search suggests you are right with your reference to magical realism.

    And you touch on the very reason I started with Penguins in the first place. I studied maths rather than english, there was no one who could advise me on what was worth reading, and so I used those orange spines as my guide. It has turned out to be a wonderful way to discover interesting books.

  3. love your blog.

    we met someone called Zuleika in new york a few months ago and she was astonished to hear us talk about the book - so few people know it stateside (but our british accent probably gave us away instantly).




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