Zuleika Dobson


November 1, 2000 | ISBN 9780679641162


September 14, 1998 | ISBN 9780375752483

About the Book

Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time

'Zuleika Dobson is a highly accomplished and superbly written book whose spirit is farcical,' said E. M. Forster. 'It is a great work--the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time . . . so funny and charming, so iridescent yet so profound.'

Originally published in 1911, Max Beerbohm's sparklingly wicked satire concerns the unlikely events that occur when a femme fatale briefly enters the supremely privileged, all-male domain of Judas College, Oxford. A conjurer by profession, Zuleika Dobson can only love a man who is impervious to her considerable charms: a circumstance that proves fatal, as any number of love-smitten suitors are driven to suicide by the damsel's rejection. Laced with memorable one-liners ('Death cancels all engagements,' utters the first casualty) and inspired throughout by Beerbohm's rococo imagination, this lyrical evocation of Edwardian undergraduate life at Oxford has, according to Forster, 'a beauty unattainable by serious literature.'

'I read Zuleika Dobson with pleasure,' recalled Bertrand Russell. 'It represents the Oxford that the two World Wars have destroyed with a charm that is not likely to be reproduced anywhere in the world for the next thousand years.'
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Zuleika Dobson

That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn boards they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of that antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.

At the door of the first-class waiting-room, aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas. An ebon pillar of tradition seemed he, in his garb of old-fashioned cleric. Aloft, between the wide brim of his silk hat and the white extent of his shirt-front, appeared those eyes which hawks, that nose which eagles, had often envied. He supported his years on an ebon stick. He alone was worthy of the background.

Came a whistle from the distance. The breast of an engine was descried, and a long train curving after it, under a flight of smoke. It grew and grew. Louder and louder, its noise foreran it. It became a furious, enormous monster, and, with an instinct for safety, all men receded from the platform's margin. (Yet came there with it, unknown to them, a danger far more terrible than itself.) Into the station it came blustering, with cloud and clangour. Ere it had yet stopped, the door of one carriage flew open, and from it, in a white travelling dress, in a toque a-twinkle with fine diamonds, a lithe and radiant creature slipped nimbly down to the platform.

A cynosure indeed! A hundred eyes were fixed on her, and half as many hearts lost to her. The Warden of Judas himself had mounted on his nose a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction. The throng made way for her. She was at his side.

'Grandpapa!' she cried, and kissed the old man on either cheek. (Not a youth there but would have bartered fifty years of his future for that salute.)

'My dear Zuleika,' he said, 'welcome to Oxford! Have you no luggage?'

'Heaps!' she answered. 'And a maid who will find it.'

'Then,' said the Warden, 'let us drive straight to College.' He offered her his arm, and they proceeded slowly to the entrance. She chatted gaily, blushing not in the long avenue of eyes she passed through. All the youths, under her spell, were now quite oblivious of the relatives they had come to meet. Parents, sisters, cousins, ran unclaimed about the platform. Undutiful, all the youths were forming a serried suite to their enchantress. In silence they followed her. They saw her leap into the Warden's landau, they saw the Warden seat himself upon her left. Nor was it until the landau was lost to sight that they turned—how slowly, and with how bad a grace!—to look for their relatives.

Through those slums which connect Oxford with the world, the landau rolled on towards Judas. Not many youths occurred, for nearly all—it was the Monday of Eights Week—were down by the river, cheering the crews. There did, however, come spurring by, on a polo-pony, a very splendid youth. His straw hat was encircled with a riband of blue and white, and he raised it to the Warden.

'That,' said the Warden, 'is the Duke of Dorset, a member of my College. He dines at my table to-night.'

Zuleika, turning to regard his Grace, saw that he had not reined in and was not even glancing back at her over his shoulder. She gave a little start of dismay, but scarcely had her lips pouted ere they curved to a smile—a smile with no malice in its corners.

As the landau rolled into 'the Corn,' another youth—a pedestrian, and very different—-saluted the Warden. He wore a black jacket, rusty and amorphous. His trousers were too short, and he himself was too short: almost a dwarf. His face was as plain as his gait was undistinguished. He squinted behind spectacles.

'And who is that?' asked Zuleika.

A deep flush overspread the cheek of the Warden. 'That,' he said, 'is also a member of Judas. His name, I believe, is Noaks.'

'Is he dining with us to-night?' asked Zuleika.

'Certainly not,' said the Warden. 'Most decidedly not.'

Noaks, unlike the Duke, had stopped for an ardent retrospect. He gazed till the landau was out of his short sight; then, sighing, resumed his solitary walk.

The landau was rolling into 'the Broad,' over that ground which had once blackened under the fagots lit for Latimer and Ridley. It rolled past the portals of Balliol and of Trinity, past the Ashmolean. 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. Let that be remembered to their credit. Let that incline us to think more gently of them. In their lives we know, they were infamous, some of them—'nihil non commiserunt stupri, saevitiae, impietatis.' But are they too little punished, after all? Here in Oxford, exposed eternally and inexorably to heat and frost, to the four winds that lash them and the rains that wear them away, they are expiating, in effigy, the abominations of their pride and cruelty and lust. Who were lechers, they are without bodies; who were tyrants, they are crowned never but with crowns of snow; who made themselves even with the gods, they are by American visitors frequently mistaken for the Twelve Apostles. It is but a little way down the road that the two Bishops perished for their faith, and even now we do never pass the spot without a tear for them. Yet how quickly they died in the flames! To these Emperors, for whom none weeps, time will give no surcease. Surely, it is sign of some grace in them that they rejoiced not, this bright afternoon, in the evil that was to befall the city of their penance.

Modern Library 100 Best Novels Series

As I Lay Dying
The Old Wives' Tale
Zuleika Dobson
The Magnificent Ambersons
Invisible Man
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

About the Author

Max Beerbohm

Henry Maximilian Beerbohm, the essayist, caricaturist, critic, and short story writer who endures as one of Edwardian England's leading satirists, was born in London on August 24, 1872, into a large and prosperous family of Baltic German descent. Among his many diversely talented siblings were the author and explorer Julius Beerbohm, and his half brother the flamboyant actor and theatrical manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. A sophisticated child who read Punch magazine and celebrated his tenth birthday with a glass of champagne, Max Beerbohm exhibited an adroit wit from an early age. While a student at Charterhouse school in Surrey, he amused masters and classmates with irreverent caricatures and prose parodies. Beerbohm entered Merton College, Oxford, at the age of eighteen and quickly gained a reputation as an aesthete and dandy. 'I was a modest, good-humored boy,' he recalled. 'It was Oxford that has made me insufferable.' Beerbohm's renown soon extended to London, where he was swept into Oscar Wilde's literary circle. In 1894 he contributed the satiric essay 'A Defense of Cosmetics' to the first issue of the Yellow Book, the controversial quarterly associated with the English decadents of the 1890s.

Beerbohm won a large audience with the publication of The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), his first volume of essays. The ultimate statement of his Yellow Book period, it includes a famous meditation on dandyism, along with a wry reminiscence of Oxford. Thereafter Beerbohm devoted himself to writing charming pieces about whatever topic struck his fancy. The essays collected in More (1899), Yet Again (1909), And Even Now (1920), and Variety of Things (1928) reflect his lifelong belief that good sense about trivialities is preferable to nonsense about important matters. 'What Mr. Beerbohm gave [to the essay] was, of course, himself,' noted Virginia Woolf in pinpointing his talent. 'He was affected by private joys and sorrows, and had no gospel to preach and no learning to impart. He was himself, simply and directly, and himself he has remained. Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist's most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. . . . He is without doubt the prince of his profession.'

Beerbohm was also famous for his comic sketches of literary figures, politicians, and celebrities. Impudently he lampooned everyone from Oscar Wilde and Henry James to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Explaining his recipe for caricature, Beerbohm stated: 'The whole man must be melted down in a crucible and then, from the solution, fashioned anew. Nothing will be lost but no particle will be as it was before.' He concluded: 'The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the most beautiful manner.' Over the years he exhibited in London galleries and published several acclaimed volumes of drawings, including Caricatures of Twenty-five Gentlemen (1896), The Poets' Corner (1904), Fifty Caricatures (1913), A Survey (1921), Rossetti and His Circle (1922), Things New and Old (1923), and Observations (1925). 'There is wit and barbed insight but no malice in [his] caricatures,' noted the Spectator. 'Beerbohm mocked only what he loved.'

In 1898 Beerbohm replaced George Bernard Shaw as drama critic for the Saturday Review. 'The younger generation is knocking at the door,' Shaw told readers. 'And as I open it there steps sprightly in the incomparable Max.' For the next twelve years Beerbohm wrote lively reviews of works by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, and other playwrights. His three volumes of criticism, Around Theatres (1924), as well as the posthumous collections More Theatres: 1898-1903 (1969) and Last Theatres: 1904-1910 (1970), endure as important records of the London stage in the early twentieth century. 'In its different way, this body of writing is as remarkable as the dramatic criticism of Max's predecessor Shaw,' said Edmund Wilson.

Beerbohm produced scant fiction, but the little he did write is memorable for its whimsical invention. 'The Happy Hypocrite: A Fairy Tale for Tired Men,' his earliest short story, appeared in the Yellow Book in 1897. Beerbohm's tale is a lighter, more humorous version of Oscar Wilde's classic tale of moral degeneration, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The stories in Seven Men (1919) comprise fictional sketches of aesthetes and artists who are often seen to represent aspects of Beerbohm's own character. 'Among the masked dandies of Edwardian comedy, Max Beerbohm is the most happily armored by a deep and almost innocent love of himself as a work of art,' observed V. S. Pritchett. 'In his best stories there is more than a whisper of magic realism--a murmur, however distant, of questions about the nature of reality,' wrote John Mortimer.

Zuleika Dobson, Beerbohm's sole novel, was published in 1911. This satiric fantasy depicts the havoc caused by a beautiful woman among the susceptible undergraduates at a fictitious Oxford college. V. S. Pritchett stated: 'Edwardian literature has many . . . stories whose frivolity half discloses the price a culture is paying for its manners and illusions. Zuleika Dobson is one of the funniest and most lyrical of these tales.'

A Christmas Garland (1912), which Henry James called 'the most intelligent thing that has been produced in England for many a long day,' is Beerbohm's prose parody of such notables as Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad. 'A Christmas Garland is surely the liber aureus of prose parody,' said John Updike. 'What makes Max, as a parodist, incomparable--more than the calm mounting from felicity to felicity and the perfectly scaled enlargement of every surface quirk of the subject style&mdashis the way he seizes and embraces, with something like love, the total personality of the parodee. He seems to enclose in a transparent omniscience the genius of each star as, in A Christmas Garland, he methodically moves across the firmament of Edwardian letters.'

'My gifts are small,' Beerbohm once reflected. 'I've used them very well and discreetly, never straining them; and the result is that I've made a charming little reputation.' In 1910 he married American actress Florence Kahn and settled in Rapallo, Italy. Knighted in 1939, Sir Max Beerbohm died in Rapallo on May 20, 1956. Several books drawn from his papers appeared posthumously, including The Incomparable Max (1962); Max in Verse (1963); Max Beerbohm's Letters to Reggie Turner (1964); A Peep into the Past, and Other Prose Pieces (1972); and Beerbohm's Literary Caricatures (1977). 'Beerbohm was a genius of the purest kind,' judged Evelyn Waugh. 'He stands at the summit of his art.' His biographer Lord David Cecil concluded: 'He was England's supreme parodist and caricaturist, her most exquisite master of satiric fantasy.' More by Max Beerbohm
Decorative Carat