I finished this novel in something of a bad mood. It is a very bad book, and I resented the effort required to find any redeeming features. The fact that I found some in many ways made my mood worse! As I reflected on the text, I slowly came to accept that perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I originally thought. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The plot is paper-thin. Zuleika, a stage magician, gains international fame and fortune, not through the quality of her performance, but for her beauty:
Tall and lissom, she was sheathed from the bosom downwards in flamingo silk, and she was liberally festooned with emeralds. Her dark hair was not even strained back from her forehead and behind her ears, as an orphan’s should be. Parted somewhere at the side, it fell in an avalanche of curls upon one eyebrow. From her right ear drooped heavily a black pearl, from her left a pink; and their difference gave an odd, bewildering witchery to the little face between.”
She is, however, quite stupid (her “library” has just two books), utterly narcissistic, devoid of talent, and completely, psychotically lacking in empathy. She descends on the all-male academic society of Oxford in a short break between performances, to visit her grandfather, the Warden of Judas College. She immediately enthrals the entire student body. Having fallen in love with and then been rejected by Zuleika, the undergraduates, led by the Duke of Dorset, an absurdly accomplished and affluent peer (“He was fluent in all modern languages, had a very real talent in watercolour, and was accounted, by those who had had the privilege of hearing him, the best amateur pianist on this side of the Tweed“) drown themselves. Zuleika enjoys this tribute, and immediately sets out for Cambridge to attempt a repeat performance. Thus the novel ends.
This mass suicide is treated in a very matter of fact way, and may have been read at the time as a slightly bad taste comment on the romantic idealism of the turn-of-the-century dandy. But reading the novel as a presentiment of the killing fields of the first world war, only three years after publication, is not simply a case of projection, the reader finding things in the text that the author did not “intend”. Whether Beerbohm intended it or not is academic – the novel very clearly anticipates the senseless slaughter of the Great War. In any event, I would not dismiss the idea of Beerbohm anticipating the war so quickly – a European war was widely expected for a long time from before the publication of this novel. Invasion literature, in which the country is conquered in a war, remains a genre to this day (“Independence Day” for example) and was a common theme in Victorian and Edwardian literature – see for example. ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ (1903), by Erskine Childers, or ‘When William Came’ (1913), Saki’s short story imaging the occupation of Britain by a victorious German force.
Any doubts I had about the parallels between the mass suicide and war were put to one side when I read this section, in which Beerbohm draws explicit links between the stormy riverside setting of the mass drowning, and warfare.
“A sudden white vertical streak slid down the sky. Then there was a consonance to split the drums of the world’s ears, followed by a horrific rattling as of actual artillery – tens of thousands of gun carriages simultaneously at the gallop, colliding, crashing, heeling over in the darkness”.
There are some other points to admire in the novel. Its satire is effective in its portraits of the privileged youth of Oxford, in particular in the character of the Duke, effortlessly successful but doomed to take his own life, not because of a brief attraction to Zuleika, but due to a slavish adherence to family tradition. He is like Zuleika, a profound narcissist – “He was too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring any one else.” I particularly enjoyed the scene where the Duke remains the sole member of an Oxford dining club so exclusive that each year he proposes new members, only to subsequently blackball them as being unworthy.
The Duke embraces his own impending death with something like enthusiasm;
‘Not for an instant did he flinch from the mere fact of dying to-day…To die ‘untimely,’ as men called it, was the timeliest of deaths for one who had carved his youth to greatness. What perfection could he, Dorset, achieve beyond what was already his? Future years could but stale, if not actually mar, that perfection.’
If found it hard to avoid the echoes here of “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old, Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”.
There are touches of humour elsewhere in the novel, even though much of the comedy is badly aged. I liked the comment from the Duke’s landlady’s daughter that she is a worthy partner for the Duke because she is keen on self improvement:
“I utilise all my spare moments. I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books. I collect ferns.”
That’s enough of the positive. I turn now to the book’s weaknesses. The plot is lightweight. The prose is leaden and clumsy, deliberately archaic. The bizarre section where the narration is suddenly taken over by a servant of the Greek God Clio, and Zeus appears to Clio in the form of academic books (“suddenly from Olympus, he flashed down in the semblance of Kinglake’s “invasion of the Crimea” (four vols, large 8vo, half calf))” gave the impression that the author’s drugs had worn off! The attempts to imitate Wilde with witty aphorisms usually fall flat, although occasionally glimpses of sense show up, such as this on the behaviour of crowds:
“You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men.
‘Zuleika Dobson’ is very short, easily read in a day, and while I can’t recommend it, you could find worse ways of spending your time. In nominating this novel for his list of the top 100 novels written in English for the Guardian, Robert McCrum damns it with faint praise as “a minor book by a minor writer”. Its inclusion in this list on that basis is all the more puzzling.