Thursday, December 13, 2018

Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson - I collect ferns.

The title character of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911) is a femme fatale who descends upon Oxford, the university, I mean, and wreaks havoc among the students, in particular the young Duke of Dorset, although not all that much “in particular.”  Beerbohm spends most of his time with the Duke, is what I mean.

The novel may have some particular meaning to people familiar with, or even graduates of, Oxford, but to me it is a land as fantastic as Hobbiton.  It may also have some specific satirical meaning which is now desiccated, as weightless as the prose of Beerbohm’s fantasy, a quite pure fantasy the way I read it.

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.  (Ch. 1)

The sweat on the brow of the stone busts of the Emperors, well-known to Oxonians, I presume, is literal.  They are trying to warn Oxford of “the evil that was to befall the city of their penance.”

Zuleika and the Duke are gods who walk the earth.  Their meeting invokes some peculiar god-rules and god-magic.  Woe for the mere mortals who gaze upon them.

For the men, at least.  Up in the header of Wuthering Expectations I have plopped a quotation from Zuleika Dobson that is all-too-appropriate: “I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books.”  Now, at this point I have actually read, I don’t know, seventy-seven of the Hundred Best Books, but the character who says this, the daughter of the Duke’s landlady, is in her early twenties and I am almost thirty years older.  So, twenty-seven, not bad, right?

The landlady’s daughter is making her case to the Duke.  It is an injection of normality into the craziness of the novel.  Why should he pursue Dobson, the destructive – fatal! – celebrity when he could have someone devoted, sensible, and well-qualified to be the wife of a Duke:

“And I’ve gone on learning since then,” she continued eagerly. “I utilise all my spare moments.  I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books.  I collect ferns.  I play the piano, whenever...” She broke off, for she remembered that her music was always interrupted by the ringing of the Duke’s bell and a polite request that it should cease.   (Ch. 17)

How I identify.  How I enjoy Zuleika Dobson.  It is unique, or almost so.  I suppose to many readers it is an anchovy, inedible.

I am beginning to write about the best books I read in 2018.  Zuleika Dobson was one of them.


  1. Thank you for the anchovy escape, Amateur Reader (Tom)! I'm not sure why, but Zuleika Dobson and I didn't hit it off when I read most of the book some years ago. I notice its sad spine on the shelf every now and then, and think I should try giving the book another go. Hmm.

  2. "most" - I hope you know how it ends. That is worth knowing.

    I have an ambitious plan to mix Zuleika in with some of its contemporaries and write about the intellectual context. There is some sense here, however well hidden. Or if not sense at least some clear positioning.

    I suppose the in Russian the Symbolist novelists have some resemblance to Beerbohm. There is a description of Zuleika's traveling mirror that I was tempted to include, along with her library, which consists of two books, both jewel-encrusted railway timetables.

    Visual, decorative, baroque writers.

    1. No, I don't know how it ends! (And please don't tell me!) I have no idea why Zuleika didn't hit me back then but these things do happen. Your post makes me want to try it again.

    2. It is a book where How It Ends is an essential, almost the defining, part of What It Is.

  3. "A femme fatale at Oxford" is pretty much my fantasy life (OK, not exactly, but...) so I guess I should put this on on my to-read list.

  4. It is a fine fantasy life. Just to have Zuleika Dobson's French maid:

    "Alert, unerring, like a swallow she dipped and darted. Nothing escaped her, and she never rested. She had the air of the born unpacker--swift and firm, yet withal tender... She was one of those who are born to make chaos cosmic." (Ch. 2)

    Although making chaos cosmic also describes, for this novel, Max Beerbohm.

  5. This is the view coming out of blackwells. I suppose growing up round there I take it all for granted, never noticed the emperors. Many years since I read the book.


  6. I see that they may not be Emperors. That is an interpretation. In the novel, of course, they are the actual Roman Emperors, doing penance for their crimes against humanity; for them, Oxford is Purgatory, if not Hell.

    Oxford sounds awfully nice to me. I hope to see it someday.

  7. Sorry, consulting my imperfect memory, I find that's not that right picture. it's the heads on the pillars on this. It was I was thinking but my confused by the lack of good photographs on google.

    Last time i was there i went to the new Bodleian library next to blackwells. It has a first folio of Shakespeare, original king James Bible, earliest copy of anything by Plato, and Kafka's exercise book in which he wrote Metamorphosis (was in loan). Exercise book not greatly impressive.

  8. I suppose the in Russian the Symbolist novelists have some resemblance to Beerbohm.

    When I read that first passage you quoted my immediate reaction was that it could have come straight out of Bely's Petersburg (with appropriate nouns substituted for "don" and "Blackwell’s").

    And if you get to England you must of course visit Blackwell’s; it was one of the highlights of my own trip (almost a half century ago, yikes).

  9. The appearance of the sculptures in my Beerbohm quote is just a coincidence, I guess, but it fits perfectly with the caryatid motif of Petersburg. In Beerbohm, it is less of a motif than a running joke.