On the front cover of my copy of Zuleika Dobson, a magnificently dressed young man maintains an impeccable posture as he topples backwards off a barge and into the Isis. As he plunges towards the water, apparently ready to shatter on impact, he gravely doffs his hat to a smiling girl on the deck. This girl, naturally, is Zuleika.
Caricaturist, essayist and dandy, Max Beerbohm only ever wrote one novel. The delicious final product, published in 1911 and subtitled An Oxford Love Story, was described as a literary burlesque by H. L. Mencken: not serious enough to be a straightforward fable, it’s too gentle in its irony and too politically disengaged to be true satire. Recommended by my grandmother as I was about to start university, my tatty Penguin quickly became a constant companion, sitting on my shelf, following me back to Londonduring vacations and providing me with bedtime reading ever since.
Zuleika is an underwhelming professional magician and the granddaughter of the Warden of Judas College; her true talent lies in her infinite sex appeal. By the time her train pulls into Oxford station, she is already ‘the toast of two hemispheres’, kept in lavish style by legions of besotted admirers ranging in rank from Russian aristocrats (the Grand Duke Salamander Salamandrovitch among them) to anonymous waiters. She can soon add herds of impressionable undergraduates to the list.
But Miss Dobson, for all her mystique, suffers from the familiar human trait of desiring only what she cannot have, and she meets her match in the form of a cold and effortlessly superior aristocrat, the Duke of Dorset. They alternate in pursuit of one another, until theircourtship finally culminates in the suicide by drowning of the university’s entire undergraduate population in a futile display of adoration, all of which naturally leaves Zuleika feeling rather flattered.
Edwardian Oxford is already a strange enough place to modern eyes, and this re
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