Sir Max Beerbohm was rivaled only by Oscar Wilde in being one of the wittiest writers of the aesthetic movement, and his popularity continued throughout his lifetime, until his death in 1956. He excelled as a critic, essayist, and caricaturist. Some consider Zuleika Dobson his only novel, but Beerbohm himself resisted the term “novel,” preferring to call the work a fantasy. Whether a novel or a fantasy, Zuleika Dobson is definitely a satire.
Beerbohm, who was educated at Merton College, Oxford, lamented the fact that there was no book-length satire about Oxford. He saw the lack of women at Oxford as a stumbling block to good satire, an omission he corrected when he invented Zuleika Dobson, femme fatale extraordinaire, who extinguishes Oxonians with a single glance. Beerbohm began the work in the 1890’s, abandoned it, and then revised it for publication in 1911.
As Beerbohm imagined her, Zuleika Dobson is a force of nature, one of those fictional characters that assume life and become real. She owes something to Becky Sharp, the antiheroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book), and she is certainly the reverse of literary governesses such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. She is, rather, someone true to herself, a Venus borne into an unsuspecting Oxford on the steam of a locomotive rather than on the foam of the sea. Beerbohm introduces her in a single paragraph that employs negation to describe what she is not, thereby leaving much to the imagination of the reader.
Zuleika’s suitor, the duke of Dorset, embodies the idea of noblesse oblige and practices such a perfection of manners that his early attempts to rebuff Zuleika are scarcely noticed by her or anyone else. Like Charles Dickens’s Mr. Turveydrop in Bleak House (1852-1853), the duke exhibits deportment that is “lustrous” and ever at the alert. Beerbohm goes a step beyond Dickens with the duke, whose nobility affords him added occasions to shine. When he commits suicide for love of Zuleika, he dons the blue mantle of the Order of the Garter before leaping into the Isis. Beerbohm is satirizing not only his duke’s snobbery but also the whole aesthetic movement, with its refined sensibilities and exquisite tastes. Indeed, the mass suicide of the whole of Judas College is described by Beerbohm as “sacramental,” ordained by the gods and a privilege to witness. The unpleasantness and...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)