11 April 2012

My Oxford Love Story with Zulieka Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Zulieka Dobson: An Oxford Love Story is a fantastic novel, and one of my favourite books of all time. This is a personal history of my discovery of the book.

I was first introduced to Zulieka as an Oxford fresher. For some - perhaps sinister - reason, it was a custom of the residents of Staircase 13* to meet occasionally to read each other bedtime stories. We read "The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde, "The Company of Wolves" by Angela Carter, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and eventually felt we should dip our toes into longer works. I was all for The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but certain members of the group who shall remain unnamed had difficulty waiting between meetings to read onwards.

Someone suggested Zulieka Dobson, it being "the sort of novel godparents give you when you go up to Oxford" and therefore likely we would find a few copies lying about. There were indeed two copies available, a third in the college library, and it had the advantage of being available to read free on Project Gutenberg***, so we adopted it immediately.

The Penguin Modern Classics cover. (Source: which happens to be a rather lovely review of the book.)
And so, on an otherwise unremarkable evening featuring tea spiked with whisky and a bit of light-hearted musicological reading, I was introduced to Zulieka Dobson.

I was hooked from the very first sentence:
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 board 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.
It's not the sort of first paragraph that would tempt the average slush-pile-mired intern at Curtis Brown to read on, but it had me by the balls. Notice the antiquated use of the semicolon; and the way the second sentence is longer that the average paragraph in a BBC news article.

Although the train station at Oxford has, since 1911 when those words were published, undergone a rather unflattering series of modernisations, Beerbohm's observations on the ridiculousness of not just standing on the shoulders of giants but living in their abandoned houses remain pretty on the mark. The tourists, despite their somewhat fishy knowledge of medieval train station architecture, are the ones who notice the pull of the past; those who belong to it are often entirely unaware of the fact.

This idea of dealing with the remnants of an illustrious history is a major theme of the novel. And of course the Oxford the book describes was killed off soon after Beerbohm wrote it, making the whole novel a sort of nostalgic tribute to itself.****

Zulieka, which is more of an engorged novella than a novel if we're brutally honest, takes place back in the day when intelligence and hard work weren't that important if you were an aristocrat and when women were only allowed within a hundred miles of Carfax for special occasions like balls and boat races. At fusty old Judas College, the arrival of Zuleika Dobson, Edwardian femme fatal extraordinare, causes chaos because the sex starved undergraduates all fall in love with her immediately. It's basically the story of Samantha Brick, but set in Edwardian Oxford.

These painted illustrations by Sir Osbert Lancaster currently hang at the Randolph Hotel’s tea room. Lancaster is an alumnus of Lincoln and gifted signed prints to the Rectory, which is where I first encountered them. (Source.)
The majestically overdone purple prose and flights of magical realist fancy that festoon the novel are a delight to read. They're also acceptable, to my literary-creative-writing-trained mind, because they are satirical of the Edwardian novel. In fact, think it was my encounter with Zulieka that first turned my head away from the "pure" writing style school as figure-headed by Hemmingway.

Finding it sexist, old fashioned, and self indulgent, many of my Staircase 22 chums found is impossible to finish the book. They're completely right, of course, but there is something impossibly appealing about Beerbohm which I don’t think will die any time soon.

As Bertrand Russell was sensible enough to put it:
I read Zulieka Dobson with pleasure. 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.

Footnotes

* Lincoln College's accommodation is arranged to the medieval staircase system rather than in the Victorian corridor style. Rumour had it that Staircase 13 was where Prince William stayed when he was in Oxford for interviews, thus explaining why SC13 has a more advanced security system than the other staircases. Sadly, I once asked the Rector** if this was true and he told me Prince William didn't even apply to Lincoln.

** The Rector being the head academic and general leader of men at Lincoln. The title presumably is a remnant of the days when Lincoln was a religious institution.

*** Project Gutenberg is so wonderful I cry a little whenever I mention it.

**** Beerbohm seems to have been found of meta-textual circular logic, as anyone sensible would be. In the short story “Enoch Soames” fromSeven Men, Enoch makes a pact with the Devil to travel forward in time and read about his literary legacy. Sadly the only mention of himself he can find is a dictionary article about a short story by Max Beerbohm:
in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld "Enoch Soames"—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im!

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