The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson, or an Oxford Love Story by
“Exhaustive accounts” of his period, Max Beerbohm once wrote, “would need far less brilliant pens than mine.” Elect among British parodists and cartoonists, he was both writer and painter, as insinuating in his prose as with his playful brush. He seems also to have decided to be an adult enigma even in his pram: one can imagine his nurses going to him for worldly advice, very much the opposite of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. On the contrary, he was already a subtle actor. In Lord David Cecil’s biography there is a suggestion that in childhood Max set up as a rival to his world famous eldest brother Beerbohm Tree, to become a master of asides in watercolor and prose. Alternatively, it may strike us that coming from a gifted family of Baltic extraction he had a foreign sense of the absurd. He would never be as savage as the British Gilray or the foreign Grosz: except in his drawings of Kipling and Edward VII he mocked only what he loved.
We see him at work in watercolor in Rossetti and His Circle, originally published in 1922 and newly issued with an introduction by N. John Hall. The Pre-Raphaelites had their fervent and even tragic Bohemian troubles. In Max’s drawings there are discreet hints of the glooms in Rossetti’s ménage; of the fiery little Swinburne’s sadomasochism in his passion for his notorious and overwhelming female bare-backed circus rider. In the drawings we notice the appeasing farce of the giveaway, baggy disorder of the male aesthetes’ clothes, specifically in their trousers; in the women, the long, eventless gowns, which conceal suffering, though in one or two instances a powerful rumbustiousness bursts out. The barmaid is a giantess who will eat little Swinburne alive, but Max’s simple colors calm our conjectures.
Watercolor relieves the stormy heart and memory forgives scandal as it laughs. The book also contains a matching collection of photographic groups, and in these we notice how exhausted these gifted people look as they slump during the long exposures the Victorian camera forced on them. For once they had to sit still. In the painted cartoons they are beautifully alive in their distinguished absurdity. The sight of tiny, eager Tennyson reading “In Memoriam” to the tiny Queen who sits, as it seems, miles away in her vast and boring palatial room brings to mind the affecting wilderness of the ennui royale. Did the Queen’s mind wander as she mourned?
Max, it seems, must have drawn these recollections when he had made a start on what is surely his long prose masterpiece, Zuleika Dobson, on which he worked for years. As in many masterpieces, it is an example of the rewards a writer will discover by returning to the scenes of his youth. Baggy trousers have gone: the eager dressiness of the dandies carries him away. The book was to celebrate Dandyism and the greatest of all Oxford’s lost causes, the …