Zuleika (pronounced Zuleeka) Dobson was first published in London in 1911. Other editions followed in Britain and America. The book entered the Modern Library early, when the volumes making up that series were still few and smelt of frivolity, sin, and oilcloth—or whatever those simulated limp leather covers were made of. Like South Wind, Zuleika Dobson was obligatory reading for those literary initiates of the Twenties whose program included, on principle, an appreciation alike of the trifler and the titan: Douglas with Dreiser and Dostoevsky, Beerbohm with Prous and Joyce. In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster called Zuleika Dobson “the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time.” “Our time” meant, presumably, the Teens and Twenties. When the Twenties ended, Beerbohm rather faded from one’s consciousness.
After his death, in 1956, came the modest resurrection. Beerbohm lived again in Ellen Moers’s The Dandy, in S. N. Behrman’s Portrait of Max, and, more recently and completely, in David Cecil’s Max, A Biography.1 If he was “easy to forget but delightful to remember,” as I wrote some years ago, he has since proved to be ever harder to forget and more delightful to remember. Rereading Beerbohm one gets caught up in the intricate singularity of his mind, all of a piece yet full of surprises, as one does in Boswell’s Johnson. In Zuleika Dobson his mind is in full flower, a kind of tropical bloom, lurid and elaborate, prickly but not poisonous, except to the foolish.
That his drawings and parodies should survive is no cause for wonder. One look at them, or into them, and his old reputation is immediately re-established: that whim of iron, that cleverness amounting to genius. What is odd is that his stories and essays should turn out to be equally durable. The mandarin of mandarins, Beerbohm wrote with a kind of conscious elegance that has since become generally suspect. This nouveau riche English has for us the fault of advertising to the world the abundance of its verbal resources. The plain declarative sentence is apt to be set off by a dazzle of rhetorical questions and apostrophes to the reader. Ostentatious connectives, from “indeed” to “however that may be,” are de rigueur. No word is repeated if a synonym can possibly be found. The attack on the mandarin style, carried out variously by Mencken, Eliot, and Gertrude Stein, made of repetition a virtue. Into the waste-basket went the book of synonyms. The young Yeats anticipated the new taste for verbal economy when he criticized a sentence about Hamlet in Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying: “The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.” Yeats asked Wilde why he had changed “sad” to “melancholy.” “He replied that he wanted a full sound at the close of his sentence, and I thought it no excuse and an example of the vague impressiveness that spoilt his writing for me.”
Beerbohm’s mandarinism often tended to mock itself, subtly or bluntly. After starting a sentence with “indeed” he apologized in parentheses for the “otiose” word. He avoided not only the vaguely impressive but the crudely expressive. A friend wrote to him praising the sentence about the lightning in Zuleika Dobson: “A sudden white vertical streak slid down the sky.” Beerbohm replied: “The word ‘slid’ was in the first draft ‘slithered’ which, though more accurate really, looked rather cherché and so was jettisoned.” Thus he profited from the mandarin abundance while, on the whole, avoiding or deriding its excesses.
ONE NOW READS Beerbohm with recognitions beyond the powers of those of us who were literary neophytes in the Twenties. The elegant trifler contributed more than one had supposed to literary history. Beerbohm played an essential if deliberately minor role in the famous “revolution of taste” that took place between, roughly, 1910 and 1922, even though he was never a “modernist” in his own tastes, preferring the poetry of Swinburne and the novels of Trollope, Meredith, and James to Ulysses and The Waste Land. Nevertheless, he discovered before Pound and Eliot did the futility and pathos of the dandy and his lady. As a verbal caricature of the London literary life, Seven Men parallels at several points Pound’s poem on the same subject, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Mauberley includes a verse portrait of Beerbohm under the name of Brennbaum. The portrait is, appropriately, a verse caricature of Beerbohm as dandy:
The sky-like limpid eyes, The circular infant’s face,
The stiffness from spats to collar never relaxing into grace…
Naturally, the famous revolution in taste “went too far.” In doing so, it has given work to critics and biographers ever since. Rehabilitating the major Victorians and in some cases the Edwardians has long been a reputable occupation. Tennyson, Kipling, and Queen Victoria herself have recovered from the clawings of Beerbohm’s velvet glove.
Yet how exhilarating those clawings were at the time. I mean not only such celebrated caricatures as the one of Queen Victoria attending with majestic patience to a shrunken Tennyson reading In Memoriam. More devastating were the drawings that caricatured the political or the literary life in general. There was the bitter series called The Second Childhood of John Bull, chiefly inspired by Beerbohm’s disgust with the Boer War. There was the series called The Young and the Old Self, in which eighteen well-known Edwardians were confronted in the fullness of their age and fame by the specters, gloating or reproachful, of their youthful selves. A real terribilità plays about the latter series. It could scarcely fail to impress the literary initiates of any period, from the Twenties to the Sixties.
WITH THE FOOLISH in mind, Max Beerbohm added to the 1946 edition of Zuleika Dobson a warning against interpretation. His remarks recall Mark Twain’s admonitory address to the readers of Huckleberry Finn. Critics have generally disregarded Mark Twain’s threats, sometimes with terrible results. Taking our chances, we may dismiss Beerbohm’s warning, too. It is only part of the “act,” the very stagey act that Zuleika Dobson is throughout. If first-rate humorists are never to be taken too seriously, they are to be taken least seriously when they are most at pains to warn us against taking them seriously at all.
Beerbohm maintains that his book is “just a fantasy.” No satirical or other serious comment is intended. But this is impossible in the nature of his genre as he names it here. “Fantasy” must have something which to fantasticate, and what can that something be except “reality” or some aspect of it? “Fantasy” is the rather jejune term for a kind of narrative that was uncommon in Western Europe before the eighteenth century. Nobody, I suppose, would call The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queene and The Pilgrim’s Progress “fantasies.” They are allegories in which the events and characters, however implausible themselves, correspond to principles of morality or religious dogma which had a real existence for their authors. Fantasy seems to have had a complicated relation, first to the decline of faith in the reality or efficacy of those principles, and second to the advance of “realism” as a literary mode. Fantasy brings into comic question the nature of belief itself. There was the celebrated case of the Irish bishop who is alleged to have remarked of Gulliver’s Travels on its first appearance, “This book is full of improbable lies, and for my part I hardly believe a word of it.” The great fantasies extend from Gulliver’s Travels to the Alice books to the serio-comic writings of Franz Kafka. The great fantasies embrace not only certain aspects of reality but just about all of it, even in some instances God and the gods. The authors make it their business to fantasticate the realities so thoroughly that, presto!, they come to look fantastic themselves.
Their business? Surely good fantasists are the most business-like of writers. They go about their creative operations as methodically and with as straight a face as the Lilliputians go about taking inventory of Gulliver’s pockets. Nor does Gulliver feel surprise, least of all amusement, at their efforts. He is only annoyed by the invasion of his privacy. As with Gulliver, so with the other protagonists of comic fantasy. They are themselves quite humorless. A grin from Gulliver would spoil the show. A wink from Candide or Alice or Joseph K. or Zuleika Dobson would bring down in rubble the cunningly constructed world of unreal reality they inhabit. A total sobriety of tone is the law of laws for fantastic comedy.
FOR SOME TWELVE years (1898-1910) Max Beerbohm wrote a weekly theater article for the Saturday Review of London. He was thus exposed to a good deal of trashy fantasy in dramatic as well as narrative form. Even the ballet came to bore him. Much of what he saw or read in this vein seems to have been delinquent in essentially the same way that much of what is today called “Black Humor” is delinquent. It broke the law of laws: it failed to take itself seriously enough. What he saw or read was not willfully wacky as the worst Black Humor is at present. For the Kafkan revolution in fantasy, of which Black Humor is the sometimes depressing offspring—depressing in its mechanical frenzies—belonged to the far future. Thus the action of fantasy was not as yet generated in the disturbed psyche, where anything goes. Nor had history itself as yet reached the extremity of mad inventiveness which today leaves the average fantasist far behind and breathing hard.
It was simple waggishness that afflicted fantasy during Beerbohm’s London years. An air of holiday high jinks, of forced festivity, hung about it. Preeminent of its kind and in its time was, of course, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barrie’s play was beloved by many and derided by a few, doubtless for the same reason: It gave the frankest possible expression to the prevailing vogue for half-hearted escapism. Reviewing Peter Pan on its first appearance, in 1905, Beerbohm noted that Barrie had always incarnated the prevailing “child-worship” of the period but that in Peter Pan he had outdone himself. Barrie was there seen “in his quiddity undiluted—the child in a state of nature, unabashed—the child, as it were, in its bath, splashing, and crowing as it splashes.” Puck’s doings were “credible and orderly” compared to “the riot of inconsequence and of exquisite futility” that made up Peter Pan’s doings.
Nor was Beerbohm an infallible master of fantasy. An early example, The Happy Hypocrite (1898), has the interest for us of commemorating a significant moment in his development. As J. G. Riewald has shown, the youthful author of The Happy Hypocrite was imitating The Picture of Dorian Gray while at the same time trying to free himself from Wilde’s influence. The Happy Hypocrite, in which a devilish dandy is transformed—not without irony on the author’s part—into a loving husband, shows Beerbohm asserting his will to innocence and survival against Wilde’s presumed will to the opposite fate. An amalgam of the parable and the fairy tale, The Happy Hypocrite is nevertheless a strained performance. So is a much later story, The Dreadful Dragon of Hay Hill (1928). This seems to have been written to order by “The Incomparable Max”—the title early bestowed, or perhaps foisted, on Beerbohm by a rival wit, Shaw—rather than by Beerbohm himself. By “Beerbohm himself” I mean the Beerbohm in whom the public and the private man, the insider and the outsider, the precocious child and the preternaturally youthful ancient oddly combined to form his intricate singularity of mind.
This was the Max Beerbohm who did his best writing (Zuleika Dobson, A Christmas Garland, Seven Men, and And Even Now) between about 1910 and about 1920—years during which he lived for the most part away from England. Zuleika Dobson had been begun and dropped as early as 1898. S. N. Behrman, who has examined the early manuscript, notes that it is “scraggly, written in random columns and riddled with doodles”—that is, sketches for caricatures. Here, Behrman says, “You may watch the struggle between Max’s dual careers. Often the graphic seems to gain the upper hand.” Zuleika Dobson was largely written and was brought to completion in 1910-1911 in a charge of energy released by his resignation from the Saturday Review, his marriage to Florence Kahn, an American actress whom he had long kept on the string, and their removal to Italy.
IN COMEDY, many a familiar jest, proverbial saying, or fashionable phrase comes literally true, and many a flower of poesy is born to blush for its presumption. One sometimes says of an unfortunate friend, or of oneself, that he, or one, is subhuman, a worm, an insect. In Kafka’s well-known story, a certain self-despising salesman wakes up one morning to find that he is an insect, complete with many wiggly little legs. His family is appalled rather than gratified by his extraordinary act of self-realization, and the human insect presently dies of neglect and cruelty at their hands. The death of Kafka’s salesman is paralleled, in a purely comic vein, by the fate of Enoch Soames, one of Beerbohm’s creations in Seven Men. Soames is the harmless author of a small book of verse called Fungoids and a small book of essays called Negations. He is nevertheless an avowed poet of the Diabolist school, out of Baudelaire by way of Lionel Johnson, and has written such verses as
Round and round the shuttered square
I strolled with the Devil’s arm in mine.
Eventually, and much to Soames’s surprise, the Devil appears in person and makes off with Soames.
In that story, a single victim is claimed by the process I have been trying to describe—let us call it the process of comic literalization. In Zuleika Dobson the same mechanism is flagrantly at work and the victims are many. The casual wish is father to the deed on an unprecedented scale. The cliché bears watching lest it come true with a vengeance. Oxford dons, one learns, have often remarked that Oxford would be a splendid place if it were not for the undergraduates; Oxford undergraduates have expressed identical thoughts concerning the dons. The dons win in Zuleika Dobson. One evening, following the final race of Eights Week, they learn that the undergraduates have drowned themselves en masse in the Isis, as the stretch of the Thames at Oxford is known. “And always the patient river bears its awful burden towards Iffley,” Beerbohm writes. This flower of poesy begins like a line from “Lycidas” and ends like something in small print in a guide to Oxfordshire. Iffley is the grubby-sounding place where the locks are that make boating possible at Oxford.
MEANWHILE, the crew of Judas College has won the present series of race. Its shell has bumped the shell of proud Magdalen. At Judas the dons have celebrated the traditional Bump Supper in splendid calm owing to the scarcely noted absence of the Judas undergraduates. Only Mr. Pedby’s illiterate reading of the traditional Latin grace has disturbed the occasion. But this mishap is forgiven when it is realized that memories of the ill-read grace will provide chuckles for generations of dons to come. Mr. Pedby has contributed his hilarious mite to the vast cocoon of Oxford history—bloody, scandalous or hilarious—which Oxford is forever weaving for itself.
In all of Judas College, only Zuleika Dobson is at this moment unhappy and restless. She is the woman, a conjurer by profession, for love of whom, ostensibly, the students have drowned themselves—all but the cad Noaks, who has chosen a belated and grimmer death. Zuleika has made more Oxford history, one would think, than Mr. Pedby has. Yet as an outsider, and a woman at that, she is ignored by the dons and obliged to spy on the Bump Supper proceedings from a balcony.
In Zuleika’s career the literalizing principle is written large. She is a femme fatale whose brief stay at Oxford has been actually fatal to hundreds. Surely she has set a new high in the records of femme fatality, exceeding the combined tolls of Keats’s La Belle Dame, Swinburne’s Dolores, and Wilde’s Salomé. One might expect her to be beaten to death with oars as Salomé is with soldiers’ shields. She isn’t, nor is she visited by any feeling except a resentful loneliness; like that of a popular actress who has made one curtain call too many and is suddenly confronted by an empty house. Whither Zuleika? Zuleika asks herself. After such triumphs, what expectations? True, she has had a gratifying talk with her grandfather. The stiff old Warden of Judas has confessed that he was in his youth an homme fatal with many female victims to his credit. What has occurred between the two is unmistakeably a “recognition scene.” It recalls—probably not accidentally—the scene in Major Barbara in which the Salvation Army commander and the ruthless old tycoon slyly discover that each is possessed by the Will to Power and that they are therefore father and daughter after all. Zuleika is somewhat cheered by her encounter with the Warden and presently she finds the answer to her Whither. Consulting her bejeweled copy of Bradshaw she orders a special train for Cambridge. Nothing can stop a fatal woman so long as she believes that somewhere there are more men eager to be fatalized.
Whether she found Cambridge as compliant as Oxford is not known. Beerbohm never composed sequels, except to other men’s works (see his “Sequelula to The Dynasts” in A Christmas Garland). In 1941, however, a Mr. S. C. Roberts produced a sequel of his own, called Zuleika in Cambridge. I have not read the book but gather from Riewald’s account of it that her visit to the other university disappointed her. Firmly resistant to her attractions was serious Cambridge, the Cambridge of Milton, Wordsworth, and F. R. Leavis. No lovelorn corpses cluttered the patient Cam. Beerbohm did, nevertheless, reveal snatches of her later history by way of a letter signed Zuleika Kitchener and addressed to George Gershwin, who once thought of making a highbrow musical out of her book. In the letter she berated Beerbohm for misrepresenting her in the book and added a postscript saying: “I was married secretly to Lord Kitchener, early in 1915. Being so worried by his great responsibilities at that time, he no longer had the grit to cope with my importunities, poor fellow.”
Nothing came of Gershwin’s project. Nor did Zuleika ever reach the stage in the form contemplated, and long worked at, by Wolcott Gibbs and others. They eventually discovered, what might seem obvious from the start to any but the most obdurate of Broadway adapters, that Zuleika Dobson would be nothing without the crystalline surface of unreality wrought by the author for the characters and settings of the book. Release these flies from their amber and they would be just dead flies.2
“IN READING Zuleika Dobson as a description of life at Oxford we should be well-advised to allow for ironic intention,” Northrop Frye observes in his Anatomy of Criticism. Not every reader has been able to make that allowance. The unreality of the story has made it a problem to some of its interpreters. To Edmund Wilson the part about the mass suicide of the undergraduates is “completely unreal.” What parts of the book does Wilson find “real?” What words of Gulliver did the bishop believe? Where fantasy is concerned, there really is no accounting for people’s credulities.
But Wilson is not alone in his objection to Zuleika Dobson, and Beerbohm’s dehumanizing of his characters does perhaps ask for a bit of explaining. For me, there is only one moment in the book when it is possible to “feel with” any of them. The Duke of Dorset is watching Zuleika’s clumsy performance by moonlight and listening to her arch patter (“Well, this is rather queer”). He is so horribly embarrassed for her that he looks with rage on the other young men to whom his beloved is so recklessly exposing herself (“Damn them, they were sorry for her,” he thinks). At this point, one guesses, Beerbohm could not help drawing heavily on his own intimate experience as a friend and lover of actresses, ultimately the husband of an indifferent one whose Pre-Raphaelite ecstasies and graces he found laughable, though lovable, even off-stage. For the rest, the author kept his distance from the goings-on in Zuleika. So much so that he was surprised when his oldest friend, Reginald Turner, wrote him that—to quote David Cecil’s paraphrase of the letter—“he found the characters almost painfully real; he believed in Katie the serving maid too much…to take her sufferings in the spirit of comedy.” To this Beerbohm replied that he “certainly hadn’t realized that Katie and those others were at all real,” adding that if “there were really dramatic scenes…without humanity,” he “never would have admitted this in the Saturday.”
The reference to the Saturday Review seems conclusive. Much of the “ironic intention” of Zuleika Dobson, including the dehumanized characters, stemmed from Beerbohm’s experiences as a theater reviewer for that periodical. Zuleika is not only about “life at Oxford”; it is about literature, above all the literature of the contemporary London stage, to which Beerbohm had been for so many years “enslaved” (his word) through his connection with the Saturday. His reviews show him to have been often sickened by the theater’s hackneyed themes, stock characters, trumped-up motivations, transparent mechanics, and false diction. They violated his common sense, they told on his nerves. So did the conduct, professional and private, of certain leading performers: clumsy “conjurers” and would be femmes (or hommes) fatales. Zuleika Dobson is life at Oxford seen through the eyes of an inveterate “play-goer,” some ideally demoralized veteran of the stalls. Beerbohm, it should be recalled, places the action of his story “in the middle of the Edwardian Age,” a time when the theater, bad though much of it was, bulked larger as an institution than it ever has since in Anglo-American culture. Our theater today is hardly important enough to merit satire as distinct from kidding.
A READING of Around Theatres, Beerbohm’s collected reviews, is, then, more germane to an understanding of Zuleika Dobson than is a short history of Oxford, with maps. The Oxford setting creates itself as one reads, especially the Oxford setting in its legendary or sentimental aspects. Here Matthew Arnold’s too memorable paragraph about the “home of lost causes and impossible loyalties” does continual comic service. The parodying of Arnold starts with the first paragraph, where it is Oxford’s railroad station and not her Gothic towers that “whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.” We soon learn that these enchantments still prevail elsewhere in the University. The Oxford of Zuleika Dobson remains “medieval” in its charm as well as in other, less lovable, ways; and it is still chivalrous, to the point of suicide.
Yes, there have been many Oxfords. There was the Oxford of the various religious revivals, with their Ridleys and Latimers, their Newmans and Puseys. There was the neo-pagan Oxford of Jowett and Pater, when bands of undergraduates are reputed to have marched around chanting the choruses of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon. There was the eighteenth-century Oxford which to the young Gibbon was wholly barbarous. There was the Victorian Oxford which to Walter Bagehot consisted of colleges that were merely “hotels with bells”—refuges for sporting upper-class youths. There is the Oxford of the present, swamped by the Morris motor plant, made democratic and serious beyond Bagehot’s dreams, but still beautiful to look at, still whispering its enchantments and sounding its bells amid the tumult of traffic.
The Oxford Beerbohm knew as an undergraduate in the Nineties was, or seemed to him, lushly end-of-century. It made him, he later said, “insufferable,” meaning idle, mocking, snobbish, an adherent of Oscar Wilde’s cult and that of past dandies, D’Orsay and Disraeli. He claimed that he had read nothing at the University except Wilde’s Intentions and Thackeray’s The Four Georges. The eating clubs he frequented were exclusive, although not quite so exclusive as The Junta, of which it is said in Zuleika Dobson that the Duke of Dorset was for a while the sole member. To the young Beerbohm, abstaining from the more wholesome undergraduate pursuits was an agreeable duty. Once when he was out for a stroll he encountered a fellow student with an oar across his shoulder. “Bound for the river?” the student cheerily asked. “What river?” Beerbohm replied. What river indeed!
HIS REMINISCENCES of his Oxford life are the caricature of a caricature, the original having been himself. To his role as an undergraduate he brought an amused self-consciousness. He made histrionic capital of his short stature, his large head, his prominent eyes, and the scrutinizing stare of which they were capable. His whole earlier history predisposed him to amuse himself and others, and generally to do what he liked at the University. The belated child of adoring parents, the youngest by far of an animated circle of siblings and half-siblings, he had been early initiated into the Great World by his half-brother, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, already a celebrated actor when young Max was still at Oxford.
There, as elsewhere later on, he was the outsider-insider, capable of mocking things he also cherished, including his own personality. So if he loved Oxford and mocked it only affectionately in Zuleika Dobson, as Oxonians tend to say, he loved it on his own terms. These involved much skepticism, enough to set flowing the tricky currents of satire in Zuleika Dobson. Here faddishness is seen to flourish in proportion as Oxford believes itself to be supremely privileged, proudly possessed of its own history and legality, grotesquely celibate (if that is the word), and capable of extending to its dons the privilege of indifferentism towards the undergraduates, towards everything but the dons’ own studies and society.
From Christ Church meadow a mist is described as continually rising and permeating the whole place. A prime characteristic of Oxford, the mist is lovingly evoked by Beerbohm. The passage has become a famous set-piece, but unlike Arnold’s set-piece it is full of double-entendres. The mist is seen to enclose Oxford in a circle of glamor, like a soft-focus photograph. It also shelters the place from “reality,” like a smoke screen. Zuleika penetrates and scatters this mist—for the reader. Her presence at the University shows us that its precious faddishness, its cherished weakness for lost causes and impossible loyalties, exist plentifully in the world at large, where they are known, less flatteringly, as the “hard instinct” or “conformity.” Zuleika’s triumph at Oxford is only a specialized form of the triumphs she has enjoyed everywhere, from Paris to “final Frisco.” The great dandy, Dorset, adores her, but so did George Abimilech Post, “the best-groomed man in New York.” Self-destruction threatens the herd wherever it exists, although the herd may elect to die in more dignified ways than do the swine in the parable. This Beerbohm saw as early as 1911, with an instinct born of his own highly cultivated idiosyncracy.
IT IS NOT BECAUSE she is “real” herself that Zuleika disperses the mist for us. On the contrary, it is because she is that most potent of forces, a figment of the mass mind. As a conjurer her skill is nil. Nor is she “strictly beautiful,” Beerbohm states in a passage that has been analyzed into its multiple equivocations by William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity (Beerbohm’s type in this passage is Empson’s sixth).
It is true that Zuleika has, or acts as if she had, a devouring passion. She wants to love—love, that is, a man self-sufficient enough to scorn her love. Naturally, the man eludes her. Nobody will let her play Patient Grizzel. The Duke of Dorset matches her in his own lovelessness and in the impossible demands he makes on women. But all these passions are as phantasmal as the two characters themselves are. The passions are “motivations” of the kind forcibly applied to the personages of inferior drama to make their actions plausible. Complaints against the arbitrariness in this respect of Pinero, who finds his motives in the stock room, or against Shaw, who sometimes supplies them from his intellectual laboratory, recur in Beerbohm’s theater reviews. So too with those reversals or, as Beerbohm with his mock pedantry calls them, “peripities,” which keep the moral advantage shifting back and forth throughout the long scenes between Zuleika and Dorset. So tangible does this advantage become in its relentless to and fro that it almost materializes as a ball or a brick.
Dorset is more interesting than Zuleika. He is “motivated” by more than his need to love—by his obligations as a dandy and a great nobleman. The Duke is no fraud in these particulars as Zuleika is in her conjurer’s role. He is just what he claims to be: the sum of all those titles, residences, servants, decorations, accomplishments, and clothes. Among his accouterments are the pair of owls that have always announced the coming deaths of Dukes of Dorset. The owls really appear on the battlements of Tankerton; they hoot this Duke of Dorset to his doom, even in the age of pre-paid telegrams. For the other undergraduates he sets the styles of dressing, of loving, and of dying. As a stage duke, Dorset is complete. The Noakses and the Batches are also complete, as stage plebians. Noaks is a “foil” to the over-privileged Duke. As such he may briefly arouse our democratic sympathies. But his sentiments are soon discovered to be as heavy as his boots and the iron ring he wears to charm away rheumatism. The plebeian creations of Shaw, the great humanitarian, often surprise us by turning out to know their place; the clownish place reserved for members of the lower orders, from Dogberry to Doolittle. Nor, one suspects, are Zuleika’s French maid, Mélisande, and the American Rhodes scholar, Abimilech V. Oover, “strictly” caricatures; they are, again, caricatures of caricatures: the stage French maid and the stage American.
TO WHAT in the story itself apart from the mass suicide does Edmund Wilson’s cry of “unreal” fail to apply? To nothing, I fear. Our demoralized play-goer has “seen everything,” the theater’s entire offering. Not for the world would he have missed the fashionable performances of Greek tragedy in Gilbert Murray’s florid English, complete with inverted syntax and doubled negatives, with messengers, dei ex machina, and choruses. The busts of the Roman emperors outside the Sheldonian Theater afford Zuleika a peculiarly original chorus, helpless, solicitous, whimpering with pity, sweating with fear.
Not that the patent unreality of the story doesn’t occasionally pall. Beerbohm’s achievement in the art of fantasy is possibly too consistent. The lengthy speechifying, the tireless parodying of motivations and peripities, make certain scenes tedious. For the wary reader, however, the tedium is continually relieved by all sorts of “tricks” on the author’s part—puns, double-entendres, dissonances, parodies within parodies, lyrical set-pieces in the descriptive or historical mode, intrusions of the supernatural, brief realistic “shots,” so to speak, as of Zuleika applauding at the concert with her hands high above her head like the thorough professional she is. The ironic vision is, moreover, apt to shift its objects abruptly from one type of stage convention to another. Our playgoer gets his Maeterlinck mixed up with his Wycherley. Romance envelops the moonlight walk of Zuleika and Dorset to her quarters in Judas after the concert and her own impromptu performance, the latter a great scene. But crude farce breaks in when, from her bedroom window, she dumps on the Duke’s waiting figure the contents of a water pitcher (read chamberpot).
Romance is a recurring attraction in Zuleika. The moonlight, the floating mist, the nodding lilacs and laburnums, the weedy bottom of the Isis—all are summoned on stage from the greenwood of English pastoral tradition. They remain lovely, though invariably touched with mockery—the mockery of the purple patch, of eloquence itself. Eloquence itself, high or low, is another motif. There are speaking parts for all: the flowers, the bells, the stony Emperors, together with the more or less human beings. And oh, the things people say! Nothing in Zuleika Dobson, I find, stays in the memory better than the things people say in it. “She doesn’t look like an orphan” (the wife of the Oriel don referring to Zuleika). “By God, this college [Judas] is well-named” (Sir Harry Esson, betrayed by a former Warden, as he is stabbed and dies). “Death cancels all engagements” (The Duke of Dorset). “What harm has unrequited love ever done?” (Zuleika). “I say he was not a white man” (Oover of a lengendary Oxford libertine). “I don’t know anything about music, but I know what I like” (Zuleika). “Je me promets un beau plaisir en faisant la connaissance de ce jeune homme” (George Sand’s ghost). “For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like” (Pallas Athene, of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). “I, John, Albert, Edward, Claude, Orde, Angus, Tankerton, Tanville-Tankerton, fourteenth Duke of Dorset, Marquis of Dorset, Earl of Grove, Earl of Chastermaine, Viscount Brewsby, Baron Grove, Baron Petstrap, and Baron Wolock, in the Peerage of England, offer you my hand. Do not interrupt me” (The Duke of Dorset).
The verbal tricks, the shifts of focus, the imagery of romance, the things people say—all these go to make up the marvelous surface of Zuleika Dobson. Indeed, one’s pleasure in the book is largely in following the contours of this surface. It is real, however cunningly strewn with surprises. It assumes a reader who is capable of responding to it and who is therefore real, too. The author, above all, is real. He is never more so than when he writes, “You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilization. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost—he becomes just an unit in unreason.”
UNLIKE ITS HEROINE, Zuleika Dobson is not an exacting mistress. It is not a book for everyone, the children included. One can enjoy it without claiming too much for it. Whether Zuleika is Beerbohm’s “masterpiece” is itself open to question. What is almost any writer’s masterpiece except a token award for critics to quarrel about? Seven Men is as lively and pertinent as Zuleika is and has a less taxing consistency of ironic intention. In none of his writings is Beerbohm, the fantasist, in the same class with Swift or Gogol or Kafka. He was too reasonable to indulge, like the half-mad Swift, in prodigies of invention called forth in the name of Reason. Zuleika Dobson is a comic criticism not so much of passion itself as of the fashion for passion, the same phenomenon that Mario Praz was seriously to illustrate and analyze in The Romantic Agony. If we can judge by what we know of his love affairs, Beerbohm was not himself susceptible to the grand passions. His early history—to evoke that once more—probably predisposed him to feel affection rather than passion for others, possibly to feel affection more strongly because the exclusive ardors of sexual passion were foreign to him. It need hardly be said that popular Freudianism has perpetuated the romantic agony by putting it on “a scientific basis.” To this glorification of sexual passion Beerbohm’s entire life and work were opposed. “They were a tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, weren’t they?” he once remarked.
His opposition arose chiefly from a quality of his mind rather than from a defect of his emotional nature. He had the rococco imagination—so much so that Zuleika is closer in spirit to The Rape of the Lock than it is to the work of fantasists today. Beerbohm saw things as small, discrete, sharply defined, existing in a world that was inexorably finite. From this here-and-now vision came, for one thing, those opinions of his which, often penetrating, sometimes fatuous, are frequently quoted. He objected, for example, that the modern theater lives always in its presumptive future rather than in its present. This opinion is still exemplary. He said of William Morris, “Of course he is a wonderful all-round man but the act of walking round him has always tired me.” Amusing but not so exemplary. One is tempted to say that Beerbohm tired rather easily, like a child at an all-day picnic; that his lifelong obsession with the tedium of bigness—the bigness of Morris, Shaw, Gibbon, of whomever or whatever, was a kind of childishness or envy. No one else, surely, has ever given so much crafty energy to scaling bigness down, as Beerbohm did, for example, in the thin dummy volume entitled The Complete Works of Arnold Bennett which he was at pains to fabricate and which was found in his library at Rapallo. The fifty-odd volumes of Bennett’s actual work appalled him. Shaw’s reputation struck him as outrageously extensile. But Bennett’s literary bulk would no doubt have appalled him regardless of its quality. And he was so oppressed by Shaw’s reputation that, as a reviewer, he often missed the point of Shaw’s plays.
HIS OPINIONS are one thing; the imaginary world projected by his rococco imagination and realized in his fiction and drawings is another. In his fiction, if ever in literature, style and substance live in wedded bliss, the perfect midget couple. The sentence is for him distinctly “an unit.” He explores its possibilities as thoroughly as Pope did those of the heroic couplet. All known devices of rhetoric and syntax are set to performing for us with unobstrusive gaiety. Thus is bigness mocked by triumphant littleness—bigness and solemnity and the “tragic sense of life.” Not that the materials of tragedy are lacking in his work. Misery is everywhere potential in it. Throughout Zuleika Dobson the strains of the “Liebestod” can be heard swelling, only to dissolve into dissonance. The rococco ethos has been defined by Egon Friedell as a “last craving for illusion,” illusion to assuage the painful mysteries of loving and dying. Max Beerbohm had no such craving. For him, loving and dying were mysteries too inscrutable to be encompassed by the word “tragedy.” Assuagement lay in the contemplation of beauty and folly and in the act of laughter.
(This essay will appear as an Afterword in the Signet Classics edition of Zuleika Dobson, to be published in September by the New American Library.)
June 9, 1966