“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 fantasies of youth, in a city where Folly was a timeless ethos. His Oxford was not to be Matthew Arnold’s or even Hardy’s distant view of the “dreaming spires.” And, of course, in Max’s time, the prestige of the city was not usurped by the motorcar industry and the university scarcely knew the presence of women. Max’s intention, in this fantasy, was to mock the immemorial, Mr. Hall, like other critics, feels that Zuleika Dobson is to English prose what Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock is to English poetry. The word “cosmetic” indeed appears in that poem. An American critic, John Felstiner, has thought in his book on Beerbohm, The Lies of Art, that Max’s parodies of the narrative seem to anticipate the parodies of Joyce’s Ulysses.
In one respect the fantasy is simple: Zuleika, the dazzling young professional conjuror, known to the Halls and yet the rave of Europe, comes to stay with her grandfather, the Warden of Judas, and from the moment she arrives at the dowdy railway station all the undergraduates fall instantly in love with her, and none so fatally as the most magnificent young Duke of Dorset, a man of extraordinary intellectual achievements, even already a Knight of the Garter and the supreme dandy. Dandies have their reserves in matters of love: they love themselves. The Duke is entranced but wavers, as Zuleika also does. If she disdains him he declares he will drown himself during Eights Week. The infatuated undergraduates will, in the cause of love, follow him. And so they all do in an exalted mass suicide and Zuleika, the necessary femme fatale of the period, goes off in the end to try her trick in Cambridge.
A perfect fantasy. We can’t put it down because of Max’s mastery of styles and, above all, of digression. But to domesticate the fantasy, to do his duty by Oxford, its habits and its ancient ethos, was Max’s necessity. He called upon his gift of parody. Oxford is the home of philosophy, or Folly, and of the lost causes of classical history. So the busts of the Roman Emperors at the Sheldonian, crumbling in the Oxford damp, are heard in person moaning and arguing about errors of their ancient careers; they are particularly offended when tourists mistake them for the Twelve Apostles. Max is seen in conversation with the Greeks; he consults Melpomene and Clio, who quarrel over the relation of history and fiction. The Duke himself, perfect in Greek verse, will be heard snubbing an undergraduate in a cool bout of Socratic enquiry: a perfect Rhodes scholar, given to the American hunger for the explicative, will revere at length the Oxford legends, especially those of tragic Romantic love.
At the end, after the mass suicide in the Isis, Oxford will create a minor new tradition. In the evening the Fellows at High Table are unmoved; they will notice that there are no undergraduates in Hall. Nevertheless the most Junior Fellow is called upon, as by tradition, to say the Latin Grace, and will establish the Oxford cause of making a mess of it. Human error, after all, is immortal. As for the love that has brought about the disaster, the Duke is the supreme dandy; rich and incredibly clever, he is beyond love. Why does he lead the mass drowning? Noblesse oblige alone is not decisive: he has news that the sacred owls on the battlements of his mansion have hooted, prophesying his death as they have always done for his ancestors. He will, of course, as required by fate, obey them. As for love—Zuleika will only fall for the supreme dandy whose feelings can only express themselves in the glow of his pearl shirt studs.
The infatuation of the Duke is all the more powerful because it is effortlessly neutral. Even when he throws himself into the river and drowns—as we see from Max’s drawing of him underwater—nature does not stir him to a vulgar struggle to live. Byron had swum the Hellespont; the Duke had swum it twice. Nevertheless, we see him now, sloping politely under water, his superb clothes unruffled, his expression coldly stoical. He is performing an inherited duty.
Max dotted his manuscripts with a large number of drawings. It is interesting to compare his many portraits of the irresistible Zuleika with his written description of her. We have read that she was not
strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large and their lashes longer than they need have been. An anarchy of small curls was her chevelure, a dark upland of misrule, every hair asserting its rights over a not discreditable brow. For the rest, her features were not at all original. They seemed to have been derived rather from a gallimaufry of familiar models. From Madame la Marquise de Saint-Ouen came the shapely tilt of her nose…. She had no waist to speak of.
Pretty prose. But we have no time to look up the Marquise de Saint-Ouen—where is the damn book?—and with relief turn to the drawing. We have tired of precious words. In the drawing she is indeed a swaying and mindless stunner. The nose does tilt, the figure sways. She has all the allure of a snake; it matches the freezing otherness of the Duke.
Are there other women who fall for the Duke? There is one: the inevitably simple and pretty daughter of his landlady, Mrs. Batch. She knows her earthy longing is impossible. Her pretentions to learning are nil. She is intently courted by the commonplace Noaks, an undergraduate of no charm or brain—he will only get a “Second.” (The Duke has allowed himself to talk with this dull fellow on their walks to college—but no more than that.) Noaks has a serious weakness: he is afraid of water. Alone among the undergraduates, the low fellow has cheated: he has not drowned himself. This even shocks his masterful landlady, though she has been “a mother to him.” His courtship of the daughter has been slow and explanatory. He has explained that he is poor and can only propose an engagement after he has returned from Australia in twenty years, by which time he hopes to have made his fortune.
Zuleika visits the family and denounces Noaks for his canniness and his failure to drown. Mrs. Batch herself is ashamed of him. The youth, in his shame—and afraid of water—throws himself out of his bedroom window to a vulgar death on the pavement. As far as we know, neither Clio nor Melpomene nor the disillusioned Roman Emperors have ever condescended to notice such incidents. They are concerned only with their own historic bickerings and miseries. (Perhaps, at Cambridge, the thought occurs to us, Zuleika will feel the cold Siberian winds, she will feel that moral chill of a touch of socialist realism; or foresee, as a conjuror, the rise of functionalism in years to come.)
Max defended himself and rose above complaint. To Reggie Turner, who wrote that the suffering of the landlady’s daughter “stood out too poignantly” from the book’s fantasy, Max replied that he had wanted his characters to stand out like real people, within the limits of the absurdity conditioned. “It had never occurred to me that while I was trying to do this that I was giving to the characters anything in the nature of a real as opposed to a fantastical humourous reality.” Fantastical writers, like writers of fairy tales, lead dangerous lives: I can’t repress the wish that Noaks had not chosen death on the pavement. Isn’t it, as they say, a shade “homely”?
November 5, 1987