Book Report: Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Satirist Max Beerbohm’s only novel eviscerates late Edwardian culture in a way that is hilarious and relevant to this day.

The good British gentlemen have their souls aflame. A young, beautiful, dark-skinned performer and celebrity has taken British culture by storm, tearing at the very fabric of decent society. For the good of the Commonwealth she must be stopped.

I am, of course, not talking about Meghan, but Zuleika Dobson, the titular character in Sir Max Beerbohm’s only novel. Zuleika Dobson is a young performing magician whose curse is that it is impossible for her to love any man who is in love with her and, as it stands, that includes nearly every eligible man in her orbit. Zuleika arrives at Oxford courtesy of her grandfather, the Warden of the fictional “Judas College”. She dines with the Duke of Dorset, a young but well-educated and well-off student deeply respected by his peers. She falls for him, briefly, until he confesses his love to her. This is all standard romance stuff.

The novel begins its descent into absurdity as it reveals that the young Duke is not the only one at the College infatuated with Zuleika. Just about every male there falls deeply for her and the Duke, feeling scorned by her rebuff, seeks to sacrifice himself to make her aware of the power she holds over men. He tries killing himself and fails when Zuleika intervenes, but she finds the notion romantic. The Duke announces his plans to his friends, who not only agree it is a good idea, but decide they, too, should kill themselves. The book builds to a dramatic scene where the entire Oxford undergraduate class, having fallen irreparably in love with Zuleika, dramatically throw themselves in the River Isis during a rowing competition.

Though the entire undergraduate class is dead, the faculty are hardly aware. Zuleika, unperturbed by this, decides to set off from Oxford with the trunk of gifts she collected from suitors around the world. The book ends as she buys a ticket to Cambridge.

The book’s most obvious reference is the plain biblical allusion to Zuleika who, according to legend, falsely accused her husband Joseph of rape. Zuleika’s power over men leads them to their ruin, a lethal temptress leading the good, noble men of England off the path of the light. But the book is a satire, and despite being published over 100 years ago remains firmly relevant today. Women are still blamed for the ruin of men. Dark skinned foreign women are still blamed for the corruption of the British Empire. And the British press and high society losing their goddamned minds over Harry and Meghan is proof that the sharp criticism of Oxford culture is as poignant today as it was when it was written.

To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.

Zuleika Dobson
Sir Max Beerbohm
ISBN 9780375752483

Posted: 29.06.2024

Built: 14.07.2024

Updated: 29.06.2024

Hash: 40b4a62

Words: 483

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes