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Death in the City of Dreaming Spires

Zuleika Dobson (“zuleeka”) is the Oxford novel, alongside Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I had been looking for a copy ever since I was in Oxford and eventually, I found one several months ago in Magus Books (best place to shelter from a hail storm, haven for out-of-print books and scholarly texts).

A woman, the eponymous heroine, comes to Oxford to visit her grandfather, the warden of the fictional Judas College. She is an amateur conjurer and a professional enchantress, having never failed to captivate a man. Wherever she goes (Berlin! Paris! New York! San Francisco!) she drives men to utter distraction, but it will be in Oxford that she reaches her heights: “A new city was a new toy to her, and – for it was youth’s homage that she loved best – this city of youths was a toy after her own heart.”

Zuleika is in love with no man but the man who is indifferent to her. As no man can be indifferent to her, she is constantly thwarted in her desire to find love. What a predicament. Being snubbed by the cold, dandyish Duke of Dorset [“John, Albert, Edward, Claude, Order, 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”] creates an overwhelming feeling of love for him, which, succumbing to her wiles, he cannot help but return. She is repulsed by his affection and leaves him in disgust.

Frustrated and devastated by his unrequited love, the Duke resolves to die for Zuleika publically at the boat races during Eights Week and it is to his chagrin that all the undergraduates of Oxford join him in his pledge. He spends his remaining hours wavering over his rash decision, but when he decides he must, he tries to evangelize the undergraduates and save them from a thankless doom. Unsuccessful, mass carnage at the river follows, and Zuleika – rather than being abashed – is displeased by being stripped of her admirers (even by herself), moves on to Cambridge. Humorously, and perhaps unexpectedly - the dons are not all that upset by the deaths of their students – “…and now, all of a sudden, in mid-term, peace, ataraxy, a profound and leisured stillness. No lectures to deliver to-morrow; no “essays” to hear and criticize; time for the unvexed pursuit of pure learning…”

Published in 1911, Zuleika Dobson was described by its author, Sir Max Beerbohm, an Oxford man himself, as a “fantasy” perhaps because it is so outrageous a story, and contains additional portents, Fate, muses, the ghosts. The morning of his death, the Duke steps outside his lodgings and

“…he gazed up at the steadfast thunder-clouds…One of them, a particularly large and dark one, might with advantage, he thought, have been placed a little further to the left. He made a gesture to that effect. Instantly the cloud rolled in position. The gods were painfully anxious, now, to humour him in trifles.”

This ironic, black-humored novel is a lovely ode to Oxford. Pithy (“Death cancels all engagements”) and written with relentless, elegant hyperbole. In the middle of the novel, Beerbohm stops to apologetically explain how he – as historian, patronized by the muse Clio – is granted by the gods the power to see into the characters’ minds, which is generally a novelist’s trick. Beerbohm’s most cheeky insertion is a self-referential discussion between the Duke and Zuleika:

“…Your way of speech has what is called the ‘literary flavor’.” (Duke)
“Ah, that is an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr. Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at a dinner somewhere. I can’t break myself of it. I assure you I hardly ever open a book.”

I laughed out loud several times and I can understand why Beerbohm, Wilde’s sillier heir, was called the “incomparable Max.” I think Zuleika is still in print, definitely in the expensive scholarly imprints, but I have not found it on the shelves anywhere but at Magus.

I’ve been imagining Zuleika Dobson as a film, and trying to cast the title character. Anne Hathaway is pretty enough, though she may be too sweet to drive a generation of students to their extinction. A young Catherine Zeta-Jones would be perfect. Erin nominated a young Lawrence Olivier for the Duke of Dorset. Hollywood, with its rash of books to movie adaptations, should get on that.


Jon Brock said…
I thought I was smart, and could write well. Well, after reading but a few sentences of what you write, I now feel as if I'm in kindergarten. Bravo.

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