Last year I did a brief review of this book for Goodreads. Sensing that I didn’t do it justice, I decided to read it again.
Intended in 1911 as a caricature of Edwardian aristocracy, Zuleika Dobson serves today as a parable of people’s blind devotion to false idols, especially self-centered celebrities and politicians.
Zuleika is a young American woman who has made a career as a traveling magician. Though her skills and her looks are mediocre at best, for some reason young men everywhere fall hopelessly in love with her. When she invades the hallowed halls of Oxford University, the results are disastrous for the undergraduate class and their mentor, the Duke of Dorset.
Zuleika and the Duke are preening snobs in the extreme. Convinced that the world revolves around them, they scorn the very followers who are their lifeblood. What drives the novel’s humor is a game of one-upmanship as Zuleika, finding the Duke immune to her spell, falls in love with him, only to reject him when he belated succumbs. Stymied, he resolves to drown himself in the river. Then he decides to wait for tomorrow’s boat races. Then he changes his mind again, pretending to himself that he is saving from death all the other heartbroken Oxford youths determined to go down with him.
For all their vacillating proclamations of love, both Zuleika and the Duke are too self-centered to care for anyone. Their dialogue is hilariously ridiculous, especially the Duke’s attempts to woo Zuleika by painting his ancestry as a combination of nobility and peasantry.
The author assumes the role of a celestial commentator, most effectively at a men’s club dinner in which the ghost of an old Oxfordian chafes at the diners’ remarks about him.
Max Beerbohm’s narration is so pompously eloquent that at times it can seem baffling to the reader unversed in classical literature. But that is what makes the comedy so effective. Again and again, Zuleika and the Duke prove themselves unworthy of worship. Shouldn’t we likewise scoff at today’s pretenders to greatness who offer nothing but divisiveness and corruption?