Saturday, 7 March 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: Z is for Zuleika

After 25 letters in my Victorian Alphabet, I’m cheating a little bit here, as Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story wasn’t actually published until 1911. But, having recently finished reading Rupert Hart-Davis’s Letters Of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1956and seen how Zuleika, as a character and a novel, is such a strong presence in Max’s life long before the text’s publication (he began writing it in 1898), I feel justified in using her to round off this very Victorian series.

Zuleika Dobson is a satirical novel about a girl so attractive she makes the students at Oxford University commit suicide en masse, destroying the city and its institutions. An untalented magician, Zuleika’s appeal is partially due to her beauty and partially to the contradictions of her character which make her unable to love anyone:

“I could no more marry a man about whom I could not make a fool of myself than I could marry one who made a fool of himself about me. Else had I long ceased to be a spinster”.

While the novel moves away from Zuleika at times – whether to the history of Oxford’s most elite drinking society, to the birds which are harbingers of death for holders of a particular dukedom, or to the muse of history Clio – she dominates the novel, and also seems to have dominated its creation.

In his letters, Max even uses the word ‘Zuleika-ing’ to denote the act of writing and, in 1904, not only does he seem to have a very clear idea of the eventual plot, but he’s also personifying his work, talking about his inability to write a ‘skeleton’ of the rest of the novel, without it becoming a ‘full-fleshed figure’.

At the novel’s appearance, Max writes the following note to Robert Ross (who had been a close friend of Oscar Wilde):

‘My dear Bobbie, Poor old Zuleika! She is at length to be dragged out, blinking and staggering, into the light of day. And Heinemann [his publisher] will be sending her to the Reform Club, to wait for you there. Be kind, be courteous, to the hag. Incline your ear to her mumblings. Pretend not to hear the horrid creakings of her joints. Tell her she does not look a day older than when you saw her or at any rate her head and shoulders all those years ago. Don’t hint to her that she makes a goblin of the sun. Yours affectionately, Max’.

Here we see Beerbohm referencing the long gestation period his novel has been through. And we also see him using an identification between Zuleika the woman and Zuleika the novel to reference the faults in his writing (mere ‘mumblings’ with ‘creaking…joints’), while simultaneously pleading for kind critical judgement on them (without seeming to plead for himself).

With the reference to Zuleika’s head and shoulders as having appeared first, Max also seems to be alluding to one of the most famous stories of male birth, the emergence of Artemis from the head of her father Zeus. Writing a novel as a sort of pregnancy is an idea he returns to again in a letter to Arnold Bennett:

‘You mustn’t expect from me a ‘diabolically ingenious defence’ of Zuleika, any more than you would expect a woman who has just borne a child to be diabolically ingenious of defence of that child… “Madam, this baby is in many respects a very fine baby. I observe many inimitable touches of you in it. But, Madam, I am bound to say that its screams are more penetrating than a baby’s screams ought to be. I notice in its complexion a mottled quality which jars my colour-sense. And I cannot help wishing it were” etc. etc.… Will the young mother floor you in well-chosen words?’

Max’s easy and familiar references to ‘Zuleika’ in his letters demonstrate beautifully the strong connection between artist and work (even an artist as humorous and, at times, flippant as Beerbohm). They also show the fascination ‘she’ as a character and as a project held over Max across several decades. Zuleika’s appeal may have decimated Oxford, but it has cemented Beerbohm’s place in literary history.

This is the last in my Victorian Alphabet series, so let me know if you have any new series ideas – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you want to find out more about Beerbohm’s Oxford, then click here for my top tourist tips for Victorianists who find themselves in England’s best city!

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