Here in Oxford we’re often content with escapism, so, understandably, nervousness usually greets any Oxford story more romantic and more wonderful than our (sometimes depressing) everyday existence. In this way the ‘Incomparable Max’ has become the forgotten author Max Beerbohm.
A member of the Oscar Wilde set, he left Oxford an essayist, parodist and caricaturist. In 1911 he wrote his one, perfect, novel: Zuleika Dobson.
In true Edwardian satirical style, Zuleika, the eponymous femme fatale, manages to infiltrate the all-male Judas College (based on Beerbohm’s alma mater, Merton College) and proceeds to entice every male undergraduate in the college with her irresistible charms. This sets in motion a chain of events which leads to, amongst other happenings, thunderstorms, drownings, and mass suicide.
Beerbohm is, after all, incomparable, so I must share a favourite passage. Following a scene in which every male undergraduate, gripped by the tragic romance between Zuleika and the Duke of Dorset, has followed the Duke and drowned themselves in the Isis, the narrator returns to Zuleika:
“And Zuleika? She had done a wise thing, and was where it was best that she should be. Her face lay upturned on the water’s surface, and round it were the masses of her dark hair, half floating, half submerged. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted. Not Ophelia in the brook could have seemed more at peace….What to her now the loves that she had inspired and played on? The lives lost for her? Little thought had she now of them. Aloof she lay….The air was heavy with scent of violets. These are the flowers of mourning; but their scent here and now signified nothing; for Eau de Violettes was the bath-essence that Zuleika always had.”
The shock that Zuleika might too have followed the Duke, but more shockingly that she might not be utterly amoral, is swiftly assuaged in the knowledge that she is merely taking a bath. Perfect.