_____Zuleika Dobson, says Francis Hackett in the introduction to the 1938 Modern Library edition I'm reading, "is many sorts of a novel, but first and foremost it is the emanation of a most subtle and deadly caricaturist, a 'shrewd and knavish sprite' among mortal men.... Only one thing Zuleika Dobson lacks that a regular novel has, and that is dullness. It is a long story taken at the pace of a sprint, its wit relentlessly sustained." Tastes have almost certainly changed in the seventy-some years since that was written, and there are probably a lot of readers now who find the novel not only dull in spots, but also arch and antique. But I think they would find it hard to quibble with Hackett's assertion that Beerbohm demonstrates "a solicitude for words."
To most writers words are public characters, to be handled as the public is handled by thick-skinned officials, a mob to be regimented and shoved on. For Max Beerbohm words are persons with their own physiognomies, with their own frailties and proclivities, to be humored and made much of.We get a sense of that early on in the novel, when Zuleika arrives at the Oxford train station and immediately attracts the attention of the students waiting for relatives there: "Parents, sisters, cousins, ran unclaimed about the platform." That's perfect: "unclaimed" suggests "unclaimed luggage," which is what the relatives become; "ran ... about the platform" brings up an image of small, jittery animals, which suits the nervous puzzlement of the neglected relatives.
Zuleika, "in a white travelling dress, in a toque a-twinkle with fine diamonds," is "a lithe and radiant creature." She is met there by her grandfather, "the Warden of Judas." Warden is the title given to the heads of some colleges at Oxford, but there is, of course, no Judas College at the university, and I find Beerbohm's satiric inversion a little heavy-handed. (There is a Jesus College at Oxford, but Beerbohm's own college was Merton.)
On their way to the college they encounter "a very splendid youth" on a polo pony. The Warden identifies the young man as the Duke of Dorset and informs her that he is dining at his table that evening. But Zuleika is startled that the duke "had not reined in and was not even glancing back at her over his shoulder." The Warden is also greeted by another student, Noaks, who is "almost a dwarf" and "as plain as his gait was undistinguished." Unlike the Duke, he seems quite dazzled by Zuleika, but when she asks if he is dining with them, "'Certainly not,' said the Warden. 'Most decidedly not.'"
As they drive along the Broad, Zuleika is uninterested in its architectural splendors -- "The inanimate had little charm for her" -- but they seem interested in her, especially "the high grim busts of the Roman Emperors" that adorn the Sheldonian, "great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors." A don notices the effect, but is unable to persuade others of what he had seen. But the Emperors -- who "are by American visitors frequently mistaken for the Twelve Apostles" -- had foreseen "the peril that was overhanging Oxford, and they gave such warning as they could" of "the evil that was to befall the city of their penance."
Zuleika arrives at her rooms and her maid, Mélisande, unpacks the finery in her trunks: "All the colours of the rainbow, materialised by modistes, were there." And now we learn how Zuleika came by such finery. Like Scarlett O'Hara (did Margaret Mitchell read Zuleika Dobson?), "Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been.... Her hands and feet were of very mean proportions. She had no waist to speak of at all." Nevertheless, she "was the toast of two hemispheres." After the death of her parents, she had been forced in her late teens to find work as a governess because her grandfather had disapproved of her parents' marriage. (Beerbohm doesn't say why, or even which of her parents was his child. He knows it's only a plot device.) So he "had refused her appeal for a home or an allowance, on the ground that he would not be burdened with the upshot of a marriage which he had once forbidden and not yet forgiven." But now, "prompted by curiosity or remorse," he has invited her to stay with him for "a week or so."
She hated being a governess until she went to work for a family whose eldest son was an amateur magician. He fell hard for her, taught her his tricks, and proposed marriage by giving her all of his magic paraphernalia. She sneaked off in the dead of night with it and launched her own career as a magician, creating a sensation. In Paris, "all the little dandies were mad for 'la Zuleika.' The jewelers of the Rue de la Paix soon had nothing left to put in their windows -- everything had been bought for 'la Zuleika.'" She became the toast of the continent.
On the Sunday before she left Madrid, a great bull-fight was held in her honour. Fifteen bulls received the coup-de-grâce, and Alvarez, the matador of matadors, died in the arena with her name on his lips. He had tried to kill the last bull without taking his eyes off la divina señorita. A prettier compliment had never been paid her, and she was immensely pleased with it.She went on to conquer America, and now, in Oxford she sits "not reviewing the pageant of her past. She was a young person whose reveries were never in retrospect.... All memories were for her but as the motes in one fused radiance that followed her and made more luminous the pathway of her future."
But she was also "a woman of really passionate fibre.... Though Zuleika had never given her heart, strong in her were the desire and the need that it should be given." The problem was that she wanted to adore someone, not just be adored. "And before her all youths always did fall prone." Which brings her thoughts to the Duke of Dorset, "That young equestrian who had not turned to look at her; whom she was to meet at dinner to-night ... was it he?"