Places: Zuleika Dobson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1911

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Oxford

*Oxford. Zuleika DobsonCity that is home to one of England’s great universities. Max Beerbohm was educated at public school and Oxford University, and his familiarity with the city and the establishment of which it was a part is clearly shown in Zuleika Dobson. As a city, Oxford is not described in much detail in the novel. General references to “the Corn” (Cornmarket Street), “the Broad” (Broad Street), and other landmarks assume that the reader is familiar with the city and satirize assumptions made in other novels about Oxford. Beerbohm exploits this vagueness when he inserts a fictional college into the genuine layout of the city and moves two streets without unduly disturbing its geography. However, even the “real” Oxford of his novel is somehow unreal, as the omniscient narrator recognizes when he describes the warden’s landau moving “through those slums which connect Oxford with the world.”

There is a constant emphasis on the world within the world: the university as a second city within the city; the college within the university; and, finally, at Judas College, the hidden quadrangle, the Salt Cellar, within the college itself. There is no world portrayed outside the city: The closest the reader comes to that is at Oxford railway station, which acts as a symbol of arrival and departure, or the river, which flows out of Oxford. All this is embedded within an iconic vision of Oxford, the “city of dreaming spires.” This provides a neat geographical metaphor for the self-absorption shown in various ways by the primary characters, each of whom is too self-contained to be able to engage properly with the world at large.

Judas College

Judas College. Fictional Oxford college that lies somewhere beyond Broad Street. Zuleika Dobson’s connection to Oxford is through her grandfather, the warden of this college. Founded by Christopher Whitrid Knight, in the reign of Henry VI, its dedication to the disciple who betrayed Jesus could only belong to a fictional college. Most Oxford colleges have a reputation of one kind or another, and Beerbohm here implies that Judas is the least worthy of colleges. Like most colleges, Judas is a self-contained world, but Beerbohm suggests that even by Oxford standards it is remote and cites an episode of its history when sixty armed men hid within Salt Cellar, its most secret quadrangle, for a month before their presence was betrayed by the warden of that time. The current warden of Judas is thoroughly unworldly and remains mostly aloof, even from the life of his own college.

Zuleika lives in the warden’s lodgings during her stay at Oxford, further underlining her family’s dislocation from the university, the town, and the town’s residents. The reader sees her in her room, leading a fairy-tale existence in which she is waited on, hand and foot, by her maid, while all her possessions, however inappropriately, are ornamented with jewels. The duke of Dorset, a distinguished member of the college, chooses to live in ordinary lodgings in Broad Street, in the belief that this brings him into closer contact with the “town,” but in truth, he is no closer to the townsfolk than he would be if he lived at the college, as he is waited on by the landlady, Mrs. Batch, and her daughter Katie, in exactly the same way as he would be looked after at the college. His contact with the city is limited to dealing with tradesmen. Otherwise the reader encounters him in the streets only in the company of other students.

*River Thames

*River Thames (tehmz). England’s longest river, which runs through Oxford. The climax of the novel takes place on the Thames during rowing competitions. It is here that Oxford’s students throw themselves into the river at the end of the final race, emulating the duke of Dorset, who has sworn to drown himself for love of Zuleika. The river provides a symbolic and literal means of escape from Oxford and, by extension, life itself, the two having been equated throughout the novel, particularly in a scene earlier in the novel, when the duke, temporarily “sent down” from Oxford, is accompanied to the railway station by a mock-funeral procession (a not-uncommon practice in Oxford until just after World War II).

BibliographyBehrman, S. N. Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. New York: Random House, 1960. Written by an old friend of Beerbohm, the book sheds light on the characters in Zuleika Dobson that were modeled on acquaintances.Felstiner, John. The Lies of Art: Max Beerbohm’s Parody and Caricature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. Examines Beerbohm’s extravagance, wit, and style, all of which culminate in Zuleika Dobson. Draws comparisons between Zuleika Dobson and James Joyce’s Ulysses in their extravagant use of language. Traces other literary influences on Beerbohm.Lynch, Bohun. Max Beerbohm in Perspective. New York: Haskell House, 1974. A critical look at Beerbohm’s work, which takes issue with the form and execution of Zuleika Dobson. Examines the satirical aspects of Beerbohm’s depiction of Oxford.McElderry, Bruce R. Max Beerbohm. New York: Twayne, 1972. The best book with which to begin a study of Max Beerbohm. Gives close scrutiny to the role of Oxford in Zuleika Dobson and examines the episodic form of the novel and the interludes that punctuate the action of the story.Riewald, J. G. Sir Max Beerbohm, Man and Writer: A Critical Analysis with a Brief Life and Bibliography. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1953. The first and perhaps the best longer critical study of Beerbohm. In an extended criticism of Zuleika Dobson, Riewald examines distortions of space and time in the work and makes a case for its being a fantasy rather than a novel.
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