The virgin suicides

The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson

Max Beerbohm, with an introduction by N John Hall <em>Yale Universi

Max Beerbohm disliked illustrated books. "If I cannot see the characters in a novel, then they are not worth seeing," he once wrote. "If I can see them, then any other man's definite presentment of them seems to be an act of impertinence to myself and of impiety to the author." When he came to publish Zuleika Dobson, in 1911, Beerbohm had a clause written into the contract stipulating that no illustrated edition could ever be printed without his consent. Yet, only two months after the book came out, he produced a private edition for friends and family, complete with 80 watercolour illustrations.

This contradiction is typical of a man who adored women, but seldom drew them; who married twice, but may never have consummated either relationship; who was the pre-eminent caricaturist of his age and a respected critic, yet who is remembered chiefly for his one and only novel; who satirised the idiocy of love and lovers in image and word, yet whose own love letters were tepidly conventional.

Born in Kensington in 1872, Beerbohm was the youngest of nine children, the adored son of a cultured and affable businessman from Lithuania (though not Jewish, as is often thought). During his lifetime, he produced 15 volumes of prose and thousands of caricatures. He married twice, had no children, and spent more than half his life in reclusive domesticity in Italy. When he died, in 1956, he was sufficiently famous for his ashes to be buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

It took Beerbohm nearly 15 years to write Zuleika Dobson, and the book has been continuously in print ever since. This new edition from Yale University Press reproduces the author's own vision of an illustrated Zuleika. For the first time, all 80 of Beerbohm's watercolours are included, in exactly the size and positionings of his original edition.

For anyone unfamiliar with the novel, the plot goes thus: Zuleika, a young woman so beautiful that any man who sees her falls helplessly in love with her, goes to Oxford to spend a few days with her grandfather, the warden of Judas College. Led on by the lovesick Duke of Dorset, the undergraduates all vow to die for Zuleika as proof of their devotion, and at the appointed hour, duly hurl themselves into the river and drown. Zuleika, hard-hearted wretch that she is, dries her eyes and catches the next train to - Cambridge!

The whole novel is an extended joke, a robust satire of romantic love, and the absurd things young men and women do in its name. E M Forster hailed the book as "the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time". George Bernard Shaw thought the style "incomparable".

Beerbohm, at his best, is as light, smooth and sharp as a good syllabub, a master of the aphoristic aside - "It is a fact that no man, howsoever graced, can shine in juxtaposition to a very pretty woman"; "The dullard's envy of brilliant men is always assuaged by the suspicion that they will come to a bad end". The humour is at times pure Wodehouse, as after the duke has proposed marriage to Zuleika, and been roundly rejected: "Luncheon passed in almost unbroken silence. Both Zuleika and the Duke were ravenously hungry, as people always are after the stress of any great emotional crisis. Between them, they made very short work of a cold chicken, a salad, a gooseberry tart and a Camembert."

But there is also an underlying darkness to Beerbohm's humour, a vague unpleasantness, which the addition of his illustrations accentuates. Some are charming, all are offbeat, and a few are downright odd. Zuleika's parting gift to the students on the eve of their mass suicide is a display of her conjuring tricks, one of which is to produce a barber's pole from her mouth. The illustration of this episode shows her performing what looks very much like fellatio on a large stick of striped candy. The image is straight-faced, yet at the same time disconcertingly lewd.

In his biography Max Beerbohm: a kind of life (Yale, £16.95), John Hall comments that "Max's contemporaries, while calling his drawings witty, sharp, cruel, wicked, clever and murderous, repeatedly described them also as beautiful." Beautiful? I think not. Beerbohm himself in old age seems to have been a little appalled by his creations. "They are so violent. The distortions are so monstrous and so libellous." Whether you think these illustrations add to the spirit of the novel, or detract from it, is a matter of personal taste. For me, the cream was definitely on the turn.

This article first appeared in the 13 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Gambling with our future