Thursday, September 18, 2008
I've been reading this hilarious novel, first published in 1911. It tells the story of the young Duke of Dorset, an Oxford undergraduate who is also a Knight of the Garter, who falls in love with Zuleika, the niece of the Warden of Judas College. After a desultory career as a governess, moving from family to family as the young men in each household invariably fall wildly and unsuitably in love with her, she steals one such young man’s box of party magic tricks, and establishes herself with great success in the music-hall world. She has never felt love for any of her many conquests, until the Duke of Dorset ignores her on her triumphant entry into Oxford. When, over the course of the next day, it becomes clear that he does in fact love her, she is repelled, and dismisses him, refusing his vast fortune and estates.
In despair, the Duke says he will drown himself for love of her, at which news she is delighted, and wants to make sure only that he will call out her name as he plunges into the river after the boat race. Hundreds of other youths make the same pledge, and the Duke’s attempts to dissuade them to no avail. On the morning of the fateful day, the Duke tries on his Garter robes one last time, and is so captivated by his magnificent appearance in the mirror that he decides to take his last fatal walk in them. Once the boat race is finished, he appears to hesitate before taking the final step, but it starts to rain, and fearing becoming a sorry, soggy, bedraggled lump of heron and ostrich feathers, the Duke plunges in to the river. His Garter mantle floats a while on the surface before finally sinking along with its wearer. Hundreds of other young men similarly drown themselves. We last see Zuleika asking her maid to commission a special train to Cambridge.
The story does so much lovely work for me: it describes the black japanned boxes in which the Garter robes arrive in London, and the "octoradiant star"; it has a scene where the Duke impatiently dresses himself in his robes; and it has this gem of a line: “It was only in those too rarely required robes that he had the sense of being fully dressed.” Beautiful! Fits my theory of the Garter as Derridean supplement: that which is added to the courtly body; but the thing which makes the ungartered body seem incomplete.
I have a folio edition with a few of Beerbohm's illustrations. I've recalled the Baillieu library's copy of the fully illustrated text; and am hoping soon to check out the edition in our rare book collection with Osbert Lancaster's drawings, too.
I love my work!