Zuleika Dobson is 100 this year. Or rather the book about her is (Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story, 1911). She herself, had she ever been more than a figment of the imagination of Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), would have been a decade or two older; she was, after all, the epitome of an Edwardian girl — a flapper even — and Edward VII himself died in 1910.

In the fantasy, a send-up of the world of Oxford just before it changed forever with the coming of the First World War, and then the advent of what Betjeman later called “Motopolis” (namely the car-making industry), all the undergraduates of Oxford fall in love with Zuleika, and commit suicide by drowning in the Isis.

Fantastic of course — after all it is a fantasy — but Beerbohm wrote later in life (1946): “All fantasy should have a solid basis in reality; and to any young readers of the book it may seem that my presentment of Oxford life was a wild infraction of that law. Let me assure them that my fantasy was far more like the old Oxford than was the old Oxford like to the new place now besieged and invaded by Lord Nuffield’s armies."

Max Beerbohm, the son of a well-to-do merchant of Lithuanian descent, came up to Merton College, Oxford, in 1890 from Charterhouse; and there he stayed for five years before finally departing without a degree — but nevertheless having fallen in love with the place. He apparently did little work other than producing a set of caricatures of the dons and writing a famous treatise on cosmetics — containing the memorable one-liner: “Most women are not as young as they are painted.”

At Oxford he made friends with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, whose influence is obvious in Zuleika, both in its prose and its illustrations; and there he cultivated that wry way of looking at the world and its vanities of which he became master. He wrote later: “I was not unpopular [at school] . . . It is Oxford that has made me insufferable.”

Insufferable he was not, however; though witty and perceptive, he was. And modern Oxford, as opposed to the pre-1914 place in which he so much enjoyed wallowing, recognised this in 1945 by giving him a fellowship. Now there is even a small museum dedicated to him at Merton College; somehow typical of Oxford that: Shelley is likewise commemorated with that extraordinary, androgenous-looking statue at University College; and he not only left without a degree but was actually sent down!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing (as they say); but to me, at least, Zuleika, with its mass suicide, seems to presage, almost spookily, the end of a civilisation that the bloody war, just three years down the line, was to bring. (Among those dying in the Isis was the hopelessly enamoured Duke of Dorset, a representative of the past if ever there was one. Previous to the suicide, he remarked: “Death cancels all engagements.”) Former fellow of Merton, Robert Mighall, even suggests in his extraordinarily interesting Afterword in the lovely New Centenary Edition of Zuleika (Collector's Library, £9.99) that Zuleika herself is akin to modern celebrities. She gets under the skin of all those male undergraduates, incidentally, by arriving among them as the granddaughter of the Warden of Judas College — itself probably modelled on Merton, with its dining club, the Junta, in turn modeled on Merton’s real-life Myrmidon Club.

Dr Mighall writes that “Zuleika is of the future”. He adds: “[Max Beerbohm] anticipates an all-too-familiar feature of the contemporary scene: the D-list talent afforded A-list media attention.” He even compares her to Victoria Beckham.