A Favourite of the Gods is Sybille Bedford’s fifth book and second novel. For a decade now she has been producing volumes that call for exacting standards of critical judgment, and yet by those same standards the novels do not entirely come off. From the first the reviewers paid Miss Bedford the dubious compliment of being able to write like other people. One of them cited James, Meredith, Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly. Meant as praise, the observation is chilling. How could anyone resemble a mixed package like that and still claim an importance? Miss Bedford is often too consciously literary in her technique, but at her best she doesn’t imitate: she uses influences creatively. At such times she is most original and substantial in her achievement, as in her use of the Jamesian heroine as a model for Anna Howland in the present novel.
Nevertheless, the fact that her imagination, in creating characters and directing action, is sometimes inclined to ground itself in literature rather than in lived experience is a distinct limitation. We are constantly coming across explicit references in her text to Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope—less frequently to their French counterparts. There is nothing wrong in this, but one feels these names are so many sirens singing Miss Bedford towards the rocks of over-elaborate plotting: or so many signposts sending her characters off in wasteful directions.
In A Legacy (1956) Miss Bedford was concerned with historic process, but frequent references to memoirs and anecdotal biography tended to reduce to daguerreotype dimensions those aspects of social and political change in late 19th-century Germany that she wished to mirror in the lives of her two families. A Legacy is a real achievement, but one’s final impression of its essential meaning remains blurred. Page for page, Edith Wharton cannot write so brilliantly, but she is able to consolidate the conflicting lines of a complex action into effective unity in a moment of moral illumination. So far Miss Bedford has not succeeded in doing this.
The observation is worth making in relation to Miss Bedford because when she is dealing with facts of observation and experience—when she allows her imagination to play across the human landscape as she knows it, undistracted by the seduction of literary will-o’-the-wisps—her writing exhibits a remarkable moral insight and comprehension. In The Faces of Justice (1961) which is a survey of the law courts in five European countries, beginning with the bearing of a judge on the bench or the inflection of a prisoner in the dock, she can make the tone and quality of a whole national legal tradition explicit and unforgettable. The following passage appears to be merely a bit of casual reporting. In fact it is a piece of masterly selection, obviously reduced to its shocking essentials. In a few lines, and without comment of her own, Miss Bedford has managed to say as much as Victor Hugo about French justice. The indictment is devastating and without …