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 appeal:
“Very well,” says the judge. “You were found sitting inside a Renault motorcar which you were intending to drive away and steal.”
The boy says, “I was tired, I tried the handle, it was open, I got inside to sleep.”
“You have had four previous convictions for theft,” says the judge.
“I swear I didn’t mean to steal the car, I only wanted to sleep.”
“You were found sitting in the driver’s seat,” says the judge. “Why?”
“You were found sitting behind the wheel. Why? Why were you sitting behind the wheel? Why?”
“But I can’t drive.”
“These denials will do you no good.”
“I can’t drive, I swear I can’t, I’ve never driven a car…please find out it’s true I can’t drive—“
“Eight months,” says the judge.
The boy looked simply horrorstruck, incredulous—the guards bundled him out.
Probably the most accomplished example of character portrayal in one of Miss Bedford’s books occurs not in a novel but in her travel book on Mexico, A Sudden View (1953). The aristocratic young Mexican, Don Otavio, is more fully realized, created, than most of her fictional characters. His surfaces, so beautifully rendered in Miss Bedford’s prose, are very rich indeed:
…at a quarter past, Don Otavio’s valet bearing in his arms Don Otavio’s female Maltese terrier curled and decked out with a large satin bow…. At half past ten, Don Otavio issues from the house, splendid like the moon, all in white silk, his silvery hair brushed upwards, a Charvet tie over his holy medals, bearing nothing.
Successful as this is as a visual portrait, the real fineness of Miss Bedford’s presentation of Don Otavio is a more subtle matter. He is not a complex character, and the occasion is naturally not one for psychological probing. Don Otavio is the fine flowering of a unique cultural situation—a milieu the distinctive coloring and fragrance of which he almost exquisitely embodies. The skill with which Miss Bedford reveals the values of the provincial Mexican aristocracy through Don Otavio, and explains Don Otavio (who is obviously a sport) through his society to which he only partly conforms, is properly the skill of a highly qualified novelist.
My point in going back to these earlier books before discussing A Favourite of the Gods is to suggest that Miss Bedford is indeed richly endowed with a novelist’s gifts. She has not only a rare appreciation of the physical surfaces of human beings—she is capable of understanding their inner workings with a certain fineness. She knows how to relate them to their social and cultural contexts, and to each other. Most of all, she knows how to work creatively in moral values, and her sense of what constitutes those values seems to me right. Why then do, her novels (as opposed to her non-fiction) fail to be completely successful? I have already said that when she writes a novel she appears to forget human models, or to bear them in mind only fitfully. Her imagination wanders too much in the literary tradition she loves, and instead of always going to it for instruction she is sometimes capable of going to it in mere indulgence, and it shows.
A Favourite of the Gods is not a successful novel, but with the exception of the prologue the first half is the best fiction Miss Bedford has written up to the present. Before discussing this part of the book it will be well to dispose of the prologue and the second half—which is the part its publishers seem to prefer. We have this description on the dust-jacket:
One autumn in the late 1920’s, a beautiful woman boards a train on the Italian Riviera. Her name is Constanza, and she is en route for Brussels and a new marriage. With her is her young daughter, Flavia…. An odd, almost meaningless, incident interrupts their journey, and Constanza makes a seemingly abrupt and casual decision that changes the entire course of their lives.
No serious novel can be described in soap opera terms like that, but the prologue possibly offers some justification. The incident referred to is the disappearance or theft of a ruby ring that an Indian Prince had once given to the Italian Prince, Constanza’s father. This prologue is less “literary” than “Hitchcock”—it is a little reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes.
The prologue belongs with the second half of the book, dominated by Constanza. Constanza’s mother, the New England heiress Anna Howland, is the center of the first half, and it is she alone in whom it is possible to be critically interested. She is the only completely realized character in the book, a fine example of how a serious novelist can use a literary influence intelligently and constructively.
Everybody knows that James is a dangerous influence for a writer, but Miss Bedford has won all the risks with Anna. No direct imitation is involved, and the kind of literary indulgence spoken of earlier is not in question here. One would guess that Miss Bedford’s experience of values and people had been similar to James’, but it is about the possibilities of social comedy that she has learned most from him. Her wit is not epigrammatic as James’ is in, say, The Bostonians or The Portrait of a Lady, the laughter it raises is scarcely audible—but the humor is a matter of high intelligence and a real strength in the earlier chapters.
Miss Bedford builds Anna up with painstaking care. She makes her into a woman not only rich for the requirements of fine social comedy but, against her background, absolutely credible:
The white and columned house Anna was brought up in was not only architecturally full of grace, it was charming inside and had comforts and refinements such as she did not find again in her future life until she managed to introduce them there herself. The elder Howlands were liberals, Republicans (of course), inclined towards Agnosticism, Darwin, and all of them, men and women, were articulately concerned with the moral and political future of mankind.
This daughter of the Puritans, married to an Italian Prince and converted to Rome, touchingly substitutes a sense of duty for a burning faith—another vein for comedy which is used with skill. It is fitting that long years later, as an elderly woman, Anna should become a member of the anti-Fascist underground. There is nothing strained or melodramatic here as in the case of the vanishing ruby—only a rightness that is morally inevitable.
Confronted with her husband’s wholly conventional (from the Italian point of view) marital infidelity, Anna’s outraged virtue as she flees to London in self-imposed but exceedingly grand exile puts James’ Madame de Mauves to shame. Even so, Anna during her slightly bored Italian years had once played—if ever so diffidently—with the idea of an affair. The following paragraph, if it sounds a little like James’ “The Path of Duty,” is nevertheless an achievement in its own right, showing us social comedy as an expression of moral discernment:
What was not known was that Anna and Sir Charles moved in an exquisite cloud of renunciation. Sir Charles had not attempted to conquer. One day across the tea-table he had declared his hopeless passion, making it quite clear that for people such as they it could be nothing else but that. Anna found it beautiful. Sir Charles told her that she was the love of his life; she was able to tell him that if only the fates had willed it otherwise…. This, they told each other, was all they would ever have, the knowledge of each other’s feeling. For a time they were very happy. They continued to address each other as Sir Charles and Principessa even in private and they were proud of this. Anna became convinced that she had missed her life, that in her youth and ignorance she had made a grave mistake, at last and too late she knew the man she should have married. This, then, was her secret, the key to herself. She bore it nobly. It gave extra point to her whole situation, focused discontents that might have stirred, and she was able to pursue the serene bustle of her existence with an added glow.
The resolution of this affair at a hotel in the Dolomites is delightfully funny, but it moves from the world of James towards The Merry Wives of Windsor.
By the time Constanza, who as a little girl has been dragged to London with Anna on her flight to a purer air, has reached maturity, the vividness of the novel has begun to fade. Constanza is adequately drawn, her conception is not inept. But surely Terence Rattigan could have done her as well. Miss Bedford seems to lose interest, and so do we. Even the character of the writing changes. Background is sketched in with an almost Dreiserian externally.
As Constanza rather than Anna is the central character, the moral meaning of Anna is siphoned off into a vessel that is both shallow and leaky, and the whole thing seems to end nowhere. Constanza’s daughter Flavia is just able to carry her own small weight, and the explanation for that vanishing ruby is pretty dull. It is well to stop reading at the half-way mark. In that case one is left with a first-rate fragment and a sense of Miss Bedford’s gifts as a novelist that she deserves.
For in addition to those achievements I have already described, Miss Bedford writes beautifully. She always has. As occasion demands, she can write a prose that is spare, supple and functional; or elegantly witty; or visually luminous. Her literary indebtednesses have been stressed here, but I know no writer whose style has profited so wonderfully from painting. The late F.O. Matthiessen once praised a scene from The Ambassadors because James was able to describe an omelette aux tomates that Strether and Mme. de Vionnet were sharing as if Renoir had painted it. But behind a passage like this from A Legacy one feels the very spirit of Impressionism itself:
Luncheon was laid on bare pink marble under a trellis of mulberry.
There was a loaf of butter on a leaf, the bread was on a board; there was a dish of lemons and there were wooden mills for black pepper and grey pepper and the salt; the china was eighteenth-century Moustier and the wine stood undecanted, in a row of thick green cool unlabelled bottles…. Below the olive trees they could see the valley, the linear terraced hills, and the other slope, soft again, in full sunlight now, feathery with mimosa.