Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford; drawing by David Levine

It’s hard to state with any real confidence the facts about Sybille Bedford, beyond the unignorable fact of her being, at her best, a brilliant and original writer. Her subject has often been herself and her immediate world, but treated with much obliquity, reticence, and fictional license. These are all legitimate habits, or tactics, and discretion is a welcome, if old-fashioned, virtue; but their result is that you rarely know exactly where you stand. You could, for example, read her entire output without ever discovering her name, that is, the name of her family, which she relinquished by making a marriage of convenience in 1936; and it is only in her new memoir, Quicksands, published in her ninety-fifth year, that she satisfies half a century of curiosity about the identity of Mr. Bedford.

Sybille, daughter of a German baron and a flighty English beauty, and resident in the south of France, had had her assets seized by the Nazis, and was unable, and indeed unwilling, to renew her German passport. With the example of W.H. Auden’s marriage to Erika Mann in mind, her friend Maria Huxley saw at once that “we must get one of our bugger friends to marry Sybille” and so provide her with a British passport. It turns out that Terry Bedford was the ex-boyfriend of the butler of “a designer friend” of Aldous Huxley’s, and on the form at the registrar’s office he gave as his occupation “Club Attendant,” a marvelously vague calling. It is symptomatic of Quicksands, which contains much vivid and valuable writing, that we are not told the designer friend’s name.

Perhaps we only feel these frustrations because Bedford was, from the first page of her first book, a writer who excited curiosity. The Sudden View, published in 1953 and later reissued as A Visit to Don Otavio, is an account of an extended journey she made through Mexico in the years (again, she doesn’t say quite which) just after the war. The only facts she vouchsafes about herself are that “I had spent some years in the United States and was about to return to England”; though of course we take away from the book much more about her than that, a clear sense of her mind and preoccupations, her eye (somehow both generous and unsparing), her sense of humor and her sense of injustice, her deep and critical involvement in all matters of food and drink. The book affords the pleasures of the best travel writing, the simultaneous immersion in a foreign culture and a fascinating mind.

Don Otavio is very funny without resorting to any patronizing slapstick about Mexican life, or the inevitable low moments in a long journey through a relatively undeveloped country. Bedford traveled with her friend Mrs. Esther Murphy Arthur, referred to only as “E.”:

E.’s life is history and politics; she used to appear on Radio Forums described as Traveller and Commentator. She detests travelling, or rather she has neither aptitude nor tolerance for the mechanism of actual travel in progress.

E.’s concern for her own comfort and her increasingly skeptical view of Bedford’s more romantic travel projects provide much understated humor. E. is very well informed. Their mutual friend Nancy Mitford described her as “a large sandy person like a bedroom cupboard packed full of information, much of it useless, all of it accurate.” She seems to be that reliably funny thing, a person without a sense of humor. Descending the western Sierra Madre by train at “an exceedingly steep angle,”

“I believe this is a very great engineering feat,” said E. “We had the same problem in the Rocky Mountains. No rail-bed can take that kind of stress long. You remember the Colorado Pass Rail Wreck in ’39?”

At parties, she earnestly pursues sociopolitical topics. Rattled, she remembers who she is: “‘I am an American,’ said E. in an uncertain tone, as though she were practising for her level; ‘I am an American. I will not be pushed around.'” On a visit to a “Secret Convent,” accessible only through tiny hidden doors, that is exactly what she will not be; required to crawl through double-bottomed “sideboards,” the bedroom cupboard draws the line.

In Quicksands, Bedford acknowledges her early debts, as a writer, to Hemingway, Huxley, and Martha Gellhorn, but her tone in Don Otavio, droll, concise, imagistic, but never self-consciously poetic, is impressively her own:

Concert at the Teatro Nacionál. Virtuosi from the USA. The National Orchestra. Brief Bach. Brahms. A contemporary suite, not brief at all, thumping with fiesta motives, failing to do for Mexico what Ravel does for Spain. The public is cosmopolitan provincial, like an afternoon audience at the Casino in Nice. At midnight, more stanzas of the national anthem are played than is usual elsewhere at such occasions. Then we disperse from the stuffy foyer into a remote and silent night, bitter as a night in the desert. On the pavement hundreds of Indios are curled in sleep.

What could one deduce about the writer of such a passage? A person who doesn’t like to waste time, and yet who notices everything; who sees that a mere note is sufficient for one thing, while a sinuous dry joke is best for another. It is an English tone of voice, which pays the reader the social compliment of believing he will hear and share its tremor of irony; but its hint of a possible snobbishness (that “cosmopolitan provincial” audience) is swiftly offset by the sudden view of the cold Mexican night and the shelterless Indios. It is a voice that conveys the author’s openness to experience but also inspires confidence that she knows what she’s talking about. There are reserves of pathos, but they are reserves. This is the talk of a very dry wit whose wit itself seems a guard against any more personal exposure.


As a teenager with ambitions to be an author, Bedford’s prayer was “Make me a writer, but not yet!” It was meticulously answered. She was forty-two when her first book came out. She had had almost no formal education, beyond brief attendance at a village school in southern Germany when her father had fallen on hard times, and extreme economies prevailed at the family Schloss. Her account of this period in Jigsaw, her novelized memoir of 1989, is a masterpiece of her dual method, both a mosaic of vital childhood impressions and a penetrating historical analysis. Later on, when the polyglot Bedford was living with her mother and young Italian stepfather in the south of France, the classic literature she read was mainly French, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, “Flaubert rather than Dickens or Trollope; Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir every year from page one to the end and its unfailing shock; Colette….” Yet when it came to the moment of marrying Terry Bedford she saw that, yes, what she wanted was to be “an English writer.”

Intellectual discipline came from conversations, almost debates, with her mother, whose Fabian ideals and fatalistic view of human suffering lastingly colored her daughter’s mind and work. One must always use the evidence of A Legacy and Jigsaw warily, since they are avowedly novels, but it seems likely that her mother did indeed say to Sybille, “I want your mind—if you turn out to have one—to be concrete and fastidious”—a further prayer that was answered.

Sent to stay, in her adolescence, with a rackety artist and his family in England, Bedford discovered Waugh, the clearest influence, in style and procedure, on Don Otavio and her next book, A Legacy, which have much of Waugh’s economy without his fe-rocity. At the same time, Aldous Huxley became the subject of near idolatry: Antic Hay, Crome Yellow, Lim- bo, the early essays “seemed to bring to me everything I would then have liked to know and think.” When the Huxleys came to live near Sanary, in the south of France, Bedford found herself their neighbor, and in due course their intimate friend. The two-volume biography of Huxley she was later to write owes part of its intense interest to its being a commemoration of this great shaping coincidence in her life. It is a work of scholar-ship but like all her best work has a strong personal note. In Quicksands she mentions three novels rejected by publishers before she was thirty, and gives the outline of one, a fable about a Faustian pact between a young atheist and a sadistic businessman which is totally unlike anything she was actually to publish. There the strong personal note was entirely missing.

When A Legacy was published in 1956, Nancy Mitford sent a copy to Evelyn Waugh, declaring it to be “one of the very best novels I ever read.” Waugh “read it straight through with intense pleasure,” and largely concurred with her verdict, going on to write what he called “a tiny warm notice” in The Spectator. (“We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion. But we gratefully salute a new artist.”) He clearly hadn’t read Don Otavio, but appreciated in particular a quality the new book shares with it, the account of specialized material (in this case German social and political history) made “with an air of authority which compels acceptance.” He and Mitford must have felt, too, a certain kinship with the novel’s knowledgeable evocation of the eccentricities of the rich and titled, as well as with the irony that informs it.

A Legacy is a brave attempt to make artistic shape out of the complicated history of Bedford’s paternal family in the decades leading up to World War I. The shape is a self-consciously modern one, a bundle of fragments, brilliant in themselves, around which a more conventional narrative bow is forcefully, and rather startlingly, tied at the last moment. So multifaceted a book defies easy summary, but its most personal rationale is perhaps to tell the story of Bedford’s father, Julius von Felden in the novel, and of the two marriages he made, neither happy, to beautiful younger women.


The Feldens are from the principality of Baden, in the Catholic south, “old, landed, agreeably off without being in the least rich and of no particular distinction.” Julius has three brothers, one of whom marries the daughter of a scheming Catholic count, while another, sent away to a Prussian military academy, escapes, goes mad, and becomes the subject of an immense public scandal which threatens to bring down Bismarck’s government. These brothers’ stories are indeed handled with “an air of authority” as well as much formal bravura, the latter one surely explaining something about Bedford’s own strong anti-military convictions, but it is really in Julius’s story that the heart of the novel lies.

Julius is a connoisseur, collector, and cook, a charming unknowable eccentric who keeps (and disastrously travels with) a family of pet chimpanzees. His first marriage is to Melanie Merz, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, whom he takes away to a life of miserable isolation in Spain and then in the Sologne, in northwestern France:

It is flat, still country of unmoving water and pine-soft ground, a hidden province, unvisited, of serried shallow ponds and scrub enclosed by forest, a water landscape without vistas, the cache of multitudes of small wild harmless animals. The sparse inhabitants raise asparagus and marrows; in many a clearing there stands reflected on the filmy surface of the girdling water-piece the handsome walls of a gentilhommière in disrepair; but the chief sounds throughout these woods are those of frog and duck and hare.

Ah yes, “unvisited,” but not, you feel sure, unvisited by Sybille Bedford. This paragraph itself is the work of a connoisseur, and also, in the view of those vegetables and abundant placid animals, of a cook.

After Melanie’s early death, Julius and their daughter continue to live with the Merzes in their vast Berlin mansion, an arrangement maintained even after his second marriage, to the irresistibly glamorous, brilliant, and dangerous Caroline, the mother of the author (here called Francesca). The evocation of the Merzes, in their amply upholstered philistinism, has all Bedford’s beautiful trenchancy:

No music was heard at Voss Strasse outside the ball-room and the day nursery. They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets…. The Merz’s had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no one besides the family, the doctor and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table.

(That “fourteenth” is a splendid touch, with its reminder of old conventions and superstitions.)

Though conceived largely in negatives, the Merzes, for all their triviality, complacency, and greed (they have enormous extra meals at surprising times of day), are impossible to regard without affection. When late in the book old Grandpapa Merz dies, and Francesca and her mother go in to console the widow, they are observed with a delicate absurdity worthy of A Handful of Dust:

“Here we are all three and none of us has been taught to knit,” my mother said. “I’ve often regretted it. Have you?”

“Knitting is very dull,” said Grandmama.

“It’s not too late for you to learn, duck,” my mother said.

“Too late,” said I.

“Shall we try a hand of demon?” My mother had introduced this briefer game some years ago.

“Not before luncheon, dear,” said Grandmama.

(Demon, it should be said, is a “briefer game” than the Merzes’ favorite Grabuge, “a game played by two people with one hundred and twenty-eight packs every single card of which is a spade. It is a kind of giant demon, an immensely elaborate simple game; and it takes all afternoon.”)

Bedford’s childhood was spent largely with her father, but he died when she was twelve, and it was her mother, Lisa, who was to dominate the rest of her younger life. In Jigsaw she gives an account of Lisa’s second marriage to Nori Marchesani (Alessandro in the novel), the handsome young architect from whom she receives at first the adoration she has always taken as her right; her terrifyingly rapid decline into morphine addiction when she learns of his affairs with other women forms the unforgettable climax to that book. But in A Legacy, Bedford’s generous imaginative coup is to imagine her mother as a young woman, before she herself was born, seen mainly in conversation, much of it analyzed with Jamesian subtlety and penetration. If part of the book’s appeal is its portrait of a world bound by long-perished codes and assumptions, a comedy of historic eccentricity, it is also a decidedly adult book, a reckoning between child and parents where the child is now herself a forgiving but formidable adult.

In a letter to Mitford, franker than his review, Waugh wrote, “I think it was clumsy to have any of the narrative in the first person. The daughter relates things she cannot possibly ever have known as though she were an eye witness.” It is a Jamesian objection, and it has some justice. If Bedford gets away with it in A Legacy, it is because she is palpably assembling a family story in which she will play a part; she is by turns historian and memoirist, as she will later be in her life of Huxley. But Waugh touches on something which will be an abiding small problem in Bedford’s work, that she seems often unable to work out how to tell a story, that is, where to tell it from.

This is plainest in her next two, much lesser novels, A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and its sequel, A Compass Error (1968). A Favourite of the Gods is indeed a dismayingly bad book, in which Bedford seems to reveal herself as being all the things we had specially prized her as not being, snobbish, smug, and humorless. “Hardly one joke,” Mitford complained to Waugh, who professed himself “bitterly disappointed” by it. It begins in the first person, with a fictionalized memory, from the daughter’s point of view, of the seminal scene in which her mother, this time called Constanza, arrives by train in the south of France and gets off almost capriciously at Sanary (where the real mother was to spend the rest of her life). But then it lurches back into the grandmother’s history, and then into that of the irresistibly favored mother. The title itself perhaps gives warning of what Bedford herself calls the “highbrow Mills & Boon” color of this novel.

To Mitford, it was astonishing that this “tough little person & ferocious Lesbian, always dressed as a motor racer, should choose to write about an age of elegance, beautiful Princess, unfaithful (but fond at heart) Prince & so on.” Is it coincidental that this is the one book in which, aside from the archetypal figure of the mother, she strays furthest from actual history, her own and her family’s? Does an element of fantasy account for its earnestness, the loss of that vigilant ironizing wit that is her distinction? Maybe she just is, as Kingsley Amis said of Waugh himself, “a marvellous writer, but one of a sort peculiarly likely to write a bad book at any moment.” It is a relief to know that she was never to do it again.

A Compass Error is a tauter and more focused, if still fairly solemn, affair, evidently steeped in the light and emotion of Bedford’s own youth in the south of France. It contains a lesbian relationship between Constanza’s teenage daughter Flavia (now a third-person character) and an older woman clearly based on Renée Kisling, the wife of the Polish painter Moïse Kisling, who figures prominently in Jigsaw. One is glad that Bedford should have written openly, and with a proper lack of fuss, about this central but otherwise only glancingly acknowledged aspect of her life; but it is still hard to forgive the book’s hopeless organization. The fifty-two-page chapter (“A Night”) in which Flavia, in bed with Therese, tells her the story of her mother’s life in the tones of an omniscient adult is one of the least plausible feats of narration since Conrad’s Marlow wound up his tale of a journey to the Congo. Still, all these forcings and awkwardnesses seem at some level expressions of Bedford’s admirable and insatiable struggle to make artistic sense of her life.

Jigsaw, firmly if imponderably labeled “A Biographical Novel,” is actually her closest approach to autobiography. To be sure there is the detailed conversation of a novel, the menu recall (“we began with a platter of fruits de mer…, followed by quenelles de brochets as light as feathers, then some dindonneaux…roasted unstuffed in butter,” etc.) that would surely be beyond even the keenest gourmet fifty years on. There are name changes, other reticences, and elisions. But the fundamental character of the book, its straightforward progress from earliest memories up to adulthood, its unsteady tempo, the authenticating oddity and richness, perhaps above all the tone, of a highly intelligent old person talking, in vivid assertions and asides, glancing or impatient verbless sentences—all these things have the personal stamp of memoir. Jigsaw was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, and it would have been interesting to hear the deliberations of the judges about a book so little shaped by the formal preoccupations of a novelist (the prize went to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a book that very evidently was).

Jigsaw is the book in which Bedford gives the clearest expression to her love of the south of France, a love both practical and almost sacred for the “clarity of the mornings, the stillness of the sun-struck monochrome noons, the magic of the scented nights.” Temperamentally, it is her landscape, and the life to be led there, in its complementary austerity and luxuriance, was the perfect one for a high-principled sybarite. In her memoir, Quicksands, she writes hauntingly about her love of Rome, and describes the quirky, sexy freedom of her penurious writer’s life there. But it is Sanary she seems most to have hankered for in a long and peripatetic existence. It is the most likely setting for her conception of the good life.

A concordance to her work would have a sizable entry under the word “good”: good trees, good evenings, good local wines, good fireplaces, good jobs; good china, good soap, good soup; a good room, a good past, a good sauternes. It is a word that can rankle slightly, with its assertion of unexplained values; though in general she uses it as the acknowledgment of a blessing. In France “pleasure in good living was inherited, instinctive; rarely gross, never snobbish,” she says. And when in Don Otavio she hazards a definition of the good life, “to live at peace within a pattern and at the same time expand awareness and enlarge the world by letting down the separations between man and man, the unseen and the seen,” we gain a larger sense of what has been her guiding philosophy.

Quicksands takes a very different formal approach to memoir, starting “in the middle,” in 1953, and then zig-zagging back and forth in an experimental attempt to catch the movement of memory. The zigzags, it must be said, go rather more back than forth. Hers is a memory still magnetized by her early life. Scenes from Don Otavio, A Legacy, Jigsaw, and the Huxley biography are revisited, sometimes in expanded, sometimes in contracted, form. There is good new material about her friendship with Martha Gellhorn, and about the cluster of distinguished émigrés living in Sanary in the 1930s, most eminently Thomas Mann, caught in a marvelous sentence of slowly disclosed purpose:

Thomas, the fulcrum of it all, accepted in a remote, stiffly pompous, not entirely unhumorous way, the friends—promising, neurotic, vacillating between worship and rebellion—his elder children kept bringing in.

In general the tone is less feline, more personal and staccato: “For Oriane, still perilously acting out her extra-marital intrigues, Pierre was her pillar for life. Companion, protector. Of course she loved him. In her fashion; don’t we all?” You sense the hurry, impatience even, of an old woman to get things down, and the digressive pull of competing memo-ries and ironic reflections. Sometimes you feel she could have tried a bit harder: “We were much attached to Jane Bowles, an angelic, witty, suicidal imp, with a profile that recalled Rimbaud” is the sum total of what she has to say about that fascinating fellow writer.

There is still a good deal of reticence and elision. Names are still being changed or withheld, though not without a sense that camouflage may make another kind of candor possible. Still, could we not by now be told the name of the writer, the “Danish Maupassant,” with whom her mother had an affair? He died in 1916…. She describes the surprising beginning of her own happy affair with Evelyn Gendel, a married friend; she shows herself, with positively teasing discretion, returning from amorous trysts in Rome. She refers to another lover merely as “my painter.” There are warm tributes to her “guardian angel” Allanah Harper, to E. (still unnamed), to other friends and protectors. But the last chapters are the most tantalizing of all. Readers who had hoped for an account of the half-century after 1953, the years of her life as a professional writer, will have to make do with a few summary paragraphs of the story she knows she now will never write. They fill one with sadness, but also with gratitude, for the account she has already given of a free life in a catastrophic century.

This Issue

August 11, 2005