Mexico in the Full Light of Day

Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford; drawing by David Levine

Many twentieth-century British travel books and novels about Mexico, including D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927), Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), Evelyn Waugh’s Robbery Under Law (1939), and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), focus on the dark side of Mexican history, in a sense its violent night. But there is another, earlier tradition, much calmer and unfolding in the full light of day. The classic example of this is Life in Mexico by the Marquesa Fanny Calderón de la Barca (a Scotswoman born Frances Erskine Inglis, wife of the first Spanish ambassador to independent Mexico). The book is a collection of letters that Calderón wrote while visiting the country between 1839 and 1842.

It was her reading of Life in Mexico that in 1946 convinced Sybille Bedford to travel to Mexico, where she wrote her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, originally published in 1953 as The Sudden View. In 1956, Bedford published A Legacy, probably the most important of her semiautobiographical novels.* She went on to write three more novels and seven books of nonfiction before her death in 2006, all characterized by her crisp style and surprising turns of phrase.

Born in Germany in 1911, Bedford was educated in England and from the age of fourteen grew up with her mother and stepfather, who moved in the 1920s from Italy to Sanary-sur-Mer, in the South of France. There she became friendly with Aldous Huxley and associated with what she would later call a “galaxy” of German literary figures, among them Thomas Mann, Arnold Zweig, Franz Werfel, and Alma Mahler. Immediately following the outbreak of World War II, her open opposition to the Nazis and the fact of her Jewish ancestry convinced her that she could no longer live in France. Soon after, she left for the United States, where she lived until her journey to Mexico after the end of the war. As she writes at the beginning of A Visit to Don Otavio, “I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible.”

Though A Visit to Don Otavio is basically a traveler’s account of the year she spent in Mexico, in his admiring introduction Bruce Chatwin notes that Bedford thought of it as a novel. “I wanted to make something light and poetic,” she told him. Much of the book recounts short but often eventful trips through cities and towns in the center, south, and west of the country—Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Morelia, Pátzcuaro, and Guadalajara—but the second part, the core of the book, is a somewhat picaresque tale based on a long visit to an old hacienda that she refers to as San Pedro Tlayacán, in the western state of Jalisco, by Bedford and her companion Esther Murphy Arthur…

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