The “murder trial of the century,” as it was described by The Times of London, opened on March 18, 1957, in Court Number One of the Old Bailey. Dr. John Bodkin Adams stood accused of lethally injecting Mrs. Edith Alice Morrell with an overdose of heroin and morphia; rumor had it that he had dispatched several hundred other patients in the same way, having first ensured that he would benefit from their legacies. Watching from the gallery was Sybille Bedford, the forty-six-year-old author of an idiosyncratic travelogue about Mexico called The Sudden View (1953) and a novel of Jamesian sensibility called A Legacy (1956).* The trial of Dr. Adams would become the subject of her third book, published in the UK as The Best We Can Do (1958) and in the US as The Trial of Dr. Adams (1959).
Her aim, Bedford said, was to give a “minute by minute” account of the court proceedings, tracking the casuistry and twists of the arguments. This would allow her to furnish her reader not only with “all the evidence and nothing but the evidence, but also the manner in which it was given.” The book begins, accordingly, with the appearance from a “side-door” of the judge, “an ermined puppet progressing weightless along the bench.” Over in the dock, “spherical, adipose, upholstered in blue serge, red-faced, bald,” stands the prisoner. The jurors, like well-trained sheep, shuffle into their rows and take their oaths, after which the room falls into silence while the principal participants rise to their feet. “You will hear,” the defense barrister informs the jury,
that these drugs if administered over a period result in a serious degree of addiction to them, a craving for them, a dependence on them…The Doctor was the source of supply. Did not Mrs Morrell become dependent upon him?
Outside on the Strand, the press and public are discussing the bequests (including a silver Rolls-Royce) left to the doctor in 132 of his patients’ wills. The case of Dr. Adams, noted Bedford, was dogged by “extra-mural half-knowledge,” such that “everyone knows a bit too much and no one knows quite enough.”
Bedford, whose life was peripatetic and unstable, had long been attracted to the “rigidities” of the court and the rituals by which the truth was established:
A tale is unfolded, step by step, link by link. Nothing is left unturned and nothing is taken for granted. The members of the jury listen. They hear the tale corroborated, and they hear it denied; they hear it pulled to pieces and they hear it put together again; they hear it puffed into thin air and they hear it back as good as new. They hear it from the middle, they hear it sideways and they hear it straight; they all but hear it backward again through a fine toothcomb.
This same process describes the tale of Bedford’s own life as it unfolds through her fiction and nonfiction, and unfolds again in Selina Hastings’s biography. Bedford’s subject was her past: her conception, her childhood, her teens, the process of her own becoming. A Legacy, in which she imagined her paternal heritage, introduces her parents and lightly fictionalizes their courtship: “In a sense this is my story,” the narrator reflects. “I do not know a time when I was not imprinted with the experiences of others.” The sources for A Legacy were rumors, gossip, “the indiscretions of tutors and servants, the censures of nannies, the dinner-table talk of elderly members of a stepfamily-in-law….”
This half knowledge was the soil in which Bedford’s imagination grew. Her next two novels, A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and A Compass Error (1968), corroborate, deny, and build on her family research, step by step; her fourth and final novel, Jigsaw (1989), comes at it straight; and in her memoir Quicksands (2005), we are told the whole thing again, this time backwards. Few writers have returned so repeatedly to the scene of the crime.
It is not surprising that a description of a trial should double as an account of her own oeuvre, because Bedford, who would have trained as a barrister had women been able to do so, thought of her writing in legal terms. “If a lawyer’s mind,” she once said, “means an ability to grasp facts and their implications, a gift of exposition and a willingness to see the other side, then a lawyer’s mind is an asset indeed for any writer.” As an autobiographer she aimed to “do…justice,” as she put it, to those whose lives she was recalling, and as a biographer she saw herself, as she wrote in her life of Aldous Huxley, as “an artist upon oath.”
Hastings’s approach to Bedford’s biography is similarly judicial. She enters her subject’s life through a side door, puts her witnesses in the box, and hears the evidence for and against Bedford’s literary merit. There will be no questions from the judge’s bench about Bedford’s politics, lesbianism, or antifeminism, no close readings of character or text, no analysis of motive. The biographer’s task is to preside over the rituals by which the truth is formally established by presenting, without prejudice, a full range of critical opinion. We will, accordingly, hear everyone’s verdict on Bedford except Hastings’s.
The Best We Can Do, Bedford’s account of the Adams case, is her best book. (“Heaven bless you, Mrs. Bedford,” said Dorothy Parker in an article for Esquire.) It is also the least known, and the only one not now in print. As stylish as Diana Trilling and as perspicacious as Janet Malcolm, Bedford treads entirely new ground. The courtroom drama is thrillingly paced, but equally gripping are the almost crazed concentration of the writer in the gallery and her investment in—even identification with—the defendant. “I’ve not had such a feeling,” Bedford revealed to a friend when the trial began, “of having come across the right material for myself for a long time.”
Precisely what she meant by this would become apparent thirty years later when Jigsaw, her “biographical novel,” was published. Around 1930 Bedford’s mother, we learn in that book, while in the care of another unscrupulous doctor, also became fatally addicted to morphine. Aged nineteen, Sybille would scour the pharmacies to procure the drug that she then administered to her mother three times a day, sterilizing the needle and syringe in a saucepan of water boiled over a spirit lamp in the bedroom. “It is not something one likes doing,” she confessed. “I recognised it as unavoidable and minded every time.”
Hastings does not connect these two morphine tales, but the evidence is plain to see: Bedford had a good deal invested in the trial of Dr. Adams. This may explain her bizarre belief that the doctor was innocent of murder.
Bedford’s own destiny, like that of Denton Welch or Henry Green, is to be both underread and overpraised. She has found her home in the school of nostalgia: bohemian families, remote hereditary titles, precarious bank balances, and lost worlds. While her books were autobiographical, her life was novelistic: Sybille von Schoenebeck, born in Charlottenburg, Germany, in 1911, knew “from the age of three” that she was destined to write. Her father, Baron Maximillian von Schoenebeck, lived off his inheritance and those of his wives, the first of whom died young. His second wife, Lisa, who was Sybille’s mother, was the daughter of a prominent Jewish merchant from Hamburg. Bedford’s parents were dark and handsome: her father was known as “le beau Max,” and her mother would rarely be mentioned by her daughter without reference to her great beauty.
Sybille, who was short, plump, and blond, must have considered herself a changeling. Her birth was not welcome: Max wanted a son, and Lisa a divorce. “You were very sweet as a baby,” her mother explained when Sybille was old enough to understand, “but you’re going to be very, very dull for a very long time—perhaps ten or fifteen years. We’ll speak then, when you’ve made yourself a mind.” In 1919 Lisa walked out on the marriage, and for the next six years Max and Sybille muddled along together in a gloomy château in the town of Feldkirch, on the border between Germany and France.
Without Lisa’s fortune they became “the new poor”: the servants were dismissed; the rooms containing Max’s collections of Gothic and Renaissance bric-a-brac were shut up; the baron and his daughter removed themselves to the top floor. Bitter and remote, Max was not an easy companion, but Sybille retained happy memories of her Feldkirch years. Her father introduced her to gourmet food, which they both took very seriously, and to wine, which became—along with women, cars, cuisine, and jurisprudence—one of the great passions of her life. Every evening he would send her down to the cellar to select the bottle for the next day; he then showed her how to cut the seal, draw the cork, wipe the neck, pronounce the name on the label, and sniff and twirl the glass before taking her first mouthful. Over supper he would tell her about his family, tales that formed the basis of A Legacy. So their lonely life continued until, aged fourteen, Sybille was summoned to join Lisa for a year in Italy. Shortly before she was supposed to leave, Max fell ill, and she never saw him or the château again: “My strange, defeated, formal father vanished. This was indeed the point of no return: my father’s lightning death.”
Her mother, Bedford wrote, was “the one character I wished to keep minor,” but this proved impossible. Born to take center stage, Lisa dominates Bedford’s novels: she is the dazzling Caroline in A Legacy, the dazzling Constanza in A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error, the dazzling figure known as “my mother” in Jigsaw. It is Sybille who became a minor character in her own life. Lisa had remarried shortly before being handed custody of her daughter; her new husband was Nori Marchesani, an Italian in his late twenties who “looked,” thought Sybille, “as though he had stepped out of a Renaissance canvas.” Sybille described herself and her stepfather as “two brothers” who danced attendance on their queen. The triumvirate wandered around mainland Italy, Sicily, and Capri until Sybille, who had just turned fifteen, was sent to be educated in England. No particular school had been selected, but having once met an English couple at a hotel, Lisa now sent her daughter to live with them.
Because Bedford paints herself as stoical and self-sufficient, it takes an effort of imagination to realize how unmoored she must have felt in the London of the 1920s. A German who had quarreled with her country, she had no home, few belongings, and no particular language. Her horror of abandonment came later; for now, she decided that English would be “the rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multilingualism.” Living for the first time in English, she managed (neither Bedford nor Hastings reveals how) to acquire an impeccable Oxford accent: there would be no distinguishing Sybille from the English upper classes. England amused her, despite being composed of “parlourmaids, icy bedrooms, [and] sodden vegetables,” with no wine or motorcars in sight. Let loose in London, she discovered the National Gallery, the Tate, and—most important—the Royal Law Courts; she made friends with two German sisters who introduced her to the novels of Aldous Huxley, soon to become her favorite writer, and during the holidays she returned to Europe to see Lisa and Nori, who had settled in the French fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer, between Toulon and Marseille.
She was always drawn by the power of place, and Sanary, like Feldkirch, became for Bedford an arcadia. This was the stage on which her rites of passage took place. Her first crush was on a belle dame sans merci named Jacqueline Mimerel, who was another version of Lisa; Jacqueline’s dashing husband, Pierre, was accordingly described by Sybille as a father figure. Her sexual initiation, however, was with a married woman named Renée Kisling, who made love to her, she said, “in a manner compounded of protectiveness, sensuality and great ease.” Bedford always associated sexual intimacy with maternal love. Meanwhile, her swain-like devotion to Jacqueline—kissing her hand, opening her car door, carrying her shopping—ignited Lisa’s disdain, and she dispatched her daughter back to England with orders to return when she was “in a more reasonable mood.” “Don’t go about thinking of yourself as a doomed Baudelairean pervert,” Lisa warned, “burdened by the love that dare not speak its name.”
When she returned in June 1930 she had become the perfect gentleman: short-haired and straight-backed, with the brisk walk of a guards officer, Bedford had adopted a uniform of shirt, trousers, and neckerchief. Passing around her father’s gold cigarette case, she was ready, as she put it, to “spring up to offer a light to any woman as soon as she put cigarette to mouth.” Nori, meanwhile, had fallen in love with another woman, and Lisa, in her despair, had discovered a doctor named Joyeu and become rapidly dependent on his liberal prescriptions of morphine. Referred to by Bedford as Dr. Lugubre, Joyeu, unlike Dr. Adams, at least looked the part of the murderer: “Gaunt as a starving horse, yellow-faced with darkly ringed, sunken eyes and a few strands of flat black hair.” Under his care, Lisa became what Nori called “the hole into which everyone sinks,” and he and Sybille longed to be free of her: “We felt murderous,” Bedford wrote in Jigsaw.
They also had new neighbors: by an astonishing coincidence, Aldous Huxley had moved to Sanary with his wife, Maria. Like Thomas De Quincey’s first meeting with Wordsworth, Sybille’s introduction to the Huxleys would become a set piece in her writing. Enormously tall and nearly blind, Huxley was “sitting on a red-tiled floor, grasshopper legs neatly disposed, amidst piles of books he was trying to cram into a rotating cage.” Maria, it became apparent, acted not only as her husband’s eyes—driving him in her Bugatti, typing his manuscripts, reading aloud—but also as his ears: everything of interest that she heard in conversation was passed back as filling for his novels.
The Huxleys had moved to the South of France three months earlier in order to be close to D.H. Lawrence, who was ill with tuberculosis; he died in Maria’s arms within a week of their arrival. Bedford, who would write an account of the Lady Chatterley trial, rarely mentions how important Lawrence was to her; he was her precursor in Oedipal autofiction and global wandering. Having taken care of Lawrence, Maria now took care of Sybille. “The Huxleys took me on,” as Bedford put it. They also took on Lisa, arranging for her to see a specialist and then paying the costs of her treatment. After that they arranged, when Sybille’s German passport became a problem because of her Jewish ancestry, her marriage to one of their “bugger” friends, Walter Bedford, a London cloakroom attendant, thus enabling her to change her name and escape to America during the war.
No sooner was her mother admitted to a clinic than Sybille embarked on the slow self-torture that would be her writing life. Her first novel, watered-down Huxley, was described by Huxley himself as “bad, empty” and lacking in “significance.” She produced two further novels in her twenties, both rejected by publishers; the latter was summed up in a reader’s report as “the work of somebody who, whatever else she may be, is certainly not a professional writer and certainly not a novelist.” It would be nearly twenty years before she had the courage to try again.
Bedford found in the Huxleys an alternative parental model. Huxley, like her father, was inaccessible, while Maria, unlike Lisa, was devoted to the care of others. Life, Bedford now learned, could be lived “rationally, sensuously, well.” Both Aldous and Maria took lovers; on occasion they took the same lover. “In a very subtle way,” Bedford explained in her biography of Huxley, Maria “prepared the ground” for her husband’s extramarital relationships: “It was a measure of…the great niceness that there was between them.” The extent of Huxley’s voracious sexual appetite is not revealed by Bedford, thus undermining her claim that the biographer “is an artist upon oath,” but Hastings confirms that Bedford herself began a long affair with Maria in 1930, while Huxley and Lisa enjoyed their own liaison; one wonders if Huxley and Bedford did not also at some point find their way to the bedroom. Either way, everything was conducted with the detachment that characterized Huxley’s emotional life. “I doubt that Aldous,” one of his girlfriends reflected, “is capable of love.” And was Bedford capable of love? “I cannot really love my lovers,” she said. “There IS something false about a relationship between two women. At least for me.”
But from then until her death, in 2006, Bedford’s hunger for love was insatiable. We are introduced by Hastings to Eva, Eda, Esther, Evelyn, Allanah, Annie, Aliette, Jenny, Joan, Laura, Natalia, Poppy, Patricia, Rosamund. The entrances and exits are dizzying and the script is always the same: a dramatic falling in love followed by a cooling-off period and a lasting friendship. Bedford did not reflect on her lesbianism—“One’s tastes are private. It’s bad enough (in some ways) to be oneself”—and her biographer follows suit.
Having long described herself as a writer, Bedford was forty-two before The Sudden View was published, in 1953. Her subject was Mexico, but the preoccupations were pure Bedford: “I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, to eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past, and as little present history as possible.” The book was produced under pressure: without firm deadlines, her Remington remained silent. Few writers have agonized over the blank page as much as Bedford did: “I sit before my hostile typewriter and sicken before the abnormal effort. What is this blight I have suffered from all my life that makes trying to write…such tearing, crushing, defeating agony.” The blight, we suspect, was the ghost of Lisa, who died in 1937 having similarly believed she had a great book in her. Having stolen her mother’s vocation, Bedford now turned her into a great literary character.
Her reputation was established by the three books of the 1950s: Bedford was fresh and sensuous, with a good eye for detail. A Legacy was lauded by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, subjects of Hastings’s earlier biographies. The first sign that Bedford was stuck in her family romance was the appearance in 1963 of A Favourite of the Gods. What was curious, as Mitford put it to Waugh, was “that this tough little person & ferocious Lesbian, always dressed as a motor racer should choose to write about an age of elegance.” But everything about Bedford’s writing was curious, not least the semipermeable boundary between fact and fiction. The introductions and afterwords she produced for new editions of her work suggest that she knew what she was up to artistically, though when she described A Favourite as the first of her novels not to rely on autobiographical material, it seems that the novelist in Bedford had gotten lost in a fog.
Aldous Huxley: A Biography (1973), which took six years to produce and induced a breakdown of sorts, was written in what Bedford described as the Huxleyan “spirit of detachment.” “I have been entirely candid…about everything,” she wrote in the preface, but this was not true. Bedford expressed none of the frustration with her subject’s intellectual aloofness revealed in her 1942 article on Grey Eminence, Huxley’s biography of Père Joseph. This article, notes Hastings, was the first time that Bedford, as a writer, communicated “in her own voice…. She says exactly what she thinks, deftly summarising the subject as well as offering a perceptive analysis of the author himself.”
That voice is nowhere to be heard in the Huxley biography, a book written in the spirit of excessive attachment: what should have been an intimate portrait of a complex man became a hagiography. “Do loosen up yr tone,” begged one of Bedford’s friends, having read the manuscript, “speak up, forthright & plain. Not Miss Mincy-Mouse. Friendship brings insights, & that’s fine. Make the whole thing human & simple & yrself.” Reviewing Aldous Huxley in the Observer, Philip Toynbee described it as
not only unsatisfactory but almost, at times, repellent…. When Miss Bedford comes to deal with Huxley’s many infidelities to his first wife and Maria’s amused complaisance (at least on the surface), the amused complaisance of Sybille Bedford is an utterly inadequate reaction.
Quicksands, the slippery memoir Bedford wrote when she was in her nineties, is described by Hastings as “tantalisingly elusive,” unfolding “in layers like a complicated puzzle that is never wholly solved.” “Wish I could tell the half of it,” Bedford said. The problem is that she did tell the half of it: the half we already knew. She returned, for the third time, to her meeting with the Huxleys, and for the second time to her mother’s morphine addiction. But once her mother and Maria died and their lodestars were no longer there to guide her, Bedford lost her way as an autobiographer. She had nothing to say about her adult experiences. “The foolish truth,” she now realized, “is that I have never grown up, and did not do so because I always missed having a real mother and father.”
Now that we have heard the whole of it, Bedford emerges as even more elusive than before; the books become less clear and harder to read emotionally. Because Selina Hastings, the spirit of biographical detachment, never says “exactly what she thinks,” the book ends not with her own summing up but with the expert opinion of Brenda Wineapple, Bedford’s friend and a witness to her final years. Sybille, concludes Wineapple, “understood first-hand the burdens of survival,” and she leaves us with the image of an Ancient Mariner, doomed to repeat her tale to every passerby: “There was a child,” quoth she.
The Sudden View was published in the US as A Visit to Don Otavio; for more on that book, see Enrique Krauze, “Mexico in the Full Light of Day,” The New York Review, June 8, 2017. A Visit to Don Otavio, A Legacy, A Favourite of the Gods, A Compass Error, and Jigsaw have recently been reissued by NYRB Classics. ↩