By Selina Hastings
Sybille Bedford is not a household name, but among her coterie of admirers in Europe and America she is held in high esteem. Her reputation rests upon a relatively slim literary output over the course of a long life (1911-2006): notably, four works of fiction (three earlier novels were deemed inferior and remain unpublished), a memoir, books about travel and international legal processes, a biography of her friend Aldous Huxley that is still the definitive one, and sundry journalism. Her first published novel, “A Legacy” (1956), rescued from possible oblivion by Evelyn Waugh’s encomium in The Spectator, has become something of a cult classic. She had limitations as a writer, the most significant being that she really had only one story to tell: that of her own life. But what a life it was! And now here we have it, elegantly related by Selina Hastings, the author of finely wrought, literate biographies of Somerset Maugham, Nancy Mitford and Waugh himself.
Sybille Bedford’s father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, was a melancholy, idle German aristocrat and her mother, Lisa Bernhardt, a gifted but narcissistic daughter of a rich Hamburg businessman. Billi, as Sybille was nicknamed, passed her first few years in a schloss near the Black Forest. As World War I progressed and the middle-aged Maximilian left to rejoin the army, she was sent to stay with the wealthy Jewish family of his first wife in Berlin, a ménage the novelist portrayed unforgettably: The family members, “sunk in upholstery and their own corpulence … lived contentedly in a luxurious cocoon, an existence that was wholly centered on their own domestic comfort. … [They] never went to the theater, looked at pictures or listened to music; they cared nothing for books. … They took no exercise and practiced no sport. … They did not go to shops. Things were sent to them on approval, and people came to them for fittings.”
Needless to say, this lifestyle did not survive the disastrous end of the war and the empire, and the whole extended family soon became what Bedford called “the new poor.” Her parents, always uncomfortable together, split up and Lisa remarried a kind Italian man almost 15 years her junior, Nori. With the rise of Fascism in Italy, Nori, Lisa and Billi in 1926 moved on to the South of France. Late one evening, having missed their train connection to Biarritz, the trio decided to spend the night in Sanary-sur-Mer, the little fishing village where they’d fetched up. They stayed on for much of the next 15 years.
Sanary-sur-Mer turned out to be one of the best places they could have found, with a brilliant and unconventional group of residents that included Aldous and Maria Huxley and, in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire, a stream of distinguished German refugees: Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Ludwig Marcuse and Bertolt Brecht, among others. But throughout this period Lisa, always unstable, was descending into morphine addiction and alcoholism. It fell to Nori and Sybille to manage and care for her, a team effort her daughter later compared to that of two brothers “serving — in different ranks — in the same regiment.” It was to prove a fruitless task.
With the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 and a French parliamentary act restricting the movement of refugees, Sybille — part Jewish on her mother’s side — ran the risk of being deported. What was to be done? “We must get one of our bugger friends to marry Sybille,” announced Maria Huxley. In the end one Walter Bedford, attendant at a gentlemen’s club in London, was induced to marry her for the sum of 100 pounds, giving her a British name and passport. By this time she had determined to become an Englishwoman in substance as well as name: “The fact that I had any connections with this terrible country” — Germany — “became a cause of guilt, and for some time I tried desperately to Anglicize myself entirely.”
Bedford spent much of World War II in the United States (re-encountering the Mann and Huxley circles in Los Angeles, where they had taken refuge) and spent eight months traveling through Mexico in 1946-47; for the rest of her life she moved between England, France and Italy with a motley series of women lovers. “I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love,” she admitted late in her life, and her fans can only agree. Bedford wrote with great difficulty: “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.” It was far preferable to go to parties and dinners, and to cook spectacular meals for her friends. “Remember,” one friend prodded her when she had shirked work for too long, “you are a writer, not other people’s cook.”
But Bedford’s busy social and romantic life nearly always took priority. Hastings calls her existence a “sexual carousel” and has clearly had quite a job keeping track of the constantly shifting partnerships. Here is a typical sentence: “Returning to Normandy, Sybille was prepared for the tensions surrounding Allanah’s affair with Eda; what she had not expected was Esther’s sudden infatuation with Joan.” Much of this material is not especially interesting. What is interesting is that Bedford so often had the upper hand in her own relationships. Her partners seemed to take it for granted that they should bear the brunt of the dirty work (housekeeping, gardening, bill paying, etc.), and they often supported her financially too.
Lots of people supported her financially. Indeed, she stands revealed in this biography as a world-class freeloader, with generous friends like Martha Gellhorn subsidizing her travels and writing periods and offering her deluxe accommodation in beautiful spots like Provence, Rome, the Alps. She was, in short, a user — though her compensatory qualities were such that ex-lovers, even those who had been most thoroughly used, happily stayed in her orbit years after their liaisons had ended.
It is to be hoped that “Sybille Bedford,” a largely sympathetic and very readable biography, will bring new readers to Bedford’s oeuvre. Her two best books are “A Legacy” and the beguiling travel book on Mexico, “The Sudden View” (1953), later republished as “A Visit to Don Otavio.” Her other novels, “A Favourite of the Gods,” “A Compass Error” and “Jigsaw,” are all, like her first, based on the events of her own life. She was an eccentric writer and not a perfect one; many readers are annoyed by her refusal (or inability?) to draw a line between biography and fiction. And her overriding obsession with gastronomy and wine can get tedious and, as Jan Morris commented, “may drive readers of less urbane gourmandise all the more readily to the deep-freeze Ocean Pie.” But her works are dense, exotic, rich with historical hindsight. In a life that spanned most of the 20th century, she lived that century in all its high drama and delivers it to the 21st in idiosyncratic, textured prose.
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