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Sybille Bedford Biography

Nationality: British. Born: Sybille von Schoenebeck in Charlottenburg, Germany, 1911. Education: Privately in Italy, England, and France. Career: Worked as a law reporter: covered the Auschwitz trial at Frankfurt for the Observer, London, and the Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, 1963-65, and the trial of Jack Ruby at Dallas for Life, New York, 1964. Vice-president, PEN, 1979. Awards: Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1989. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1964. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of British Empire), 1981.



A Legacy. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1957.

A Favourite of the Gods. London, Collins, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1963.

A Compass Error. London, Collins, 1968; New York, Knopf, 1969.

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Knopf, 1989.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Compassionata at Hyde Park Corner," in 23 Modern Stories. NewYork, Knopf, 1963.

"Une vie de chateau," in New Yorker, 20 February 1989.


A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey. London, Gollancz, andNew York, Harper, 1953; revised edition, New York, Atheneum, 1963; as A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico, London, Collins, 1960.

The Best We Can Do: An Account of the Trial of John Bodkin Adams. London, Collins, 1958; as The Trial of Dr. Adams, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1959.

The Faces of Justice: A Traveller's Report. London, Collins, and NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Aldous Huxley: A Biography. London, Chatto and Windus-Collins, 2 vols., 1973-74; New York, Knopf, 1 vol., 1974.

As It Was: Pleasures, Landscapes, and Justice. London, SinclairStevenson, 1990.

In Conversation with Naim Attallah. London, Quartet Books, 1998.


Critical Studies:

By Evelyn Waugh, in Spectator (London), 13 April 1956; V.S. Pritchett, in New Statesman (London), 11 January 1963; P.N. Furbank, in Encounter (London), April 1964; Bernard Levin, in London Daily Mail, 12 September 1966; Constantine FitzGibbon, in Irish Times (Dublin), 19 October 1968; introductions to A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error, both London, Virago Press, 1984, and article in London Magazine, January 1991, all by Peter Vansittart; Robert O. Evans in British Novelists since 1900 edited by Jack I. Biles, New York, AMS Press, 1987; David Leavitt in Voice Literary Supplement, June 1990; Gilbert Phelps in Folio Quarterly (London), Winter 1990; Anne Sebbaix in Daily Telegraph, 4 February 1995.

* * *

The stature of Sybille Bedford's first and still her finest novel, A Legacy, suggests Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, or the historical theme of Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers. All three writers are continental in their attention to the effects of historical event on the flow of family life and time. If Bedford lacks the philosophical dimension of Mann or the high and heavy seriousness of Broch, she possesses instead energy, gaiety, and a refreshing comic sense that seem unmistakably British.

What stays in the mind long after a reading of A Legacy is not the Prussia or Baden of 1810-1913 in which it is set, but characters, scenes, and individual sentences of fine prose. Bedford's best characters are improbable but memorable for her objective treatment of them. Johannes von Feldon once danced with a bear at a fair, became autistic from the brutality of his military academy, then a decorated, still autistic captain of cavalry. Julius von Felden, a central figure in the chronicle, is nominally Catholic, briefly a diplomat, member of the Jockey Club in Paris, collector of bibelots, and devoted to his monkey and two chimpanzees, whom he treats as human beings. He marries into the Merz family of Berlin, astonished that they are nominally Jewish rather than Catholic, but content to accept their over-stuffed largesse. The elder Merzes are wealthy philistines given to large, frequent meals and to generosity to their feckless offspring and their children, who acquire "the habit of being rich." The tragicomedy of the two families and their incompatible histories combine into a plot involving legacies, marriages, fornications, and displacements. The death of Julius's Merz wife, Melanie, a dim, determined girl, leads to his marriage to an Englishwoman, Caroline Trafford, a beautiful, fickle, interesting wife and, briefly, mother. The actual legacies are frittered away, and the figurative legacy of Caroline to Julius is a German house and a precocious daughter, who supposedly is narrator. The chronicle is mainly narrated in the third person.

A Favourite of the Gods, set in Italy, might appear to be a departure from A Legacy, but it is not. Often called "Jamesian" for its account of a wealthy American girl who marries a corrupt Roman minor aristocrat, it is James-like only in theme. The Italians here are caricatures, uttering "Già" and "Meno male," while Anna the American is such only by description. Over-filled with incident, the novel relates the education of Constanza, Anna's daughter, who is brought up in Edwardian England when Anna cannot stomach her husband's adultery. Again people eat and drink fabulously, fall in and out of loves and beds, while potted history is served in chunks: "Meanwhile, Mussolini marched on Rome." History here, as in the later A Compass Error and Jigsaw, is outlined, reported, but the characters do not actually live and have their fictional reality in that history. Constanza marries Simon Herbert, the author's least convincing character. A pacifist by conviction, he nevertheless is commissioned and sent to the trenches, emerging promptly with a convenient wound. A brilliant career follows, and an arranged divorce from Constanza permits his marriage to a press tycoon's daughter. Simon dies young. Constanza's daughter, Flavia, is born in 1914; after the war, Contanza moves from lover to lover but remains unmarried and at odds with Anna, the dowager-heroine. Wonderful episodes occur, but the novel suffers from a weak structure and a surfeit of raw matter.

Flavia is the narrator of A Compass Error, the structure of which is pure disaster. Left alone at 17 in Provence to swot for entrance to Oxford, Flavia engages in a lesbian affair and consumes some 53 pages of this brief novel to recapitulate in monologue to her lover the entire contents of A Favourite of the Gods. A psychologically improbable plot involving Constanza's last chance at marriage to a French intellectual unfolds. Flavia is again precocious, a great imbiber of claret, and intellectually ambitious as well as bisexual. Plot tends to falsify chronicle, which has its own twists and turns.

Jigsaw is a novel only by courtesy. Despite some novelistic touches, it is transparently personal memoir, as well as an explanation of the structural difficulties of the two preceding novels. We are back in the territory of Legacy, with the story of young Billi's (for Sybille) early years at Feldkirch with her father, the impoverished Julius, eating smoked mutton but drinking the rare clarets surviving from better days. Like Flavia, like Constanza, she moves as a young girl to London, then to Provence, and the dubious tutelage of her egotistical, beautiful, self-indulgent mother, who declines into poverty and drug addiction. Again the text is packed with incident, with essays on wine and politics, but now with actual historical figures: Aldous and Maria Huxley; Cyril Connolly, Roy Campbell, Ivy Compton-Burnett among them. Again a precocious girl aspires to university and fails, but a writer's career beckons (that distinguished career as travel writer and reporter which has also been Bedford's). Characters and entire episodes are lifted from the preceding narratives, but the story is frankly her own, with elements of confession and muted justification. Although eminently readable, the whole fails to do justice to splendid parts.

Bedford's affinity is perhaps not with Mann or Broch, but with Huxley and Compton-Burnett, whom she imitates, and with Molly Keane, who tells over and again the same story with elegant and delightful variations, comic turns with tragic overtones.

—John McCormick

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