Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life
Sybille Bedford died in 2006, just 95 years ago. She left four novels, a travel book, two volumes of court cases and a treatise. Selina Hastings wrote a wonderful biography of lashes from lesbian lovers that provides a soundtrack to a version of the 20th century.
Bedford was born a German in 1911 and grew up in a castle in Feldkirch, Baden, near the French border. Her father was a Bavarian Catholic baron and old soldier, her mother a beautiful and unstable bolter. “Her childhood,” writes Hastings, whose previous books include the lives of Nancy Mitford, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, “was both intellectually inspiring and … emotionally deprived.” Both parents were rich.
Bedford was short and stout, with cornflower blue eyes, a high forehead, and blond hair that was cut “boyish”. She liked France and England best, and spent long stays in Italy (mainly Rome) and seven years in the United States, the latter mainly in California. She often expressed “contempt for America”, but it was a practical hiding place during the war. She was fluent in three languages, always wrote English and lived in London the longest. Sanary-sur-Mer, halfway between Toulon and Marseille, inspired the house of her former partner Allanah Harper in the Provencal hinterland north of Cannes for many years, as did later and for almost four decades.
There was tragedy – it’s always there. Bedford’s mother’s addiction to morphine, according to her only child, turned her from a Giorgione to a Rembrandt woman, an aging Jew who howls against a wall (Lisa, the mother, had Jewish blood). Both Bedford and Hastings describe this descent into hell with hellish empathy.
A procession of famous names dances on the boards, from Peggy Guggenheim (‘Guggers’) to Cyril Connolly reading with an incontinent maki on his knee and a sardine skeleton as a bookmark in front of the fire.
Food and wine are disproportionately represented in this biography with the subtitle “An Appetite for Life”. Jan Morris noted in a review of Bedford’s collective journalism that foodies “might drive readers … to frozen ocean pie”. Bedford said that breaking bread with loved ones is “sacramental”. However, her friend Julia Child offered “nothing more than good hotel cuisine”. Bedford was a deadly serious fan of wine, and Elizabeth Jane Howard said she was “very boring” on the subject.
Hastings reveals the way Bedford found her voice as a writer after completing three novels in her twenties that were forever in the bottom drawer. Her first published, the deeply autobiographical A Legacy, appeared in 1956 when she was in her forties and made a name for herself on both sides of the Atlantic. “A new writer of remarkable achievement,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in the magazine.
The name Bedford comes from a husband who was bought for £ 100 when Sybille needed a British passport when World War II was imminent: he was a “bastard” and the couple never met again after the wedding at London’s Caxton Hall . Bedford was a committed persecutor of women. “From puberty to old age, there was seldom a time when Sybille was not in love,” writes Hastings, playfully keeping pace as the names of the friends appear and sink. In Bedford’s diaries “the letters NR (Nuit Romantique) are often noted in pencil”. Most of the longtime partners acted as wives and took on the household chores so that the venerable writer could write. Bedford knew. “This almost ideal environment for a writer may be paid for by someone else’s future,” she once announced – the believer in this case was her most loyal partner, Evelyn Gendel.
Thatched Aldous Huxley was a loyal friend and mentor (“the greatest moral influence on my life”) in Bedford’s twenties and beyond, and his delicate Belgian wife Maria became another lover. Bedford wrote the old man’s biography in the early 1970s, a double-decker love work with too much work and an excess of love.
Hastings has had the collaboration of the Bedford estate and full access to diaries and letters, and she and her researcher have immersed themselves heroically and sensibly. She is an accomplished stylist and her prose fits her subject: elegant, skilful and reserved, while opera arias “hiss” from the horned gramophone in the castle.
Both Hastings and their quarry regularly refer to poverty. Bedford was “suddenly impoverished”; “Overnight we were the new poor”; “Your resources were quickly dwindling”; “Your financial situation was particularly precarious” – so it goes on. But after that last statement, Bedford usually leaves “for a month’s drive in Spain and Portugal”. Margaret Schlegel complains in Howards End: “I’m sick of those rich people who pretend to be poor.”
The word “arrogant” rings like a bang through these pages, as does snobbery. Though numerous friends gave Bedford money to write, even benefactors do not escape criticism if they are not sufficiently upper-class. Martha Gellhorn, another good writer, supported Bedford financially for years and often also financed Bedford’s partners; However, Bedford felt that the Missouri-born Gellhorn did not live up to expectations. She was ‘a class B acquaintance’ and ‘never for a moment am I not permeated by the cast-iron belief that M belongs to a different class than you are’. In Rome, Bedford, her partner Eda and Martha ate at Toto’s, their favorite trattoria. ‘I’m sorry to tell you [Martha] call it a step, ”reported Bedford in a letter. But it was okay for Gellhorn to pay the Tratty bill. Hastings is too accomplished a biographer to judge. You don’t have to. Bedford emerges from this beautiful book as a horrific character – really a monster or a pig.
Her longtime US editor, Bob Gottlieb, said Bedford thought publishers were “artisans” and she called editors “hirelings.” The violinists on the proof are annoying – all authors know that – but they are not hirelings.
What was she as a writer? She knew wonderfully how to pile up classic clauses, but in descriptive passages she instinctively distrusted the subordinate clause. Her pictures are remembered – a hand holding a single round white cheese on a sheet of paper against an open train window. And she could smuggle the indefinable into a representation of walnut trees bearing fruit under a Mediterranean sun.
Bedford’s work on the law is an important and overlooked part of her life. Books included The Faces of Justice: A Traveller’s Report and assignments that ranged from the Lady Chatterley Trial to the Life magazine of Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin. She was a reliable, muscular reporter. Two of the novels, on the other hand, are uneven. Hastings isn’t afraid to criticize A Favorite of the Gods, a book the New York Times rightly called “mediocre”.
In 1981 Margaret Thatcher gave her an OBE. Bedford grew increasingly concerned and anxious as she got older – one wonders who doesn’t – and moved to the right politically, even though she was never a liberal. “I believe,” she once said with characteristic finality, “that some races are superior or inferior to others.” The “emancipation of women has inevitably gone too far”, and let’s face it, “only people who deserve to visit Chartres Cathedral should be allowed to do so”.
My favorite book in Bedford is A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), originally published as The Sudden View. It tells the story of an eight month stay in Mexico between 1946 and 1947. It is a confection of close observation, history, specificity, invention and humor, an elusive and priceless yeast that brings a travel book to life. Both this and A Legacy will stand the brutal test of time – as will Selina Hastings’ biography.
The name Bedford comes from a husband who was procured for £ 100 when Sybille needed a British passport