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Sybille Bedford — a gifted writer but a monstrous snob

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life Selina Hastings

Chatto, pp.420, 25

Sybille Bedford died in 2006, just short of 95. She left four novels, a travel book, two volumes of legal process and a memoir. Selina Hastings has written a wonderful biography, with lashings of lesbian lovers, which provides a soundtrack to one version of the 20th century.

Born German in 1911, Bedford grew up in a schloss in Baden’s Feldkirch, near the French border, her father a Bavarian Catholic baron and old soldier, her mother a beautiful and unstable bolter. ‘Her childhood,’ writes Hastings, whose previous books include lives of Nancy Mitford, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, ‘was both intellectually inspirational and… emotionally deprived.’ Both parents were wealthy.

Short and sturdy, with cornflower-blue eyes, a high brow and blonde hair cut ‘boyishly’, Bedford was restlessness made flesh. She liked France and England best, and enjoyed long stints in Italy (chiefly Rome) and seven years in the US, the latter mostly in California. She often expressed ‘contempt for America’, but it was a handy hideaway during the war. Fluent in three languages, she always wrote in English and lived longest in London. Sanary-sur-Mer, halfway between Toulon and Marseilles, furnished inspiration for many years, as did, later and for nearly four decades, her former partner Allanah Harper’s house in the Provençal back-country north of Cannes.

There was tragedy — there always is. Bedford’s mother’s morphine addiction turned her, according to her only child, from a Giorgione to ‘a Rembrandt woman, an ageing Jewess howling by a wall’ (Lisa, the mother, had Jewish blood). Both Bedford and Hastings describe this descent into hell with infernal empathy.

A procession of famous names prances the boards, from Peggy Guggenheim (‘Guggers’) to Cyril Connolly, who sits reading before the fire with an incontinent lemur on his knee and a sardine skeleton as a bookmark.

Food and wine feature disproportionately in this biography, subtitled ‘An Appetite for Life’. Jan Morris noted in a review of Bedford’s collected journalism that the gourmandise ‘may drive readers… to the deep-freeze Ocean Pie’. Bedford said that breaking bread with loved ones was ‘sacramental’. Her friend Julia Child, however, offered ‘no more than good hotel cooking’. Bedford was a deadly serious wine buff and Elizabeth Jane Howard said she was ‘very boring’ on the topic.

Hastings reveals the ways in which Bedford found her voice as a writer, having completed three novels in her twenties which languished in the bottom drawer forever. Her first published one, the deeply autobiographical A Legacy, appeared in 1956 when she was in her forties, and made her name on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘A new writer of remarkable accomplishment,’ Evelyn Waugh wrote in this magazine.

The name Bedford came from a husband procured for £100 when Sybille needed a British passport as the second world war loomed: he was a ‘bugger butler’, and after the wedding in London’s Caxton Hall the couple never met again. Bedford was a dedicated pursuer of women. ‘From adolescence until well into old age, there was rarely a period when Sybille was not in love,’ writes Hastings, keeping up gamely as girlfriends’ names surface and sink. In Bedford’s diaries, ‘the letters NR (Nuit Romantique) are frequently noted in pencil’. Most long-term partners functioned as wives, shouldering the domestic burden so the venerable writer could write. Bedford knew it. ‘This almost ideal setting for a writer is perhaps paid for by the future of another human being,’ she announced once — the creditor in that instance being her most loyal partner, Evelyn Gendel.

The thatch-headed Aldous Huxley was a stalwart friend and mentor in Bedford’s twenties and beyond (‘the greatest moral influence on my life’), and his delicate Belgian wife Maria became yet another lover. Bedford wrote the old man’s biography in the early 1970s, a double-decker labour of love with too much labour and a surfeit of love.

Hastings has had the cooperation of the Bedford estate and full access to diaries and letters, and she and her researcher have delved heroically and judiciously. She is an accomplished stylist and her prose suits her subject: elegant, deft and restrained, as operatic arias ‘hiss’ from the horned gramophone in the schloss.

Both Hastings and her quarry refer regularly to poverty. Bedford was ‘suddenly impoverished’; ‘overnight we were the new poor’; ‘her resources were dwindling fast’; ‘her financial situation was particularly precarious’ — on and on it goes. Yet after that last statement Bedford departs, typically, ‘for a month’s motoring tour in Spain and Portugal’. As Margaret Schlegel complains in Howards End: ‘I’m tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor.’

The word ‘arrogant’ rings through these pages like a knell and so does snobbery. Although numerous friends gave Bedford money to allow her to write, even benefactors don’t escape censure if they are insufficiently upper class. Martha Gellhorn, another fine writer, supported Bedford financially for years, often funding Bedford’s partner too; yet Bedford reckoned the Missouri-born Gellhorn wasn’t up to the mark. She was ‘a grade B acquaintance’, and ‘never for a moment am I not imbued with the cast-iron belief that M belongs to a different class than oneself’. In Rome, Bedford, her partner Eda and Martha dined at Toto’s, their favourite trattoria. ‘I am sorry to say she [Martha] calls it a Trat,’ Bedford reported in a letter. But it was all right for Gellhorn to pay the tratty bill. Hastings is too accomplished a biographer to pass judgment. She doesn’t have to. Bedford emerges from this fine book as an appalling figure — a monster, really, or a pig.

Her long-term US editor Bob Gottlieb said Bedford thought publishers were ‘tradesmen’, and she referred to editors as ‘hirelings’. The fiddlers on the proof are annoying — all writers know that — but they aren’t hirelings.

What was she as a writer? She knew, gloriously, how to pile up classical clauses, yet in descriptive passages she instinctively mistrusted the subordinate clause. One remembers her images — a hand holding up to an open train window a single round white cheese on a leaf. And she could smuggle the indefinable into a portrayal of walnut trees fructifying under a Mediterranean sun.

Bedford’s work on the law is an important and overlooked part of her oeuvre. Books included The Faces of Justice: A Traveller’s Report and assignments ranged from the Lady Chatterley trial to, for Life magazine, that 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 is not afraid to criticise A Favourite of the Gods, a book which the New York Times described not unfairly as ‘mediocre’.

In 1981 Margaret Thatcher gave her an OBE. Bedford grew increasingly apprehensive and afraid with age — one wonders who doesn’t — and moved to the right politically, though she was never a liberal. ‘I believe,’ she said once with characteristic finality, ‘that some races are superior or inferior to others.’ Inevitably, ‘emancipation of women has gone too far’, and let’s face it, ‘only people who deserve to visit Chartres cathedral should be allowed to’.

My favourite Bedford book is A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), originally published as The Sudden View. It tells the story of an eight-month sojourn in Mexico between 1946 and 1947. It is a confection of close observation, history, specificity, invention and humour, an elusive and priceless yeast that makes a travel book rise. Both this and A Legacy will stand the brutal test of time — as will Selina Hastings’s biography.

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