The Magazine

A Small Legacy

The revival of Sybille Bedford.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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A Legacy
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 320 pp., $15

A Favourite of the Gods
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 320 pp., $16

A Compass Error
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 240 pp., $16

Jigsaw
An Unsentimental Education
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 320 pp., $15

SYBILLE BEDFORD: The name rings bells. Readers of modern British literature might recall that, during the 1960s, Bedford emerged as an English journalist in the wry, cold-eyed manner of Rebecca West and Nancy Mitford. Bedford specialized in the courts and the law; "The Best We Can Do" (1958), her account of the 1957 trial of John Bodkin Adams, a British physician suspected of dispatching patients with overdoses of morphine, has been called "a classic of its kind." Others might remember Bedford as a travel writer, wine critic, or biographer whose big 1973 study of Aldous Huxley was widely noticed and praised.

Bedford, born in 1911, has also published four novels, all of them ambitious works of art. The first three--"A Legacy" (1956), "A Favourite of the Gods" (1963), and "A Compass Error" (1968)--earned good reviews and then sank from view, as most novels do. Critics and readers were surprised when, in 1989, Bedford's fourth novel, "Jigsaw," was shortlisted for one of Britain's most important literary honors--the Booker Prize. Even in Britain, where she has lived for many years, Bedford was known mainly for her critical writing and reportage.

Bedford didn't win the Booker, which went instead to Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day." But the nomination brought new attention to Bedford and her previously published works. "As It Was," a 1990 anthology of Bedford's nonfiction, was widely and rightly praised. Bedford's fiction, meanwhile, was hailed by John Fowles, David Leavitt, and A.S. Byatt, among others; even Auberon Waugh, a man not easily pleased, called her "a writer of consummate artistry."

Given such ample praise, Bedford's American publisher has recently released all four of her novels in smart new editions. It's a worthy enterprise, for Bedford is a smart, singular writer with an intriguing career. But it's also risky. For Bedford, I think, isn't best represented by her novels, which are self-obsessed as well as self-possessed--the often elegant works of a highly observant writer whose eye is too frequently turned inward.

These new editions include attractively candid introductions by the author herself. Writing, Bedford admits, "was and is and ever will be very very tough for me." "A Legacy" proved especially difficult. "Oh I got stuck so often," she writes, "made what I call fausse route." For Bedford, filling pages is like "chiselling" words.

Bedford is reluctant, however, to "retell or analyze" her own novels, which are distinctive in many ways. No contemporary writer can match her fondness for rhetorical questions, French phrases, and italics used freely as a mark of emphasis. But one senses in Bedford's fiction the lingering presence of her early literary heroes. Bedford's tone, like Aldous Huxley's, tends to be ironically cool; like him, she often portrays artists, intellectuals, and wealthy bohemians. Like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Bedford is drawn to dialogue; and, like Henry James, she favors psychological analysis, internal action, and elaborate prose. Evelyn Waugh, Bedford proudly notes, much admired "A Legacy"--despite its "too large a dose of Henry James."

"A Legacy" is Bedford's most accomplished novel. It takes place between 1870 and 1914, and focuses on three affluent, influential families: two are Catholic, one Jewish. They are for the most part highly unattractive people--haughty, humorless, a bit dotty. And they are at least partially responsible, Bedford implies, for those "vast and monstrous" things that came in the wake of German unification: Prussianism, Nazism, and two world wars.

Bedford notes that "A Legacy" derived "from what I saw and above all heard and over-heard as a child." She based many of its characters on members of her own fading aristocratic family. Bedford's father, for example, appears in "A Legacy" (and again in "Jigsaw") as a handsome, eccentric Francophile--a man whose "prudent" but "susceptible" ancestors had similarly "married late and died young."

BEDFORD was only nine when her father died, broken and broke, and she left Germany for good. Bedford spent the rest of her childhood and much of her adolescence living in boarding schools or with family friends, for her beautiful, volatile English mother "was not interested in children, not at all." "You were very sweet as a baby," Bedford's mother once told her. "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."