Sybille Bedford: Secret history

She has been called the finest woman writer of the 20th century. Bruce Chatwin and Stephen Spender were fans. She counted Aldous Huxley among her most intimate friends. Her love life was complex. Yet at 93, Sybille Bedford remains an enigma of English letters. Andrew Barrow is granted a rare audience
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Sybille Bedford is not a tabloid name. Nor even a name to toss about lightly at Hampstead dinner parties. I have never heard her softly persuasive voice on the radio or seen her lively animated face on television. However colourful her love life, it has never been plastered across the newspapers. Nothing is known about her short-lived marriage and next to nothing about her love affairs with women. Nor does she serve these days on those highbrow committees that once occupied so much of her time. For all the self-revelation in her writings, for all the feathers in her cap, Sybille Bedford is in modern media terms distinctly, determinedly "low profile".

Yet she has her fans, abject fans, passionate admirers - I am one of them - and in the world of wine and food, where she still reigns as a pernickety queen dowager, her loyal subjects. Fiona MacCarthy has described her as "our prize chronicler of sensuous experience". Rabbi Julia Neuberger has proclaimed her "the finest woman writer of the 20th century", and Bruce Chatwin saw her as "one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose". Francis King describes her novel A Legacy (1956) as "one of the great books of the 20th century", and Francis Wyndham told readers of The Daily Telegraph that her novel Jigsaw (1989) is "of absorbing interest from start to finish". Raymond Mortimer said of her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), that it was "radiant with comedy and colour", and Stephen Spender described her two-volume Life of Aldous Huxley (1973, 1974) as "one of the masterpieces of biography".

How much more of this gush can the reader take? Surely the important thing about Sybille Bedford is that she is still alive at 93 and still kicking out her matchless prose? And that, God willing, the long-awaited sequel to her autobiographical novel Jigsaw, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989, will appear next winter in London and New York? And perhaps even in Germany - the country of her birth which she renounced at the age of four but where, following the republication of A Legacy, she is now enjoying a surprising upsurge of interest?

And how significant is it that she began her career late, publishing her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio at the age of 42? And, since then, has propelled her talents in so many different directions? She has written factual books with a fictional side and fiction full of autobiographical clues if not hard facts. She has written travel pieces, articles on wine and food and - most serious of all - described the workings of justice in three different countries.

In fact, some people, even some of her staunchest admirers, may still think of Sybille Bedford as principally a law reporter. She has attended some of the most controversial criminal trials of our time. She wrote a book The Best We Can Do (1958) about the Old Bailey trial of John Bodkin Adams, the Eastbourne doctor accused of murdering a patient. For Life magazine she covered both the "clownishly conducted" trial of Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, in Texas and the "wholly exemplary" trial of the former staff at Auschwitz. She had a special ticket for the Vassall Tribunal. And she returned to the Old Bailey for the Lady Chatterley case - she saw EM Forster giving evidence in a mackintosh - and for the trials of Dr Stephen Ward - the society osteopath at the centre of the Profumo scandal - and of the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe accused of conspiracy to murder. In all her court reporting, she catches the tempo of what people say - "coolly offhand", "casually dogmatic", "trigger-quick" - with a precision few writers can match.

And then, of course, there is the food - and the wine. Sybille Bedford's love of wine is almost a joke among her friends. "I can hardly put pen to paper without mentioning wine," she admits. And, "I'm manically fond of wine." In some of her books wine and food feature so often that even the admiring critic Francis Wyndham confessed that he had begun to dread the arrival of another meal. She may eschew the Soufflé Grand-Marnier (which takes 40 minutes) or Selle d'Agneau preposterously lined with foie gras and marinated in Marsala, but lobsters, olives, figs, truffles, trussed birds and bread are passionately consumed and portrayed on every other page and where necessary torn apart. (Italian bread, she writes, is "often sad stuff". Portuguese bread can be "as heavy as wet cement".) Literary giants like Ivy Compton-Burnett may have been quite happy to serve roast lamb and boiled cabbage but Sybille Bedford has high standards. She has, she says, "dabbled in high cuisine". She is vastly knowledgeable, experienced - and fussy. She revealed in A Visit to Don Otavio that she always travelled with a French zigzag corkscrew, silver clasp-knife and peppermill and in 1994 readers of The Sunday Times learnt that she never went on aeroplanes without a shoe-box lunch - "I can't bear their plastic food".

Wine is her great love but not an addiction. "She's got a strong head. I think she can sink quite a lot," says her friend Elizabeth-Jane Howard. Taken recently to the Bibendum restaurant, Mrs Bedford - Who's Who records that in 1935 she married a certain Walter Bedford - struck up an instant rapport with the sommelier. Dining with the publisher Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, she sent the wine on ahead, by taxi, insisting that it should "rest" for two days before being opened. When the interior designer Nicky Haslam gave her a hallowed bottle of Lafite 1971 she ceremonially decanted it into the earth of her Chelsea garden having found it sadly "over the hill". She reflected later: "I was very much afraid it wouldn't work. The cork just crumbled. It died within seconds."

Sybille Bedford's impetuous sensuality infiltrates her prose. "Mrs Bedford's unique style reads as if it streams out of her sensibility without preoccupation and without review," writes Jan Morris. To me, her words have an unstoppable, leisured quality: informal, wholesome, earthy, conversational, fleeting, flinty and fragmentary. Yet euphoric. "You can trundle Italian wines around in your car," she begins in her essay The Quality of Travel (1961), "open them, fling in a handful of ice, drink them without a glass, with any food, in carefree quantities." In Mexico City, she notes that the sun is "brilliant, burning, not to be fooled with". In Portugal, laundry "is being washed morning, noon and night." And she managed to underpin these celebrations of domestic life and climate with great moral - Paul Bailey calls it pagan - authority. In print and in person, she has the courage to pass judgement. She has written that self-deception is "an enemy of life, a spoiler" and has reprimanded friends with the words: "That was very wrong." And though she engagingly describes herself as "clumsily literary and highbrow" she has total confidence in her writing and does not need other people's reassurance about it.

Certainly not mine. I first met Sybille Bedford 28 years ago and was utterly overawed. Introduced to her at a party given by a famous beauty called Lesley Black, sometime wife of film-maker John Huston, I was struck by the speed and seriousness with which she spoke, the flattering intimacy of her flow, her links with prehistoric figures beyond my reach like Huxley and Norman Douglas and the fact that - will she forgive me for writing this? - she was bisexual. I soon learnt that we lived near each other in Chelsea. I immediately read and wept over A Legacy and in due course left a copy of my first book Gossip on her doorstep. I still have her scribbled message of apology. "How wrong I was about its size relative to my letterbox's." In the summer of 1979 I remember meeting her several days running in King's Road - didn't she wear a green eye-shield? - as she scuttled home from the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. Later she made me a member of PEN - of which she is vice-president - but, alas, I allowed my membership of this fellowship of writers to lapse. In 1980 I moved from Chelsea to Kensington and saw no more of Mrs Bedford. In 1989 I read the tumultuous reviews that greeted the appearance of Jigsaw and 10 years later noted that she had chosen Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave as her Book of the Century. Then came news of her 90th birthday celebrations and in The Spectator last year further incontrovertible evidence that Sybille Bedford, Companion of Literature, was still very much alive. Nicky Haslam, arbiter of taste, had dined with her and given her a grimy bottle of wine with a half-obscured label...

Wine featured early in Sybille Bedford's life. Conceived in Spain, and born in Charlottenburg, a postal district of Berlin, on 16 May 1911, she spent much of her childhood with her German father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, in a schloss close to the French border in Baden. Here there was no money for groceries but the remains of a prestigious wine cellar. At the age of six or seven, Sybille learned about wine, how to draw the cork, how to twirl the wine in the glass and how the glass itself should never be more than a third full. Her father, she tells us in Jigsaw, had been born in the 1850s and learnt a lot from the Italian and French chefs of the 1880s and 1890s. In his dressing-room, he cooked goose liver in foaming butter over a spirit lamp. Sybille refuses to discuss her mother's nationality but presents her in Jigsaw and A Favourite of the Gods (1962) as a beautiful woman, photographed by Man Ray, whom she dreaded being alone with. With or without the consolations of the wine cellar, she did not have a happy childhood. A lot of time seems to have been spent on railway journeys across Europe - or abandoned in hotels where she showed an eerie independence by insisting on a table of her own in the dining-room.

And by this stage, she already knew what career lay ahead. "As soon as I could speak I wanted to be a writer." But she received "practically no education", was never taught how to hold a pen and still can't read her own handwriting. After her father's death, she moved with her mother to the French Riviera - as yet unsubmerged by money and fashion - and began wondering if she should write in English or French. "I'm so glad I chose English. You can play about with English."

If Jigsaw is to be trusted, Sybille Bedford first visited England at the age of 16, arriving at Victoria Station and spending her first night at the long-since-defunct Green Park Hotel. During this early visit she showed her mettle by attending the Law Courts in the Strand. On her first evening in London, she had dinner at the Chinese restaurant overlooking Piccadilly Circus, which I remember "discovering" a few years ago, half-aware of its antiquity...

The quiet French restaurant which Mrs Bedford has chosen for our dinner is located on a side-street in Bayswater. She tells me in advance which table to book and which mini-cab service should take us there. Thanks to "this knee business" she can no longer manage black cabs. On the appointed evening, I make my way apprehensively to the Chelsea flat that she has occupied for the past 30 years or more. How gentle will I have to be? Dare I ask a 93-year-old searching personal questions? Will I make a fool of myself?

As I turn into the side-street off King's Road, the latter process starts early when I spot the BBC's John Simpson heading in another direction. Partly to bolster myself up, I accost this faintly louche-looking man, whom I have never met, and tell him I am on my way to see Sybille Bedford the great novelist and travel writer. Simpson smiles as amiably as he might at an Iraqi nutter. But now, a moment later, here she is, already on the pavement, remonstrating with the mini-cab, which has arrived a few minutes early.

Sybille Bedford is instantly recognisable and not so different from when we last met 20 years ago. She wears her trademark neckerchief, a striped shirt with cufflinks, a heavy gold wrist-watch, blue cardigan, loose-fitting dark trousers and smart shoes. Her white hair is swept back with a certain panache and her red-rimmed eyes blink encouragingly behind large spectacles. But she seems gentler, more feminine, miles away from "the tough little person ... always dressed as a motor racer" mentioned 40 years ago in a letter from Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh. But then I remember that Nancy Mitford also refers, in another letter, to Sybille Bedford's sweetness.

Sweet, tiny, fragile, eager, poised and business-like, Sybille now crouches beside the huge mini-cab driver and gives very precise instructions about our route across the park. According to Nicky Haslam, Sybille Bedford's slightly foreign voice carries resonance of pre-First World War Europe. And so do some of the words she uses. When she asked Ivy Compton-Burnett for a "ginger nut", Dame Ivy snapped back: "I take it you were not entirely brought up in England?" "Have you brought an instrument?" Sybille now asks me. "Only a pen," I reply. Leaning forward, I remind her of our meetings at the time of the Jeremy Thorpe trial but she does not agree with me about the outcome of that case. What are her feelings about the great Lord Archer? "I don't think feelings is the word," she corrects me but goes on, unexpectedly, to praise the disgraced peer's novels. "Rather good. Watered-down Maugham..."

On arrival at the restaurant, she is greeted and treated like royalty. She is kissed by the proprietor's wife - they exchange subtle felicitations in French - and settles cosily into her familiar table by the bar. Two glasses of champagne arrive. Sybille eyes me carefully. Yes, she decides she does remember me. I tell her she looks well. She tells me she's really not at all well and has taken four tablets to get through the evening. Soon she brings out a large magnifying glass to examine the menu. She orders soupe de poisson and suprême de poulet. She has already told me that this restaurant has "one or two decent red wines" but unexpectedly plumps for the house red, a Tempranillo 2002 from Navarra which, again unexpectedly, arrives in an ice-bucket. She fondles it briefly. "A little longer and could you open it?" she tells the waitress. Sybille Bedford is my guest but she is in charge. I am twisted round her little finger - and enjoying every moment of it.

Our interview starts haltingly. Over the champagne we talk briefly about mutual acquaintances. She praises my old friend Elsie Birch Donald's novel Rope of Sands and says how good-looking Nicky Haslam is. Then she starts to tell me about her childhood, the stables close to the room where she was born, the thumping of horses' hooves, but soon stops herself. "All this is in Jigsaw." Instead we jump from topic to topic - "Not too much," she says when the waitress tries to fill her glass too high - and from discretion to indiscretion.

"I loved cars," she tells me. "I've driven some wonderful cars... a Rolls Royce... I crossed the American continent several times by car. I once drove 24 hours without stopping, to meet a lover." In her thirties, she tells me, she had three novels rejected. "I had a false conception of what I wanted to do. I'd read too much. I was using a style that didn't suit me." Today, she says, every paragraph is rewritten three or four times. But thanks to her "damned handwriting" she often can't read what she's written the next day. Would she like to have had children? "No! Absolutely not!" she says, citing the extreme selfishness of children, the egotism, the I, I, I... And, yes, she's amazed to be alive at 93 and expects to die every night.

Other replies are more evasive or ambiguous, perhaps because she knows better than anyone how double-faced the truth can be. When I ask if she's ever owned a pet, she replies: "Yes and no. It's a complicated question." And when I ask if she cries easily, she replies, "I don't cry easily or uneasily." Some of her remarks are darkly oblique and I strain across the table to check that I have heard her right. Can she really have said: "The whole human experiment's gone wrong," and: "If I knew myself better I wouldn't have to write books"?

My question: "Can you say anything about your husband?" is met with a vigorous "No" and "He's dead anyway." And when I ask her: "What are you writing at the moment?" she replies: "Let me finish this soup." Later she tells me that the book she hopes to finish this summer will focus on the rest of her life after Jigsaw and will be called Quicksands, the Perspectives of an Outsider. She is, she insists, "an outsider in every way". I can't accept this. Surely her intimacy with people like Huxley, Rebecca West, Peggy Guggenheim, Martha Gellhorn, Elizabeth David and hundreds of other key players means that she was - is - in the swim? And what about her work for PEN? And the warmth that her name inspires among people like Lord Snowdon who volunteered, when we spoke this week: "She won't remember me but when you see her next will you give her my love?"

And doesn't her eminence in the close-knit wine world suggest that she has lived, at least part of the time, in the convivial heart of the beau monde? Yes, yes, she agrees that she has "brothers in wine" - she also likes a really good cigar two or three times a year - and has enjoyed the company of wine buffs - and lawyers - far more than that of fellow writers, but argues that the wine is still an outsider's interest. Again, she sees both sides of the coin. She talks about "sitting alone on a warm wall with a glass of wine in one hand" and also of belonging to a hard-drinking clique in New York. "I was very fond of American Bourbon and Bloody Marys." Does she ever have hangovers, I ask, changing the subject. "Oh, my God, yes," she replies but quickly adds that she doesn't drink - as I do - to get "tipsy" and that she loathes people who can't hold their drink. "I've had extreme problems living with alcoholics."

And what about love? Hasn't she fallen in love a lot? "Often. Very often. Successfully. Unsuccessfully," she mutters over her sorbet adding that falling in love has been - still is - a very large part of her life but not one she's ever spoken or written about. Has she ever been in love with a man? "Yes, I had a very serious attachment to a man. For five years." She says this so seriously that I do not pursue the matter. Sybille Bedford belongs to a generation, perhaps even a class, where such matters are not spoken of. In her view, Victorian Puritanism has been replaced by something even more grotesque - and not even grammatical. "Sex is not a noun like coffee," she tut-tuts.

While we talk - or rage - in this manner, our amiable mini-cab driver has twice appeared at our table. I am sad that our evening is coming to an end so early. So much has been untouched. Sybille has said nothing about her seven years in Rome. Or three years in Essex. Or the "first-rate Victorian plumbing" she remembers as a child. And practically nothing about her court reporting. Forty-one years ago, in July 1963, at the climax of Stephen Ward's trial at the Old Bailey on the trumped-up charges of living off immoral earnings, Sybille Bedford shared a taxi with him back to Chelsea. All Ward's friends in high places had now turned against him, frightened for their own skins. The judge that day had begun an appallingly unfair summing up. In the taxi, Sybille Bedford held Stephen Ward's hand. But even with the support of this strong, sensuous, brilliant woman, Ward went ahead that night and committed suicide.

As Sybille Bedford and I drive across the park, I do not hold her hand and do not feel in the least like committing suicide. On the contrary, it feels good to be alive and in her presence. On her Chelsea doorstep, I dare to kiss her on the cheek and ask her what she thinks of me. She replies without missing a beat: "We will see how you write."