Sybille Bedford

Author of 'A Legacy' whose novels examined the relationship between freedom and fate


Sybille von Schoenebeck, writer: born Charlottenburg, Germany 16 March 1911; OBE 1981; FRSL 1964; CLit 1994; married 1935 Walter Bedford; died London 17 February 2006.

Sybille Bedford belonged to that distinguished line of 20th-century expatriate authors who chose to write in English in preference to their native tongues, in her case German. Her grand predecessors were, she believed, Conrad, Isak Dinesen, and Nabokov, for whom English was a third language, but the one in which their creative powers came to full fruition. They enriched English literature with contributions from their own cultures, and by their use of the language - a striving for clarity and grace which gave their writings a charming quirkiness similar to a slight, attractive foreign accent.

She was born in 1911 in Charlottenburg, Germany. Her young beautiful mother, Elizabeth Bernard, "bolted" soon after, and she spent her childhood with her father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, "an elderly, eccentric aristocrat", who had retired to a small schloss in a remote rural area of Baden.

After her father's death in the 1920s Sybille divided her time between England, where she lived "with Bohemian friends", and Italy and France, with her mother and her Italian stepfather. She was educated privately, and read widely in her various languages.

With the rise of Nazism in the early Thirties, a great number of German writers and intellectuals left Germany and settled in Sanary-sur-Mer, a picturesque fishing village near Toulon, in the South of France. Patronised by Jean Cocteau and his coterie, Sanary had already attracted Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, who became a magnet for English visitors - D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, Julian and Juliette Huxley and others - while the German expatriates clustered around Thomas Mann and his large family, his brother Heinrich and his wife (the model for Blue Angel), the writers Stefan and Arnold Zweig, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, the art critic Meyer-Graefe, the artist René Schickel and many more. Sanary became "the centre of haute culture", where Sybille's mother chose to live as well, and where Sybille spent some of her formative years.

She became a close friend of Thomas Mann's children and a frequent visitor to their house, attending literary soirées: "It was heady stuff," she once said,

all these writers reading their works-in-progress aloud to each other, discussing literature, art, politics . . . Thomas Mann had once proposed to my mother, who thereafter referred to him always as "poor Tommy".

But it was her encounter with Aldous and Maria Huxley - "the most extraordinary people I ever met" - that determined the course of her life. "Aldous was a universal genius like Erasmus; he became my mentor and intellectual model," she wrote. They took her under their wing, encouraged her to write, and gave her shelter in their "attic room" whenever she was in London.

When the Second World War broke out, most of Sanary's émigrés fled to America via Spain and Portugal, "where Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer was doling out contracts to support them". Sybille left too, and "eked out a living" as translator and secretary in California, while trying to write on the side.

She returned to England after the war and settled in London, having acquired an English name and British nationality through a very brief marriage of convenience to an Englishman, Walter Bedford, in 1935. Her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, was published in 1953 and was highly acclaimed. It was an amusing and serious account of a year she had spent in Mexico in the mid-Forties, which she defined as "an unusual travel book written by a novelist". It described the beauty of Mexico with its underlying sadness and violence inherited from a bloody history.

Three years later she published her first novel, A Legacy, considered her masterpiece. At first it was a critical and commercial flop: "the dullest book I ever read", declared her own American publisher. Eventually Evelyn Waugh reviewed it in The Spectator and it took off, becoming a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. It was televised 20 years later, in 1975, and has been reprinted several times since.

Her two subsequent books were non-fiction: The Best We Can Do (1958), an account of the trial of Dr Bodkin Adams, accused of murdering his rich women patients, and The Faces of Justice (1961), a "not quite straight-faced" reporting of legal practice in the law courts of England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Two semi-autobiographical novels followed at intervals: A Favourite of the Gods (1962) and A Compass Error (1968). They were praised by "the wrong people" - Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford - and failed to achieve the success of her first novel.

When Aldous Huxley died in 1963, Sybille spent six years researching and then writing the two-volume Aldous Huxley: a biography (1973-74). It was an act of filial piety she never repeated.

Sybille Bedford was always interested in the law: "Whenever I was in London in my teens, instead of going to films and matinées, I went to the law courts to watch trials," she once told me. She believed them " a good school for novelists", as they provided the most extravagant material, and taught "the near impossibility of reaching the truth" . Later she covered many famous cases, both in Britain and the United States, including the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial, the Auschwitz trial of 1964 in Frankfurt, and Jack Ruby's.

Then in 1989 came Jigsaw, "a biographical novel" and her first in 18 years, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It revived interest in her work, and led to the republication of several of her books, winning her a new and large readership among the younger generations. Jigsaw seemed a synthesis of her previous three novels as well as their source, in which "bits and pieces of people and their lives come together to present an overall view".

When I asked her why she called the book "a novel" when it was clearly her memoirs, especially since her previous novels had covered the same ground, she answered that it was hard to separate truth from invention, memory from imagination, that some of the characters and episodes were " real", while others had been transformed or embellished.

The central theme of all Sybille Bedford's novels was the relationship between fate and freedom: through her protagonists she indicated that as human beings we are free, and therefore responsible for our destinies. Yet at some point we take the wrong turning - "or the right turning" - and the course of our lives changes irretrievably. She called this " intellectual constant" a "device with which to sharpen in narrative what is diffuse in life".

Sybille Bedford was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature - elected one of the society's 10 Companions of Literature in 1994 - and was appointed OBE in 1981. She was also an active member of the English Pen Club, and its Vice-President in 1979. Her joie de vivre expressed itself in an abiding curiosity about human beings, a deep love of nature, and a lifelong interest in wine. One of England's best-known connoisseurs, she travelled widely all over this country and abroad, especially in France, to "tasting" and "judging" ceremonies. She described the charm and power of wine, and her own love for it, in a memorable passage in A Compass Error:

[She] loved wine from childhood on. She loved the shapes of bottles, and of course the romantic names and the pictures of the pretty manor houses on the labels, and she loved the link with rivers and hillsides and climates and hot years, and the range of learning and experiment afforded by wine's infinite variety; but what she loved more than these was the taste - of peach and earth and honeysuckle and raspberries and spice and cedarwood and pebbles and truffles and tobacco leaf; and the happiness, the quiet ecstasy that spread through heart and limbs and mind.

When Bedford read an article I had written on Persian cuisine, she invited herself to dinner. She arrived with a little basket containing two bottles of wine, red and white, already opened and half consumed: "I'm fastidious about my wine," she explained, refusing what I had provided. She poured herself a glass from her white wine to drink with the hors d'oeuvre, and another from the red for the main course; then she fastened the corks expertly and put the depleted bottles back in her basket - she seemed relieved when I told her I was a teetotaller. She made up for spurning my wine with lavish praise of the Persian dishes: "I love food, good food, simple, authentic. Taking food with friends has a sacramental dimension for me. It is part of my love of life."

She published two volumes, of essays, As It Was (1990) and Pleasures and Landscape (2003); and last year, a memoir, Quicksands, which was a summing-up of her previous work rather than, as many hoped, a revealing addition. I last saw her in the autumn at a round-table discussion on travel writing, followed by a dinner in her honour hosted by the French Institute in London. She was on fine form and enjoying the excellent wines provided.

Shusha Guppy

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past