“Oh, shall we never escape the muddling consequences of our family history?” Luckily for readers of Sybille Bedford’s novels, the answer to that question—asked rather rhetorically by the heroine of A Favourite of the Gods, Bedford’s 1963 novel about a woman who has “all the advantages one would wish for and more,” with the exception of some very difficult relatives—is “no.” All of Bedford’s fiction, including A Favourite and its 1968 sequel A Compass Error, is preoccupied with the muddling consequences of history on whole families and their individual members. One of the epigraphs Bedford chose for A Compass Error is Victor Hugo’s observation that “the past is a part of us, perhaps the most essential.” The inescapability of the past, embodied above all in family histories and family behaviors, leads inexorably to a truth evoked by another epigraph she chose, this one from Middlemarch: “Our deeds are fetters that we forge ourselves … Ay, truly, but I think it is the world / That brings the iron.” The intersection between our deeds and “the world”—the larger histories of families and nations that often mock our belief in our ability to act freely—is a place to which Bedford returned again and again in her writing.
The families in question are always of a given type: European, upper-class, sometimes titled, moneyed (usually as the result of an advantageous marriage to non-upper-class, non-titled outsiders), sophisticated, undogmatic except when their own self-image is concerned. The histories in question are sometimes private—the crucial background drama in A Favourite results from the cultural clash between an American heiress and her charmingly dissolute Italian husband—and sometimes political, even global. In A Legacy, Bedford’s remarkable 1956 debut, the military ambitions and protocols of Wilhelmine Germany set in motion a sequence of events that begins as absurd and ends in a tragedy that engulfs all of the novel’s families. The rise of Italian fascism in the 1920s impinges on the lives of that American heiress and her descendants in both A Favourite of the Gods and, even more strongly, A Compass Error, at whose conclusion the woman with “all the advantages” finally runs out of luck as she flees from Paris in 1940.
Bedford herself was all too familiar with muddled families buffeted by complex histories. She was born in 1911 as Sybille von Schoenebeck, to a father of the lesser German aristocracy and a wealthy half-Jewish mother. (Both were clearly the prototypes for characters in A Legacy, the narrative of which is composed of layered reminiscences of two grand families at the fin de siècle, one a charmingly eccentric, rather Rousseauian clan from the south German nobility, the other a close-knit if spectacularly dysfunctional group of wealthy Berlin Jews.) After her parents’ divorce and, later, her father’s death, the adolescent Sybille traveled extensively in England, Italy, and France, often in the company of her morphine-addicted mother and the mother’s Italian lover, an architect; eventually she settled in the Provençal fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer, where she was befriended by Aldous Huxley and, while still very young, absorbed into a literary circle that included Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. After the rise of the Nazis, Bedford entered into a mariage blanc with a gay acquaintance of Huxley’s (Walter Bedford, “one of our bugger friends”) in order to obtain a British passport and flee Europe. After spending the wartime years in America, she ended up living in England for many years with the American writer Eda Lord. During the postwar years, she wrote her novels. The two subjects that preoccupied her journalism were the workings of the law—among other things, she was responsible for Life magazine’s coverage of the Jack Ruby trial—and, unsurprisingly, travel. Readers bemused by the apparent incongruity of the author’s interests would do well to reflect on a line from A Favourite: “If a lawyer’s mind means an ability to grasp facts and their implications, a gift of exposition and a willingness to see the other side, then a lawyer’s mind is an asset indeed for any writer.” Bedford died in 2006, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday.
It is hardly surprising that the author couldn’t resist mining this dazzlingly rich material for her first novel. But because A Legacy takes the form of a kind of elaborate narrative scrapbook—consisting of fragmentary conversations, dimly recalled anecdotes, and oft-retold family legends interwoven with transcriptions of letters, telegrams, and newspaper accounts, all eventually assembled by a young girl who is the product of the two families entangled by the novel’s plot (all this being the “legacy” to which the title refers)—this novel has no real protagonist other, perhaps, than “family” itself. Yet the women in particular are arresting, memorable, as Bedford’s female characters always are: a consumptive Jewish heiress who has unsuspected passions (the first wife of the little girl’s Charles Swann-ish father); the heiress’s sister-in-law, a shrewdly realistic woman with an eye for a good investment and a head for business but no talent for love (“her most refreshing talks were with lawyers”); the girl’s mother, a striking Englishwoman with a bracing lack of sentimentality about love and sex. The girl herself is a cipher, but we understand (they are born in the same decade) that to some extent she represents the author herself as a child.
But those characters are stars in a vast constellation. In her next novel, Bedford clearly wanted to focus on a single heroine, an amalgam of those earlier characters: a headstrong young woman of good family and considerable means, intelligent enough to understand that her advantages have created their own problems for living a meaningful life—not least because the “world” impinges on her deeds more than it does for men. In order to create such a character, the author had to free herself from autobiography: “This is my one attempt at fiction with almost no autobiographical sources or associations,” she wrote late in life, in an introduction to a reissue of A Favourite of the Gods. “I wanted to be on my inventive own.” The protagonist of this second novel would, inevitably, be the product of a family like Bedford’s—“one family of multiple nationalities divided (often without realizing this) by the customs of their origins”—but, unlike Bedford, would lack an artistic talent that might allow her to make something of her interesting background and of her beauty, intelligence, culture, and passion; a character who is all too “conscious that it was not enough, that glowing start, that something more is needed. A purpose, a target, a belief? A part. Where?”
That “where?” is a particularly difficult question for Constanza, the novel’s heroine, precisely because there are too many possible answers. The substantial first part of A Favourite, devoted to a leisurely account of Constanza’s family background, the complex parentage and international milieu, makes clear the nature of her dilemma even as it cannily alludes to other authors, other literary expectations. Rico, Constanza’s father, the Roman prince, is kindly, philandering, amused and amusing, his family old and Catholic, its manners unchanging; her mother, Anna, who takes center stage during these early pages, is the independent-minded daughter of a wealthy and upright New England family, “in most respects civilized as well as virtuous,” of a stamp familiar from both history and literature: “they believed in, and practised, absolute commercial probity, tolerance, the arts, charity, good manners. They also believed in absolute domestic respectability.” As anyone who has read Henry James will guess, trouble lies ahead.
But the delicious difference between Bedford’s novel and those of James and Edith Wharton (whom one of A Legacy’s interesting women is reading as she speeds toward the tragic climax of that book) is that, because of the author’s background, A Favourite of the Gods is like a Jamesian novel inside-out—told, that is, from the point of view of the mondain Europeans. Here is the prince, responding to his high-minded wife’s suggestion that they try to educate their peasants:
They wouldn’t enjoy Leopardi and they’d believe the newspaper. Most people are stupid and many things that are printed are stupid and stupid people always read the stupid things, so what you get is a more stupid world. When the stupid peasant has read the stupid newspaper, he feels he is a clever man and knows everything.
In James, we might be invited to disapprove the prince and his lordly disdains, but Bedford indulges him, and not without disapproval. A great source of the pleasure in this novel, as in all of Bedford’s fiction, lies in its richly detailed and often tartly amusing evocations of the class, now vanished, that Bedford knew so well, one for whose delusions, as well as for its sardonic but humane worldliness, the author shows a citrusy admiration.
The Jamesian echo is one that Bedford herself seemed to want the reader to hear: a crucial character in both A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error—an old American friend of Anna’s, long resident in Rome—is in fact called “Mr. James.” The author later claimed to have regretted this choice of names (“a mistake … though a New-Englander with a Harvard link, he was in no ways related, connected, or alike his illustrious namesake, nor to be thought so”) but you have to wonder. For in A Favourite, as in so much of James’s fiction, an encounter between the old and new worlds proves to be the fulcrum of the plot—and the crucial ethical test of its heroine. After years of happy, if somewhat aimless, marriage, Anna’s discovery that her husband has a long-standing affair with an obliging marchesa shocks her to the core, and she leaves Rome with young Constanza in tow. (“Should I have warned her?” the prince, incredulous that his wife didn’t know, exclaims to his sister. “She reads so many books—novels—don’t they tell her what people do?” To which the sister replies, “That’s why we weren’t allowed to read them.”) The peripatetic life that Anna and Constanza subsequently lead, those too many “where’s”—London, Alassio, Tuscany, a life lived in hotels, rented villas, the mother and daughter distractedly shuffling their decks of admirers and lovers—is the backdrop against which Constanza, born before the twentieth century, must figure out who she is.
Here is where “history” makes itself felt. For however rich and lofty Constanza’s provenance, however passionate her desire to live as a modern woman, to exist unconventionally, she is still, in the end, a woman living at the fin de siècle, and hence cannot escape being the heroine of a nineteenth-century tale—can’t help being reduced to her passionate desires. “She had the power to inspire love,” we are told. She is not, the author adds, unhappy; but “there was only a vague disquiet, a nagging question: What is it for? What have I made of it?” The answer to that question lies in the substance and textures of the novel itself: Its desultory progress through decades and cities and landscapes, through Roman palazzi and English hunts, through the English and French and Italian languages, produces in the reader (as it is intended to do) the same combination of sensual pleasure and vague spiritual unease that its heroine struggles with and never quite resolves, even as the reader understands the implications of her dilemma.
One thing Constanza does make is her daughter, Flavia, the heroine of A Compass Error. She, like her mother, is the product of a wrongheaded match: during an extended sojourn in London before and during World War I, Constanza is briefly married to an English art lover (who seems to be more in love with Anna, his mother-in-law, than he is with his wife). But there the resemblance ends: history, again, asserts itself. For in the second novel we are in the late twenties and early thirties, and it is up to Flavia—wholly a child of the new century, the era not of James but of Aldous Huxley, of sour dystopianism but also of the fervor for “Human Potentialities” (as Huxley called it)—to make something more meaningful of her life than her grandmother or mother were able to do.
Much of the novel is devoted to how badly she bungles her own “legacy” at first, but this is a bildungsroman, and errors are to be expected. (The third of the epigraphs Bedford chose for this book is from David Copperfield: “ ‘You are young, sir,’ he said, ‘you are young; you are very very young sir.’ ”) Indeed, if the optimism implicit in the title of the first of these two novels is ironic—Constanza is fortune’s favorite, but where does it get her?—then so too is the pessimism implicit in the title of the second. True, A Compass Error is, like so many coming-of-age stories, largely about making mistakes. Left alone in the South of France by Constanza (who has disappeared to Spain with her latest lover, a statesman and man of letters who is the “right” one, we are tempted to think—finally), the seventeen-year-old Flavia, intellectual but naive, both ambitious and clueless, inadvertently betrays her family during the course of her first grown-up love affair, with a slinky and mysterious Parisian femme fatale who has a destructive agenda that the reader will recognize at once but that the young protagonist is too self-absorbed to see. The novel is about her moral education, about the acquisition of an adult realization that life is more complex than the absolutist young imagine, about a “falling short of her staunch childish code of conduct with its result of damage, permanent damage, to the lives of those who are most to her in the world.”
And yet we know that all will end well enough. This is only partly because A Compass Error is cast as a bittersweet comedy of manners, full of sly Bedfordian touches and a pointed, worldly wit. (“ ‘Does the literal truth matter?’ ” an interviewer asks the grown-up Flavia in a prologue. “She thought about that. ‘To the person to whom it happened.’ ‘Even if that person is a writer?’ ”) Mostly we know this story ends well because it did. There is, after all, something about young Flavia that rings a bell. She is a young woman who has careered through Europe with a difficult mother, only to find herself stopping in a charming Provençal fishing town; there she is soon engulfed by a colony of fascinating artists and their circle, among whose members she has her first experiences of desire, love, art, and faithlessness.
This girl yearns to be a writer and tries to apply herself daily to her “vocation,” even as she fantasizes about what she will do:
She had even less desire to write autobiography than straight fiction; she did not see herself as a future novelist; ideas were what she believed that she was after. Aldous Huxley … professed that ideas were more interesting … than men and women, and Flavia was sure that she agreed.
What she hoped to write (talent and acquired knowledge permitting) were essays, books of essays, proposing changes in government, economics, law and general conduct; rational changes, effected by good will, technological advances and the lessons learnt from history …
As we know, this was only half true: the girl grew up to be a writer, but her novels are every bit as good as her other writing; their subject, certainly, was “the lessons learnt from history.” (Or not learnt.) If this particular work of fiction turns out to be more autobiographical than Bedford said it would (“I am not Flavia”), who can blame her? Hers was a remarkable life, and it makes for a remarkable tale.
This essay appears as the introduction to A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error, reissued in a single volume this month by New York Review Books. Reprinted with permission.
Daniel Mendelsohn was born in 1960 and studied classics at the University of Virginia and at Princeton. His new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, will be published by Knopf in September. His essays and reviews appear regularly in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review. His books include The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; a memoir, The Elusive Embrace; and two collections of critical essays, including Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture. He teaches literature at Bard College.