“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. Read More