Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’. Part 2

In my previous post I sketched a background and context for Sybille Bedford’s first novel, A Legacy, published in 1956. In this second post (apologies it’s turned out so long again) it is not my intention to give a review, but to try to illustrate the merits of Sybille Bedford’s technique. This I hope will enable you to decide – if you haven’t read it – whether to do so. If you have, this will maybe provide food for thought – and perhaps disagreement.

A Legacy is divided into five parts of unequal length, which swoop backwards and forwards in time, relating events in fragmentary bursts so that the reader is required to be constantly attentive and to participate in the construction of the narrative. The narrator, who late on we discover is Francesca, the daughter of Julius, the second of the von Felden sons, relates the stories of the families with which her father and his family came into (often abrasive) contact over two generations between 1870-1914 in newly unified Germany.

Sybille Bedford, A LegacyThis narrative voice is highly impressionistically deployed. In the first two parts she tells in great detail and with deceptive charm and wit about the three flawed families (the subject of my previous post). The perspicacity and occasional mordancy with which she does this indicates that Bedford is utilising a narrative perspective that goes beyond the traditionally realistic; there are intimate aspects of the characters’lives and thoughts that the ‘real ‘ Francesca could never have known; in other words Bedford adopts a narrative approach with which we are familiar in modernist fiction – a blend of fictional first person participant (what Genette calls, with rather unhelpful jargon, the homodiegetic narrator), and the omniscient anonymous (heterodiegetic) narrator more favoured by earlier novelists. Perhaps it’s equally unhelpful to use Genette’s term for this blend: the character-focaliser, ie, the person who sees and perceives is also the one who ‘speaks’ the narrative.

This might all sound very technical, but in fact Bedford’s achievement is remarkable: as we saw last time, she heard and observed in her own upbringing much of the material which formed the basis for A Legacy as a young girl sitting listening to the sophisticated and flamboyant table-talk of her adult family. This is reminiscent of early Henry James’s technique (as we know, he’s a strong influence on Bedford) in such fictions as What Maisie Knew, in which a young, innocent character shows limited but often highly perceptive insight into the sometimes baffling and ambiguous behaviour of misbehaving adults. Bedford’s Francesca is far more knowing than any child, but she constantly reminds us of this ingenuous point of view, which highlights the often decadent or reprehensible behaviour of those about whom she writes. Let’s look at this more closely.

Part 1 of the novel opens with a conventional first-person description of the narrator’s birth – very much in the mode of Dickens’ first person narrators like David Copperfield and Pip:

I spent the first nine years of my life in Germany, bundled to and fro between two houses. One was outrageously large and ugly; the other was beautiful…My father’s first wife had died young, leaving a small girl. The widower’s continued position as a son of the house, even after his marriage to my mother some ten years later on, was not looked on as anomalous by anyone concerned; his octogenarian hosts had formed the habit of seeing him as a member of their family. Their perceptions were not fine; and they were not struck by the extension of their hospitality, on the same terms, to my mother, her household, and her child.

There is a childlike innocence discernible in the opening sentence, but the voice rapidly develops into that of a highly intelligent, slightly ironic adult who is set on presenting indirectly more than just a conventional realistic portrait: this also conveys her ironic view of her grandparents. The use of ‘bundled’ suggests a sense of unfairness at being treated like a parcel, and of a certain carelessness (heartlessness?) in her treatment by her parents (and grandparents, perhaps). Already we begin to get a feeling that they are somewhat selfish.

The hospitality shown to her father by his parents-in-law after his first wife’s death (their daughter) is at first sight generous and loving, but the narrator carefully undermines this impression by suggesting that this was more a factor of their eccentricity and familial laxity; it was more to do with ‘habit’ and lack of ‘fineness’ of perception. In a subtle and witty way the narrator has established a richly textured and nuanced scene in which all kinds of family tensions and relations are delineated and responded to, without once spelling this out too overtly.

The syntax also bears out this analysis. The first sentence is short and grammatically simple; subsequent sentences become increasingly sophisticated in structure, with their subordinate clauses and semi-colons, balanced symmetries and the tripled noun phrases at the end. Bedford has thus created at the outset of the novel a narrative voice which is clearly not impartial, and has an incisively intelligently opinionated tone and approach to the characters and plot.

The Merzes, this narrator shows us, value ‘tenu’ in a person’s demeanour; the estate of the Feldens in the warm rural south of Landen in Baden, which Francesca never knew personally, but about which she was able to piece together a picture from the ‘fragments’ her father told her, was more animated:

I knew the sheltered valley of Landen where the apricots had ripened on the south wall every year; I learnt the names of dogs and ducks and horses, and the smell of seasons – of the scent that drifted across the snow from where the sides of boar were smoked, of sweet clouded wine drunk foaming off the press…I learnt of clean straw, oats and clover, of winter honey, walnuts and March wool, of the pig killed at Michaelmas and Easter, and the hams baked whole inside a loaf of bread…[T]he boys were always given brandy and hot water when they came in from skating in the winter dusk, and…Johannes the third son had danced with a bear at a fair.

There are six of these ‘I learnt’ clauses in this passage (which I have had to truncate here), each of which piles up with an exact eye for concrete details lists of food, drink, animals and practices of agrarian-domestic life to create a Keatsian, sensuous and affectionate image of abundance, natural fecundity and pleasure. It’s almost paradisal in its expansive simplicity and honesty compared with the stuffy, architecturally enclosed world of the Merzes in Berlin. (It’s also notable throughout the novel how minutely, and with what passion, the narrator describes food, drink and the customs of mealtimes. It’s well known that Bedford was taught by her father from an early age to be a connoisseur of wine and a consummate cook. This is a novel that can make the reader feel hungry and long for a drink.)

By contrast, embedded in this same passage, the narrator tells us

I did not learn the name of my father’s mother, nor what the tutors had been supposed to teach.

Maybe not quite so paradisal then; even in this idyllic, bucolic setting there is something heedless or lacking in humanity in the regime of the Feldens, a feature which is more obviously shown in the portrayal of the ossified Melz family.

I shan’t say much more now about the plot, for this post is again becoming too long. It concerns the tragic events that surround the decision of the Baron von Felden, when his fortunes decline, to send two of his older sons off to learn a career. Johannes, a sweet soul who loved animals (hence the bear) and had wanted only to be an animal trainer suffers terribly in a brutal Prussian military academy. When he absconds there is a scandal that almost brings down the government. Although a compromise is reached, the outcome brings about two violent deaths and poor Johannes goes mad.

The other main storyline relates the two marriages of Francesca’s father, Julius (and that of his older brother, Gustavus). He is portrayed with a touching mixture of love and affection but also unflinching, pained insight into his flawed, selfish nature (which all the Feldens possess; Gustavus precipitates the tragic climax in the novel out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions).  Julius engages in a ‘side-stepping of self and life through a hobby’ and has ‘a lack of curiosity about the human world’; he has no need for company – except that of pretty women (‘but these loves were not windows, only entrances into another decorated room’ – a rare instance of Bedford’s use of extended metaphor). Later he drives a team of mules and keeps three pet chimps – but he has less interest in people, including his wives and daughters. (There are some brilliantly revealing portrayals in this novel of animals; I particularly like Fanny, the irascibly cunning pet donkey that loves music, wears slippers in the house, and ‘despises’ Francesca when she’s little, but they are assumed by the myopic adults to dote on each other).

The very first time the narrator speaks of Julius telling her about his youth in Baden she says this, which sums up her ambiguous attitude towards him:

He would have preferred solitude, or rather a privacy of animals and objets-d’art, yet thought it was incumbent on him to spend a reasonable amount of his time – at dinner, perhaps – with his kind. His language was limited, he was certainly not aware of words, but I believe that when he spoke he saw what he had lived.

I can’t end without mentioning the humour throughout A Legacy, though I hope it’s been apparent in what I’ve quoted so far.  An early example (there are so many) comes when Julius, who had wanted only to be ‘an amateur cabinet-maker’, is despatched to a crammer’s in Bonn to be educated for a career as a diplomat; he spends most of his time scouring the antique shops of Holland and Belgium. He replaces the tutor’s furniture with his own shrewd acquisitions, and installs his pet raven (‘no cage’), bulldog and cat in the house. He persuades the tutor to keep geese (‘such intelligent animals, he never failed to say, so rewarding’) and to let him supervise the cooking. Evenings are spent playing cards with his crammer, to whom he had taught the games:

The crammer’s idea had been that they might use the time for study.

“After dinner?” said Julius.

The crammer, conscientiously, wrote to Landen. The old Baron…sent a dozen of Madeira and a note to the effect that his son was not an Encyclopaedist but an homme du monde…

After this the crammer succumbs to a life of ‘geese-training, haute cuisine, period furniture and games of chance, with the rest of his establishment given over to the care of Julius’s clothes.’

I’d like to finish with a word about the dialogue in this novel. Here’s a random example towards the end of the novel, set in the Merz household to which Julius has returned  when the ‘Felden scandal’ fills the newspapers, and scurrilous things have been published about the families:

“What is it all about?” said Grandmama Merz. It was second breakfast. [As with the Feldens, meals are a central institution in the Merz household. One breakfast does not suffice]

“Jules must sue for libel,” said Emil [an old Merz uncle].

“Damages!” said Grandpapa.

“Fine son-in-law,” said Markwald [another Merz relative].

“We emerge not unscathed, sir.”

“Has someone been spending too much money?” said Grandmama.

“It’s about Jules’s brother, mama.”

“The Regimental Tragedy, ma’am.”

“Unfortunate young man…Mustn’t mention it to Jules.” [Bedford’s own ellipsis]

Although people do not necessarily speak like that, one accepts that these characters do. The bizarre non sequiturs and ellipses, unattributed speeches, the gaps and unanswered questions are perfectly pitched and usually very revealing of character, as well as comically extravagant (or sometimes, tellingly tragic or sinister; the Merz gentlemen are profligate sexually and with money; the Merz’s son Eduard gambles disastrously and is constantly bailed out financially by his wealthy wife; much of this – and the strained inter-family relation – is hinted at in this extract).

Space doesn’t allow for much more, but I can’t resist one further example, which is also highly revealing of the haughtily disengaged manner Francesca’s mother demonstrates towards her when the narrator is just a little girl. I shall have to quote selectively from the opening pages of Part 4, which also contains a telling explanation of Bedford’s method in constructing her novel; the scene is set in the garden, with characteristic accumulation of evocative sense-perceptions which I’ve had to exclude.

“Why?” I said. “Why, mummy, why?”

“Is it an idle question?” said my mother, keeping a hand on her book; “is it wise? Don’t you know that you may have to stay for an answer. And I may bore you. I don’t like boring people.”

We are said to re-invent our memories; we often rearrange them. Did we hear this then? Do we remember saying that? or do we remember being told we said it? Did this happen at one time, or is this clear-cut scene, that amber moment, a collation, a palimpsest, a stereographic recording of many others? …

“Why – everything?”

“Now you have stopped me. Before I’d begun. And I did want to talk. What are you after? An outline of the Aristotelian method? the Copernican system? Not Genesis, I take it; I know you only talk theology with the natives. A thirst for knowledge is very well – it wears off so early – but you must be more selective in your enquiries, duck. There is nothing so fatal as a good vast subject. You know, the man you try to talk to about crop rotation and who says Atlantis is more exciting. Well, it isn’t. I want your mind – if you turn out to have one – to be concrete and fastidious.”

“Yes, mummy.”

“You have already formed this wish yourself? You have grounds of hope for its fulfilment? Or do you merely concur?”


“I must be boring you already. Go away and play.”

This is typical of the spirit of the novel: Wildean wit, exquisite characters and dialogue – but also monstrous egotism and a fair amount of mordant sarcasm and downright cruelty demonstrated to the young and innocent by adults who should know better. It’s one of the finest, most disturbing portrayals of damaged family relations I have encountered outside of Dickens.

There’s much more that I’ll have to pass over, but I would urge you read the novel and maybe comment here on whether you agree with my account of it in these two posts.







Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’: Part 1

Sybille Bedford:  A Legacy. Ist publ 1956. Penguin Classics 2005. 368 pp

This is the other book I bought at the ‘name your own price’ bookshop in Exeter, along with the Nooteboom stories that I wrote about in my last post.

I wonder if your recent reading influences – or even taints – your impression of the novel you’ve just finished? Having just read Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose sequence – all five volumes of exquisitely expressed suffering and its cast of grotesques, monsters and victims –  and Nooteboom’s melancholy stories of middle-aged angst (reviewed here last time), I found my reading of A Legacy impaired by the mood instilled by those books. The eccentric cast of characters seemed on first reading a little tedious, and I found it difficult to sympathise with yet another set of the etiolated rich (Melrose) and their varying degrees of world-weariness (Nooteboom).

When I started making notes for this post, however, and dipped back into the novel, I found myself absorbed and delighted by Bedford’s crafted prose. As I marked passages to quote the list just grew: there’s so much to please the reader here, despite the drawbacks of operatic plotting and characterisation in yet another book full of wittily charming (or just plain weird) privileged gentry.

So let’s start what I think is going to be a lengthy piece…In fact I think this will have to be part 1 of two.

Bedford’s own introduction is a good place to start, and I shall make this the basis of Sybille Bedford, A Legacythis first instalment, but shall incorporate some quotations from the novel itself to illustrate what I mean about her prose style, and encourage you to read the novel if you haven’t already .

She begins by acknowledging her admiration for the fiction of Ivy Compton-Burnett and the ‘witty acerbities’ of her dialogue. I’ve never got past the opening pages of any of her novels, but would agree that the speeches she gives her characters fizz along. This quality is found on almost every page of A Legacy.

Another clear influence is Nancy Mitford, another purveyor of dazzling drawing-room repartee in a vanished world; it was Mitford who lent a copy of the novel to Evelyn Waugh  – whose novels can also be seen as an influence on Bedford, including the Catholic elements – and whose review in the Spectator, which he modestly called a ‘tiny warm notice’, thrilled the author and boosted sales. In his review he drew attention to yet another influence: the early and middle period Henry James (‘too large a dose’ of him, he suggested, a little unfairly: Bedford’s range of types of character and geographical/political/spiritual interests are very different from his; but one can see what Waugh means – there’s that crystalline dialogue and eye for social detail and the similar fascination with the clashes in sensibilities between characters (innocent v. jadedly knowing) of varying, mostly sybaritic backgrounds).

The plot is one of the least satisfying parts of the novel. It relates the intertwined stories of three German families in the period roughly between the Franco-Prussian War, around 1870, and 1914. They are ‘somewhat unfortunately linked by marriages’ but ‘wholly unlike each other in habits, values and religions’. They are also ‘divided by their ignorance or pursuit of politics, by geography and by money. All had a lop-sided perception of their time, taking their position as a norm, unaware that they could be seen…as eccentric, even anachronistic members of their respective milieus.’

The Merzes live in ‘solid, upholstered, Jewish Berlin, the city of the disciplines, drives and deceits of the Protestant Prussian North’. They are immensely rich, but little trace survives in them of their cultured, energetic ancestors (here I need to give my first extract from the novel itself):

They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons…They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets…The Merz’s had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no-one besides the family, the doctor, and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table.

The family business has long since been of no interest to the patriarch of Voss Strasse, Grandpapa Merz; he occasionally signs papers when required to and allows his butler – a marvellous creation called Gottlieb, a sort of Addams Family Jeeves who’s been with the family for half a century – to keep them supplied with new banknotes (‘Money, like animals, was unhygienic’ – the narrative is full of throwaway gems like this!)

I wonder whether Bedford chose this name because of its associations with the avant-garde German expressionist-Dadaist-collagist artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), perhaps best known for his ‘Merz’ projects, a title he took from a found text: ‘Commerz und Privatbank’. He edited a journal by that name in the 20s and early 30s, and converted his houses into ‘Merzbau’ installations, the last being in Cumbria, England. The title is an ironically critical allusion to the corrosive nature of capitalist systems. Although he flourished immediately after the end of the First World War, and is therefore associated with the period following the events in A Legacy, his is an apt and provocative name to use for the atrophied family of entrepreneurs in Voss Strasse. Maybe the tendency towards a collage structure in the novel is in part a homage to him. (She may never have known of him, of course, but I find it hard to believe that she wouldn’t be aware of this highly influential and innovative figure in the art world.)

The other two families (back to the Introduction) ‘belonged to the discrepant realities of the Catholic South’ (Baden). The Bernins are ‘obsessed by ecumenical dreams of European dimensions’. They are interested in power and pursue it with dangerous determination – which largely precipitates the more tragic part of the plot:

Count Bernin Sigmundshofen…was an extremely active man, the leader of a powerful Catholic clique, the head of one of the great South German families, and a public figure…He was one of those men who are supposed to have a friend in every chancellery, and he certainly had a relative in many; not only Baron Felden accused him of ambition. He now seems to have been something else: a disinterested man with a cause. He was also a meddler by conviction, had immense experience of  motives and affairs, and…considerable charm.

The von Feldens are more affectionately portrayed as ‘Augustans’ from the ‘retarded eighteenth century’; they are from the conservative Catholic aristocracy, and disinclined to indulge in casuistic plotting like Bernin, as shown in this piece of Bedford’s charming descriptive-historical description from ch. 1 of Part 2 of the novel:

The family was old, landed, agreeably off without being in the least rich and of no particular distinction…[F]or the last four centuries Feldens had looked after their land, diminishing rather than otherwise, filled diplomatic posts of a more decorative than political character and discharged functions at provincial courts. Yet they were neither backwoodsmen nor courtiers, but country gentlemen of cultured, if not general, interests. They drank hock and claret, but they also drank and knew how to make their own wine. They dabbled in the natural sciences; they enjoyed and contributed to those branches of the arts that increase the amenities of living – domestic architecture, instrument-making, horticulture. They were bored by the abstract, bored by letters, and their acceptance of thought was confined to thought about things…They played music like craftsmen, and made objects like artists.

I particularly like the chiasmic symmetry of that last sentence. This light-hearted passage ends, more ominously, despite the comic coda, with a characteristic change of tone by Bedford:

They ignored, despised, and later dreaded, Prussia; and they were strangers to the sea.

They are clearly doomed.  Being skilled in bee-keeping and stag-driving, training geese and keeping unusual pets, and understanding ‘the ruses employed by peacocks’ does not equip such an unworldly family to face and survive the onslaught of the decades after 1900.

The old Baron’s second son, Julius, we realise as the narrative progresses, is the father of the young woman who narrates the novel so obliquely and with so many lacunae and shifts of perspective ; only late on does she disclose that her name is Francesca.  In many ways this novel is technically modernist, despite its ostensibly traditional realist surface, which has more in common with the Thomas Mann novels Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain(who is, anyway, neither a full-on realist or modernist?) One could also make out a case for some post-modern features, such as the demanding collage or fragmentary narrative structure already mentioned (Merz again), which reminds me of other recently read authors: Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick.

Each of these last two southern German families, Bedford suggests in her Introduction, ‘stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany, and of what was brewing therein.’

And it is this aspect of the novel, I believe, which raises it above the level of those social comedians I mentioned earlier (except, perhaps, James): the ‘legacy’ of the title is World War I and subsequently the Holocaust.

Bedford’s Introduction goes on to comment on this perspective and on the relatively autobiographical nature of the novel:

Much of what was allowed to happen in these decades [ie 1870-1914] was ill-conceived, cruel, bad (in simple terms); there was also a German dottiness, devoid of humour…Is some of this a foundation of the vast and monstrous thing that followed? Did the private events I lightly draw upon leave some legacy? Writing about them made me think so. Hence the title.

She did no research. She was born in Charlottenburg in family circumstances similar to Francesca’s. She left Germany as a child, however, and when the Nazis rose to power and discovered her Jewish ancestry, impounded her passport. In 1935 she was obliged to enter into a marriage of convenience with the gay English officer, Walter Bedford. This marriage was brief, but she kept the surname for the rest of her life. She felt such an antipathy for Germany, in fact, that she barely visited again.

Most of what she says, therefore, about people and places in the novel is derived from

what I saw and above all heard and over-heard as a child at the age of roughly three to ten, much of which I managed to absorb, retain and decades after, to re-shape in an adult mode. The rest is invention and surmise…metamorphosed by imagination, turned into distillations of a past – expressed by rumours, innuendos, half-truths, vengeful tales as well as pastoral set-pieces and fond recalls.

This gives a pretty accurate picture of the content of the narrative, which I shall return to in more detail next time. It’s intriguing to think of this little girl, sitting at table with these clever, literary adults, being expected to follow their sophisticated conversation, and even to take an intelligent part. Neither is it difficult to see from where she gets the scintillating dialogue and repartee, with its ellipses and ambiguities.

How much of it then was autobiographical? ‘Up to a point, quite a lot – privately and publicly. All the same that legacy is not my story; most of it happened before I was born.’

She goes on to give more of the circumstantial details which she experienced and put into the narrative: the evil schools, the family scandal, the shootings.

The novel was written 1952-55 – ‘years of forebodings and fears: the Bomb, the Cold War’. There is something of that ‘legacy’ that permeates the novel that enables it to transcend what some commentators have accused the novel of: being too sepia-tinted, nostalgic for ‘things past’ in a sort of Proustian haze. This is I think to misread it. The legacy of the title is what happened after 1914, and as we commemorate the centenary of that terrible first War we can see in these pages much of what brought about the disasters of the years that followed in terms of the social disintegration and upheaval that these three families adumbrate through their own private catastrophes, which are narrated against the backdrop of the society of middle Europe across two generations in the half-century leading up to the assassination in Sarajevo.

I began by indicating how my guarded response to this novel had been influenced by my prior reading. I now see that A Legacy resembles Nooteboom’s Foxes in that both books are about memory, a melancholy sense of loss and mutability, but where Bedford has the advantage is that she’s also less inclined to want to forget, or else in re-telling and reshaping true stories she’s more interested in arriving at a clearer truth. Unlike St Aubyn she’s prepared to show some tolerance as she paints her portrait of decadent and flawed high society as it plunges inexorably into an abyss at least partly of its own making. She doesn’t want to preserve that vanished world, as perhaps Mitford and the others she was influenced by (maybe secretly) wanted; neither did she want to see it smashed. She’s able instead to indicate through intelligent, subtle, fragmentary and indirect narrative strategies the mysterious forces that determine the trajectories of people’s lives.

Next time I shall turn my attention more closely to the ways in which she achieved that admirable outcome, with more on the skill with which she manipulates fragments of time and place in the narrative, how she creates memorable characters who are more than social-comical caricatures, and how she writes some of the most interestingly varied and satisfying dialogue I’ve read: she even outshines the brilliant St Aubyn in this respect.