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Pleasures and perils of a ‘premature European’

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Essay | 22 minute read
Sybille Bedford was a woman before her time. A lesbian who married and mixed with the Bloomsbury set, her books straddled the frontiers between novels, autobiography and reportage, and should be better remembered today, argues a writer

I

The Home Office has always tried to crack down hard on marriages of convenience arranged to wangle a British passport for dubious foreigners. Back in 1935, for instance, a shady young German who lived on the French Riviera spent time in London. Mysteriously, she agreed to marry a sort of night-club bouncer – a man she had never met before – in a civil ceremony at Caxton Hall. Alarm bells in Whitehall rang loud loud. This ‘wedding’ looked like a transparent fraud. Suspicious investigators made it clear that the cosmopolitan chancer faced deportation, if not prosecution, in short order.

Yet it turned out the German had friends in high places: writers who knew leading lawyers, who intervened on her behalf. One literary pal – the Belgian-born Maria Nys, married to Aldous Huxley – even went to beg the Home Secretary for mercy. ‘Perhaps it had been so unEnglish that it worked,’ the fake ‘bride’ wrote later. The Home Office called off its dogs. The register-office nuptials went ahead. That louche ‘club attendant’ who went by the name – itself an alias – of Terry Bedford had done his job of securing a UK passport for the Freiin (Baroness) Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schönebeck. He disappeared from her life. But not before the pretend couple held a wedding party. Virginia Woolf came, along with ‘some minor politicians, our godfather designer, one or two Quakers, quite a few Bloomsburys and, led in by Terry, half a dozen showgirls, very pretty (delighting Aldous), and some tough males, bruisers rather than ephebes. Virginia Woolf came up to me, took mine into her exquisite hand … This, she said, is a very queer party. I can’t understand anything about it; one day you must come and tell me.’

Sybille Bedford’s long and eventful life – born in Berlin in 1911, she died in 2006 after many years living in a book-lined Chelsea flat – was a very queer party indeed. Along its ninety-five-year path, her multiple reinventions gave rise to half a dozen remarkable books that deserve much wider fame than they enjoy today. A Legacy, the artfully fictionalised version of her family history that she published in 1956, is on the Penguin Modern Classics list. Several other works remain in print. In 2017, New York Review Books added a double volume of her 1960s novels – A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error – to its own classics catalogue. This June it was joined on the NYRB list by Jigsaw, the 1989 autobiographical novel that saw its seventy-eight-year-old author shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Her courtroom reportage on some of the key trials of the twentieth century – above all, the obscenity case against D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, and the epoch-making Frankfurt prosecutions of Auschwitz personnel in 1963–65 – is more patchily available. Daunt Books has reissued both the Chatterley book and, under the title Pleasures and Landscapes, a selection of her essays on wine, food and travel – high-end journalism rooted in her stubborn appreciation of sensual pleasure as a bulwark against the shocks that life threw at her. But her landmark two-volume life of Aldous Huxley – the intellectual hero whose ‘inability to lie or hate, to form a petty thought or malevolent emotion’ served as a guiding star for her – seems to have fallen into second-hand limbo.

Overall, this shape-shifting memoirist, novelist, journalist, biographer and travel writer remains absent from the standard pictures of her period. Sybille Bedford – and the ‘Sybille’ designates more of her life than the ‘Bedford’ – crossed, or simply ignored, so many borders and barriers. No pigeonhole seems to offer her a fitting niche. Just as she migrated between languages, cultures and social settings, so her books straddle the frontiers that separate novels, autobiography and reportage. Their ingenuity, grace and cunning predate by decades more recent ventures in ‘autofiction’. In person, Sybille baffled friends and peers, slipping between stereotypes and out of their grasp. The novelist Nancy Mitford struggled to reconcile the ambience of A Legacy with her own (somewhat caricatural) view of the author. Mitford found it odd that this ‘tough little person & ferocious Lesbian, always dressed as a motor racer, should choose to write about an age of elegance, beautiful Princess, unfaithful (but fond at heart) Prince & so on’. Her bewilderment should pique our curiosity. And what a riveting biopic Sybille’s adventures in the twentieth century would make.

Woolf’s reference to that ‘very queer’ party was right on the money. Sybille had lived with her English-born, half-Jewish mother since the late 1920s at Sanary-sur-Mer, east of Marseilles. After 1933, the unassuming little port almost by accident became a haven for German writers and artists in flight from the Nazi regime. Sybille got to know Thomas Mann and his twin children, Klaus and Erika, who settled nearby. When he learned that the young Baroness von Schönebeck hoped to make a name as an author in English, Mann was aghast. He ‘commented with pained disapproval on my intended abandonment of what he devoutly called the German Sprachboden, the ultimate foundation of his work. The structure, the run of the grammar would not bend to the ways I should one day want to shape what I would try to write … To get into one language deeply, I found, one has to forsake all others.’

Thomas Mann with family and friends, 1939. Pictured from left to right: Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden and his wife, Erika Mann, Thomas Mann with his wife Katia, their second daughter, professor Elisabeth Mann-Borgese and their eldest son, Klaus (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

To escape the grasp of Hitler, Erika Mann married the poet W. H. Auden. That marriage of convenience gave Sybille a model for her own paper nuptials. Just as with Erika and Wystan, this prudent transaction to secure one party’s safety took place between a gay woman and a gay man. Sybille certainly had affairs with men, but her primary relationships were with women. She had long-term partnerships with fellow-writers and editors – Esther Murphy, Evelyn Gendel, Eda Lord – and a close friendship over more than half century with her patron, Allanah Harper. Yet she belonged to a Bloomsbury-era cohort which cherished sovereign freedom in private as in public life. They bridled at the idea of recruiting the heart’s affections into any creed or cause. That generation found it problematic to place sexual choice at the heart of creative identity. Their detachment from the categories familiar today is another reason why Sybille tends to slip between the cracks of criticism.

If Sybille felt impatient with group identities, she was far from being a free-floating dilettante. On the contrary: her quest for a British passport came about because, years earlier than many anti-Nazi Germans, she had made a public stand against the nascent tyranny. In Sanary, she wrote an essay on her beloved Aldous Huxley for the emigré magazine that Klaus Mann had founded, Die Sammlung. It included one uncompromising paragraph that attacked Hitler’s regime. That was enough. Since her father’s death in 1925, guardians and courts in Germany had administered the family estate and granted Sybille funds from it. Her account was rapidly frozen. As she wrote, even by 1935 ‘The mills of oppression were already grinding slow and small’. The Third Reich had identified an enemy. It took her income. It would have taken her life if given a sliver of a chance. This was not the pose of a pampered flapper.

In Quicksands, the undisguised memoir she published in 2005, Sybille states that ‘The relation of the single man or woman to history is that of victim or escapee … As for me, I would consider myself largely – and gratefully – an escapee. As such I owe. To what, to whom?’ Her books, protean in their genres but firmly anchored in the events of her life, compose an ever-changing answer to that question. A blend of privilege and peril always seems to mark their roundabout route through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

II

Sybille’s journey across borders began in upper-crust Berlin before the First World War. Her father, Maximilian von Schönebeck, came from the Catholic aristocracy of Baden in south-west Germany, near the French border. In Jigsaw, Sibylle evokes the family roots in this easy-going if patriarchal backwater: that ‘mild bland rural country of meadows and trout-streams, small farms, low mountains and small towns; their home was Catholic West Continental Europe, and the centre of their world was France. They ignored, despised and later dreaded Prussia; and they were strangers to the sea.’ When he married Sybille’s part-English mother Lisa Bernhardt in 1910, Maximilian was already a widower. Melanie Merz, his first wife, came from the Jewish haute bourgeoisie of Berlin: those grand families whose wealth derived from trade and industry but whose status drew them into the orbit of the older German nobility.

A Legacy summons the plush, stiff and hidebound world of the Merzes with a wonderful mix of mischief and nostalgia. Even in the 1900s, the family feels that best days of their prosperity have faded; one relative, Eduard, has become a compulsive gambler whose follies threaten to ruin them all. Even in their stuffy and over-decorated Berlin drawing-rooms, rustlings of mass anti-Semitism blow a chill breeze through the velvet curtains. Tabloid headlines bray that ‘Judo-aristocrats feast as unemployment soars’. Feckless Edu’s debts, so massive that even the Kaiser complains about them, risk a scandal that will damage the entire community.

With the noble if threadbare Catholic von Schönebecks on one flank and the Jewish Merzes, wealthy but vulnerable, on another, young Sybille – ‘Baroness Billi’ to staff on her father’s estate – grew up with a unique double perspective on early twentieth-century Germany. Her mother, though, remained an outsider to both sides of her husband’s family. Partly English, or thought of as English by her German in-laws, Lisa Bernhardt – whom Sybille calls Constance or Caroline in her books – became both an inspiration and a warning for her equally restless daughter. Quick-witted, whimsical, courageous but often self-destructive, Lisa lived her border-busting internationalism not as a lark or a fad, but as an ethical mode of being that helped shape her daughter’s destiny. The 1968 novel A Compass Error begins with a press interview in which the heroine Flavia – another avatar of Sybille – recalls her early life. She dubs herself a ‘premature European’. Thanks to the multilingual, multicultural outlook of both Maximilian and Lisa, their daughter did from her early childhood learn to think and act as a citizen of – if not the world, then at least of the whole European continent.

That instinctive cosmopolitanism took root early. Quicksands contains an astonishing passage in which the events of 11 September 2001 stir Sybille, aged ninety, to reflect on her mother’s horror at the chauvinistic savagery of the First World War. I know of no other significant author who responded to 9/11 by excavating first-hand memories of the Great War, more than eight decades previous. In itself, that quality of witness sustained across such a vast span of time makes Sybille Bedford a literary figure without parallel.

She remembers that, during the 1914–18 conflict, ‘My mother told me in very simple terms what war meant: people killing and maiming each other. This war should not be; no war should ever be.’ She learned too that ‘”My country right or wrong” was always wrong. One might love a place, feel belonging; one must not love “a nation”. In a mature world, my mother said, there would be no nations, only differing places, with different people living together with different customs.’ Contemplating 9/11, Sybille treats it as ‘Another turning of the screws of horror, suffering and pity, of man’s inhumanity to man … Very little has changed in our nature since we first set out from the caves, stones and cudgels on hand; infinitely much has changed about the means by which we are able physically and spiritually to torment and kill.’ We still hear Lisa’s voice, not much changed since her daughter first absorbed her dismay at murderous jingoism in a gilded salon in Berlin.

Marital monotony suited neither Lisa nor Maximilian – both, in their own way, dreamy vagabonds. After the couple separated, Sybille lived with her father in the down-at-heel Baden idyll that she entrancingly restores to life in A Legacy and Jigsaw. It reads like a cash-strapped fairy-tale: Baron Hard-Up and his Cinderella in her ragged hand-me-downs. ‘I opened up the chicken coops and shut them again at dusk’, Jigsaw recalls: ‘I fed the geese and made the dogs’ dinner (it was served by my father), I fanned the smokehouse fire, turned the joints of pork in their barrel of brine, drew our daily cider.’ Yet both inner disquiet and distant thunder menaced this backwater bliss. Her lonely father, unable to boost his dwindling funds save by selling the medieval and Renaissance curios he loved to collect, was all but wiped out by the German hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The father figure in A Legacy, named Julius, is plagued by premonitions of disaster. He can hardly leave home for a day without suffering ‘the vision of the house burnt to the ground’.

Sybille, though, not only feared upheaval – the ‘disconnection of lines and life’ – but actively courted it. As a child, she ran away from home to stay with her Merz half-sister, known as Jacko, in her musical household in Wiesbaden. This mostly comic escapade, ‘the most stimulating episode of my life so far’, ends well in its various retellings – though, in one, we learn that Jacko’s politician husband would later be executed by the Nazis. Danger – political or personal – often looms over the romps and stunts that punctuate Sybille’s progress. In the mid-1920s, after her father’s death, she went to live in Italy with Lisa and her mother’s new partner, the architect and designer Norberto Marchesani (called ‘Alessandro’ in the books). After some golden seasons in Naples, Florence, Rome and Alassio on the Italian Riviera, it was the couple’s growing involvement in anti-Fascist resistance that triggered an escape by train across the French border. By chance, that flight led the family to Sanary-sur-Mer – the spot where Sybille would feel most at home.

III

In Sanary, she flourished. Both the local culture of the Midi and the stimulation offered by French and expat friends laid the foundations for her lifetime of writing. Its bedrock consisted of what might be called a principled hedonism: a rational, guilt-free pursuit of knowledge and freedom that finds pleasure in understanding, and understanding in pleasure. In Jigsaw, Sybille captures the elements of that first enchantment with the town, its hinterland and its people: ‘the conjunction of the perennial austere beauty of climate and nature – the scouring mistral, the unbudging sun – with the sweetness and sharpness and quickness, the rippling intelligence, the accommodating tolerance of the French manière de vivre gave one large sense of living rationally, sensually… as no other place in Europe, no other place in the world, France between the wars made one this present of the illusion of freedom.’

In her post-war gourmet’s essays on food, wine and places, Sybille can sound like an especially fluent forerunner of Ottolenghi-style cookery writers, or the escape-to-Provence pedlars of a bourgeois Mediterranean dream. Yes, she loved what tourists in the Midi love, from the herbal scent of the maquis on the hillsides to the blush of a fine rosé. But, for her, that good life under the Provençal sun made sense only as part of a firm devotion to rational freedom in the face of prejudice and hate. In Sanary, she forged the lifelong bond with the Huxleys that led, in the 1970s, to Sybille’s definitive biography of Aldous. She slipped easily into an ever-widening circle of literary and artistic friends. It eventually stretched from the Manns and the Huxleys to the boozy, druggy remnants of the 1920s ‘Bright Young Things’ and, later, American globetrotters such as the war reporter and novelist (and for five years, the third Mrs Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn. She called her fellow tough-cookie ‘Syb’.

Sybille did more than feed her mind and learn her craft in Sanary. An ace motorist, she ripped up the winding Riviera roads in a variety of sports cars, the nippier the better. She also fell in love. The 1968 novel A Compass Error fictionalises her affair with Renée Kisling: a Sanary neighbour, and wife of the Polish-born artist Moïse Kisling. When she sleeps with the character there called Thérèse, the heroine Flavia feels a kind of emotional homecoming. ‘To the young, so much is known and unknown. Before: the mystery, the blueprint, the half-imagined, half-refused. Once on the other side: the always-known, the click into place, acceptance; the unthought unthinkable turned fact, the plunge accomplished, the ship afloat.’ Flavia ‘told herself (the mind would not turn off) how cosy, how reassuring, how nice.’ Sybille was never anybody’s idea of a gay activist, but it may not be total coincidence that she only published this lyrical account of same-sex love in the year after the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Britain.

Her deepest attachment at Sanary, however, was to a charismatic and capricious woman whom she calls Andrée or Oriane in the books. ‘Oriane’ was married to an austere political thinker and social entrepreneur whose actual name was Pierre Mimerel. Pierre’s ‘loving, deep and loyal’ friendship with Sybille lent her another role-model of intellectual idealism. Sybille may have loved women but, as a child of her times, her mentors tended to be male.

Spells of private tuition in London gave the fledgling author – who had already lived in Germany, Italy and France – the chance to learn about the country that would become her final home. Sybille can make a stay with a West Midlands factory-owner’s family sound as exotic as any jaunt in the Campagna or the Camargue. Her sojourns with amiable, stoical bohemian friends of her mother yielded another ideal of behaviour, this time of the keep-calm-and-carry-on type. They were ‘nice people, kind people who kept going by being able to laugh at themselves … a very English strength made up of modesty, pluck, acceptance of the surface of things’.

In congenial London, she relished not only the art and theatre but – crucially – the drama of the courts. After a visit to a libel hearing, she was hooked for life, captivated by ‘the voices, the casuistries of the arguments, the rigidities and drama of that formalised man’s world’. To watch the wheels of justice ritually turn provided both ‘food for thought and supreme entertainment’. Decades later, in Sybille’s books on Dr John Bodkin Adams – a GP accused of killing scores of his patients – and on the Lady Chatterley and Auschwitz trials, that fascination would lead to enthralling non-fiction narratives. They also investigated the nature of law, and reflected on the often strained relationship between justice and truth.

After her father’s death, Sybille had grown up as the ward of distant courts, her fate and her finances determined by invisible arbiters. When, as a writer, she returned to the law, she sought out an arena in which threat and conflict – of the sort she faced throughout her young life – were tamed by rituals subject to rules and reasons. Courtrooms might host superb theatre, but they also offered a brand of therapy – a cathartic pursuit of the truth that may set human beings free. In her account the culture-shifting Frankfurt trials of concentration camp staff, she admits that ‘What was inflicted and endured at Auschwitz cannot be faced by normal human consciousness for long; the heart cannot take in pain on such a scale, the brain cannot contend with wickedness so measureless and so diseased. Pity and anger are inadequate. The law is inadequate’. Yet this formalised public drama of evidence, advocacy and sentencing had to take place. ‘Letting it go, looking aside, would be an offence against justice, morality, the meaning of fate itself.’

IV

Closer to home, other kinds of confrontation and disruption might resist all attempts to control them with persuasive words. In France, Sybille’s mother gradually succumbed to the morphine addiction which hastened her early death (in 1937). The frantic efforts of Lisa’s daughter and her friends to calm her chaotic lifestyle darken the final third of Jigsaw. Lisa’s boundary-busting liberty had come at the cost of crippling insecurity. Money worries, her partner’s infidelities, and a prescient sense of the menace that world events posed to her tolerant, cosmopolitan values, combined to wreck her peace of mind. She could feel at home nowhere, with no one. Sybille and Alessandro would help her kick the habit, fed by a sinister GP, but then ‘a faint smell of ether’ – with which Lisa cleaned her needles – would announce that ‘it had begun again’. Sybille’s writing frequently gives voice to a sensual rationalism that can sound chilly, self-contained, even complacent. Within her family and beyond it, though, she had evidence aplenty that need and compulsion could devour lives. In London, a German Jewish friend – whom she calls Rosie Falkenheim – pursued a long, discreet affair with a gambling-addicted High Court judge, who killed himself after running up enormous debts. Unbridled urges could ruin an existence even as solid and protected as that of Sir Henry McCardie (whom Sybille never names) – a reforming judge still remembered for progressive rulings that championed women’s legal rights.

Buffeted by turbulence both private and public, Sybille fled France as war broke out. She spent the next five years in the penurious safety of the US, where she eked a living as a secretary and translator. Then came her postwar return to Europe – above all Rome – and the tentative beginnings of her writing career. It blossomed after she moved to London and embarked on five decades of travelling, reporting and writing on everything from the trial of Jack Ruby (Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer) to daily life in Tito’s Yugoslavia and vintage Bordeaux. Her first book-length work, however, dealt not with the well-ripened cultural glories of the Old Continent but the brash tropical hubbub of Mexico, where she had lived and travelled for a year in the late 1940s. The Sudden View, published in 1953 and reprinted in 1960 as A Visit to Don Otavio, delights in the non-European excess and extravagance of the Mexican scene but also counts its cost in violence, poverty and instability. Here, where ‘you will never be further from Greece’, Sybille tries to grasp and to express ‘not the long-tended masterpiece of thought and form, the tight French gem, but the haphazard, the absurd, the over-blown, the savage, the gruesome’.

It seems at first glance odd that a writer who would soon – thanks to A Legacy – become known for her romantic and ironic vision of traditional Europe should launch her career with a book about the wild, exotic Americas. Yet Sybille had witnessed the continent whose languages and cultures she inherited collapse into a barbarism that Mexico’s florid cycles of revolution and reaction could never match. This Mexico becomes a distant mirror for her own stricken homelands and heartlands – indeed, she meets European expats with bizarre stories to tell almost everywhere she goes. Even those ‘entirely successful, entirely frightening’ Zapotec temples at Mitla that proclaim ‘the unimportance of the individual’ remind her of Nazi architecture – or rather, of the edifices the Nazis might have built ‘had their taste been better’. Only, perhaps, after an exploratory dip into these spicy, bloody streams could she start to explore the cruelty and terror in her own backyard. A decade later, she would travel to Frankfurt and try – in a German court, under German law, as she points out – to comprehend the evil that had seized hold of the country that bred and raised her.

For the remainder of her heroically prolonged career, she drew on the pleasures of the senses and the mind – food, drink, love, travel, literature and art – as an antidote to the wholly European horrors that had edged so close to her and her loved ones. In Quicksands, after remembering how she and her mother survived shooting, looting and riots during the German revolution of November 1918, she marvels that she has passed more or less unscathed through her ‘intermittent brushes with the catastrophic events of the century’. In fact, she has enjoyed a ‘largely unharmed continuation of my existence as an individual, freer than many’. She adds that ‘Survivors pay with their conscience. Some have paid to the end of their own road. Those who have got off lightly paid perhaps too little (because there can never be enough). I feel I am one of those.’

Sybille never ceased to count her blessings. And she never forgot that those blessings – of friendship, freedom, culture and pleasure – shone more brightly against the gloom of the history that had shadowed the first thirty-five years of her life. Although she had the good fortune to become an escapee rather than victim of that history, her flight from probable catastrophe still looks like a fairly close-run thing. If the Home Office had pressed harder on this bohemian impostor from Berlin by way of Provence who, absurdly, claimed to have an English fiancé; if Maria Huxley and her friends had proven less persuasive, then Sybille von Schönebeck might have been bundled back to Sanary-sur-Mer with her tatty brown German passport, only to find herself trapped when France fell. In that case, the future of this part-Jewish renegade from the Reich who had advertised her loathing for the Führer would not have involved five decades of acclaim and reward as a grand English lady of letters.

The finale of her Auschwitz reportage glows with a righteous fire. This is not the voice of some Riviera party-girl who struck lucky and morphed into a Chelsea dowager. She pays homage to the victims of Nazism with such fervour because she could easily have been one herself. ‘What was done cannot be undone,’ she writes. ‘What we can do is to honour them by memory, to mourn them, to think of them in sorrow and in awe. And we can learn … We can remember Auschwitz and beware of listening to the siren song of expediency, beware of abrogating mercy, of setting aside the law. Beware of being sheep.’

Sybille understood European civilisation, and European barbarism. She understood as well the thinness of the line dividing those two states. An especially acute passage in A Legacy conjures the atmosphere of an aristocratic household in Berlin as ‘something composed of several levels – smoothness lying over painstaking elaboration, an order covering and engendering chaotic agitation and beyond it nothing’. Few writers have relished the “order” of old Europe with more zest and finesse. Few have felt so keenly the ‘chaotic agitation’ behind it. For both the joy and the foreboding in her work, Sybille Bedford still demands a hearing.

*This essay is based on a lecture given at Queen Mary University of London, as part of the BASF Lecture Series on Anglo-German Matters. My thanks to Professor Rüdiger Görner, Director of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at QMUL