El Mundo Writes of Sybille Bedford’s Debt to Waugh

A¬†Spanish-language¬†article in the daily newspaper El Mundo¬†published in Madrid relates the story of author¬†Sybille Bedford’s struggle to start her writing career. ¬†This did not begin until she was in her 40s. She was born in Germany into a half Jewish family and, following her parents’ early deaths, she studied¬†in England. She met Aldous and Mary¬†Huxley in the south of France and, when she lost her German citizenship, they helped her arrange a marriage of convenience to an Englishman named Bedford. She moved to England with the¬†Huxleys and accompanied them to America when they left. She may be best known for her biography of Huxley¬†(1974)¬†and her first novel, The Legacy (1956). The novel¬†was written after the war¬†and¬†after she had¬†published a travel book. This is where Waugh enters the story. According to El Mundo:

The Legacy is today considered a masterpiece, but its start was not easy. The¬†editorial rejection of her¬†three previous attempts to publish novels weighed down on Bedford. She¬†said¬†that her¬†manuscript did not excite one of her¬†best friends, American journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. The first criticisms of The Legacy were negative. But it turns out that Nancy Mitford was enthusiastic about the book and inevitably sent it to Evelyn Waugh with a warm recommendation. The consecrated [consagrado ?] author of Brideshead Revisited (1945) was amazed and published a highly complimentary critique [elogiosisimo commentario critico ?]. From there, The Legacy was a success.

Waugh and Mitford corresponded about the book for several months after she sent it to him in March 1956. His first response after reading it anticipates¬†his review in The Spectator (13 April 1956) to which the El Mundo article refers. Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, pp, ¬†387-95. Waugh’s review is reprinted in Essays, Articles and Reviews, pp. 510-11. After pointing out some largely technical and structural problems, he describes the novel as¬†

…a book of entirely delicious quality. The plot is intricate and admirably controlled. The theme is not superficially original; two families vastly dissimilar, the one Jewish, inartistic millionaires, the other slightly decadent Catholic aristocrats, become joined in marriage…There is no hint of (odious, cant word) nostalgia in the book. The¬†lovable, civilized ¬†hero is ruthlessly stripped and exposed. Only Gottlieb, the butler, maintains his ascendancy uncompromised. The rest are ‘all, all of a piece throughout’; frauds and failures and each event in the elaborate structure has¬†a direct causal connection with the revelation¬†of them. We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion. But we gratefully salute a new artist.

Bedford went on to write several other books, including three more novels, and died in 2006. The translation of the text from El Mundo is by Google with some edits. Any thoughts on improving it are welcome and can be submitted by commenting below.

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