New Biography by Selina Hastings

The latest issue of TLS has a preview from the new biography by Selina Hastings. In this, she writes of the life and works of novelist Sybille Bedford. Hastings explains in the excerpt that Bedford was raised in Germany in a part-Jewish family during the early Nazi years. She was befriended by the Aldous Huxleys whom she met in Spain and they helped her settle in England and later in the USA.  One of her major works was a biography of Huxley.

The TLS excerpt mostly concerns Bedford’s best known novel A Legacy, first published in 1956. As Hastings explains below, Waugh was influential in its success:

The story of A Legacy, based mainly on her father’s family history, follows the dramas resulting from the interlinking through marriage of three families, of the Merzes in Berlin with the Feldens and Bernins, both Roman Catholic and long established in the bucolic south of the country, near the border with France. […] Lively, sensual and impressionistic, the novel is shot through with wit and irony; both harrowing and wickedly entertaining, it has a complex plot as well as a disturbing portentousness, a hint of darkness to come. […]

The initial reaction to A Legacy on its publication in London […] was disappointing. The few reviews that appeared were far from encouraging, with one critic on the BBC describing the work as “pretentious feminine drivel”. Fortunately, Esther Murphy, a one-time lover of Bedford’s, dismayed by such dismal reactions, sent a copy to her friend Nancy Mitford. Enchanted by it, Mitford wrote Bedford a highly complimentary letter – “It is certainly one of the very best novels I have ever read”, she told her – before going on to recommend it enthusiastically to her old ally Evelyn Waugh. “I am hugely grateful to you for sending me A Legacy”, Waugh replied. “I read it straight through with intense pleasure.” Inevitably, he had a number of criticisms, in particular regarding the author’s distressing ignorance on the subject of Roman Catholicism, but he had been fascinated by the book. On April 13, a short review by Waugh was published in the Spectator. “A novel has just appeared by a new writer of remarkable accomplishment”, his article begins, “a book of entirely delicious quality … cool, witty, elegant.” This was not to say the novel was flawless, but overall he found it an exceptional work and “we gratefully salute a new artist”.

For Bedford, Waugh’s review changed everything. “Nothing that has been said about my work has given me so much pleasure”, she later remarked. “It’s the one thing I hang on to sometimes when I start to wonder what I have done with my life.” Other laudatory reviews soon followed, and nine months after its British publication A Legacy appeared in the US. Initially, there had been little enthusiasm in New York, where it had been turned down by five publishers, one of whose directors described it as among the dullest books he had ever read. But then Bedford received an offer from Simon and Schuster, where it was enthusiastically promoted by the book’s editor, Robert Gottlieb. Appearing on January 30, 1957, it remained for several weeks on the bestseller list of both the New York Times and the Herald Tribune, was bought for $1,500 by the Readers Subscription Club, and in a surprisingly short time had sold more than 20,000 copies. As Gottlieb later remarked, for such a European and elitist novel this was “a highly unlikely success”.

Laura Freeman reviews the book in The Times. After describing Bedford’s “extraordinary” life and her works, Freeman concludes:

Hastings, biographer of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann and Somerset Maugham, writes with her hallmark elegance, insight and forgiveness. Bedford’s faults as a writer, friend and lover are laid bare and understood. Bedford regretted how “selfish” and “domineering” she had been towards the novelist Eda Lord, her partner of 20 years, always “bulldozing on” with work and failing to look after Lord. One might, however, wish for a quick snip here and there. The litany of schlösser, villas and Wiltshire manor houses tips into Private Eye’s “What you didn’t miss . . .” territory. And when it comes to lists of vintages, I’m afraid I’m with the painter David Hockney, who horrified the epicurean Bedford when he responded to the question of what he would like to drink with: “Plonk.”

When Bedford was appointed OBE in 1981, the Queen asked: “What did you do for it?” Bedford replied “quite loud and proud”: “I am a writer, Ma’am.” The Queen inquired how long she had been at it. “All my life, Ma’am.” Said the Queen: “Oh dear! Ah well.”

Hastings’ biography entitled Sybille Bedford: An appetite for life is published next week in London and will be available in the USA in February. A Legacy has been reprinted as a New York Review Books Classic in the USA and is available as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK. Hastings’ biography of Waugh is also available from at this link.

UPDATE (30 October 2020): A reference to Laura Freeman’s review of Hastings’ book in The Times, posted 29 October 2020, was added.

UPDATE (8 November 2020): A review of Hastings’ book appeared in The Spectator. This is by Sara Wheeler and makes the case that Bedford was a massive snob. The review is quite favorable. Here’s an excerpt:

Hastings has had the cooperation of the Bedford estate and full access to diaries and letters, and she and her researcher have delved heroically and judiciously. She is an accomplished stylist and her prose suits her subject: elegant, deft and restrained, as operatic arias ‘hiss’ from the horned gramophone in the schloss.

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