Within the pages of this biography, I discovered that Sybille Bedford had an affair with the sister of my father’s first wife and another with the stepfather of my mother’s stepsister. You are likely to find the same, for in matters of the heart Bedford did not stint. ‘I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love,’ she once said in an interview.
Bedford had plenty of opportunity for both pursuits. Nevertheless, she spent her first forty years barely lifting a pen, even while sitting at the feet of other writers, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann famously among them. She was awe-struck by Ivy Compton-Burnett (they met, later, but the notoriously prickly Compton-Burnett gave short shrift to her younger admirer). Martha Gellhorn was just one of the many writers who gave Bedford bossy advice. Bedford was clever, widely read and serious. People encouraged her, introduced her to editors and offered her money. Yet she didn’t find her real voice until she wrote the superb A Legacy, published in 1956, by which time she was in her mid-forties. Jigsaw, her very best book, was written when she was seventy-eight.
Bedford was born in Berlin in 1911 and lived to be ninety-four. She had a lifelong horror of her native land and chose instead to live in France, America and finally London. Her writings include a two-volume life of Huxley, a travel book, several long-form essays about legal trials, a memoir and four novels (the novels are entirely autobiographical and the material often overlaps). Again and again she returned to the same subject: her mother, Lisa. She was an absolute nightmare and, for a writer anyway, a remarkable gift. Lisa was beautiful, intelligent and witty; she was also selfish, vain and obsessed with romance. She was not maternal: today we would not hesitate to call her a raging narcissist. Selina Hastings, however, avoids such amateur psychology, simply presenting the evidence.
Lisa never worked and managed to live a life of some ease in the South of France. Many tragedies stalked her life, the treatment of her fellow Jews during the 1930s in Germany, where she was born, chief among them. The travails of her people troubled her less, however, than the loss of her own sexual allure. If she didn’t actually utter the words ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ while she was brushing her hair, she certainly embodied all the cruelty and egotism of the archetypal wicked stepmother. She also became a hopeless addict. Typically, the car had to be stopped on the way to a dinner engagement so that someone could inject her with morphine. Lisa died in a hospital in Berlin in 1937, aged fifty-three.
All of this is covered marvellously well in Bedford’s own work, which leaves her biographer the task of sorting through the endless love affairs. A typical passage runs:
Relations with Allanah, however, were far from easy, she and Sybille angrily snapping and constantly on each other’s nerves, while Allanah was ‘so beastly to Eda’ … Allanah’s bad temper stemmed partly from the awkward fact that in the past she and Eda had themselves been lovers, and also from her current unhappiness over the end of her affair with Fay Blacket Gill; Fay had recently fallen for Patricia Laffan, the actress with whom Sybille had enjoyed a brief interlude while in Rome.
After many such pages, it is hard not to feel resentful. How could such a public figure be so inconsiderate as to have had affairs with all these people nobody has ever heard of? It must have made Hastings’s task onerous and I fear the reader will grow weary of the lists. Couldn’t Bedford have slept with an occasional film star? At least she had a bit of a crush on Elizabeth Jane Howard and an affair with Huxley’s wife, Maria. But these two take up only a few pages, while the ranks of duller girlfriends bulk out the rest.
The book’s subtitle is ‘An Appetite for Life’ and Hastings makes a strong case for Bedford’s credentials as a gastronome and oenophile. She drank a lot of wine and some of the great bottles she savoured are listed here. But her biggest appetite was for love, no doubt fuelled (though again Hastings avoids psychological conjecture) by the lack of it in her early childhood.
As a companion to Bedford’s own writing, this biography could hardly be bettered. It is comprehensive and sympathetic, but not entirely uncritical. Could a thematic rather than a chronological chapter scheme have given it more zing? At least then the discerning reader could have skipped most of the lovers and gone straight to the heart of the matter, Bedford’s own glorious books.