“Those who know her work tend to be keenly enthusiastic; not enough people do know it,” wrote Roger Kimball about Sybille Bedford in 1995. Nothing illustrates his point more clearly than the fact that the first biography of this remarkable woman didn’t come out until the end of 2020 (Chatto & Windus, December), 15 years after her death and at least six decades after she vaulted to literary acclaim. Fortunately, it was worth the wait: Selina Hastings’ Sybille Bedford: An Appetite For Life is a triumph, a joyous and engaging look at the eclectic life led by one of the literary world’s most underappreciated icons.
If anyone merits the title “self-made woman” it was Bedford. Much of her childhood was spent in a family environment that was disinterested at best. Her father, disappointed she wasn’t a boy, was an introverted recluse. Her beloved stepsister married young and returned only for short visits. Her mother, disappointed by the unhappy marriage in which she’d been trapped, spent much of her time conducting transnational romances. Sybille recalled being bluntly informed by her mother that “You were very sweet as a baby, but you’re going to be very, very dull for a long time – perhaps ten or fifteen years. We’ll speak then, when you’ve made yourself a mind.” As it turned out, that’s more or less what happened.
So left to her own devices was Sybille that she didn’t even learn to write until the late age of eight, largely because it didn’t occur to anyone they ought to teach her. She didn’t attend school beyond occasional short-term stints. When forced to take her along on her far-flung romantic affairs, her mother often left her unattended in hotels for days or weeks at a time. So it’s little surprise that she formed her own understanding of the world and her own ways of engaging with it, developing resourcefulness and self-reliance that would serve her well throughout a long and exciting life.
Despite the obvious challenges, Sybille grew into an intelligent, sociable young woman with a strong creative bent. Although far from rich – her family came from wealth but lost much of it through gambling, inflation, and war – she was part of that cohort of dilletante creatives who had sufficient financial independence of means that they didn’t have to worry about finding regular work. Instead, they could travel, engage in elaborate romances, and dabble in the arts as desired.
Bedford often struggled with tenuous finances, but that’s mostly because her aristocratic upbringing left her with high standards and expectations. For much of her adult life, she relied on friends’ goodwill (in the form of cheques and in-kind support) to survive. Yet she had the confidence of the born-rich, rooted in the expectation that someone would always rescue her from the threat of poverty. That’s precisely what happened: the circle of close and immensely successful friends she cultivated made sure she was always able to maintain her standard of living.
Insofar as Bedford sought some kind of mature guidance in her youth she found it in the form of a close relationship with the famed writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, who mentored and looked after her in the years preceding the Second World War. As war loomed, Bedford – technically a German ex-pat of Jewish descent – wound up on Nazi blacklists for her collaboration on a literary journal organized by exiled dissident writer Klaus Mann. It was the Huxleys who helped her gain passage on the very last passenger boat to escape Italy before war broke out, and she joined them in refuge in the United States. The Huxleys also, in a very business-like fashion, recruited one of their gay acquaintances to marry Bedford (a lesbian) so she could receive a British passport. Bedford happily kept the man’s name and never saw him again.
One of the remarkable things about Bedford is how she seems to have cruised through life unscathed despite the many potential pitfalls that loomed around her. Although deeply worried about friends in Europe during the war, she spent those years continuing to lead a fairly dilletante life, first with the Huxleys in California and then relocating among friends in New York, a city that suited her expansive lifestyle much better. Restless with an unquenchable desire to travel – and European travel was impossible, both during and immediately after the war – she and new lover Esther Murphy decided to spend several months exploring Mexico in 1946. It was this trip that would inspire her book, A Visit to Don Otavio, and help launch her literary career.
The romantic lives of Bedford and her cohort could comprise an absorbing book on their own. While straight friends like journalist Martha Gellhorn teased Bedford over the drama and entanglements of the lesbian literary world, it was a life she enjoyed to the fullest. She was intensely passionate, driving for days across multiple European countries for the sake of a rendezvous that might only last a few hours. She sometimes juggled multiple affairs simultaneously or in short succession and often retained close long-term friendships with these women once the initial sexual passion cooled.
Indeed, she had no shortage of unrequited crushes and was not above getting herself embroiled in complex love tangles. Hastings provides a tasteful and matter-of-fact presentation of this “sexual carousel” that characterised Bedford’s life and in which the thin line between friendship and romance was often indiscernible. (At one point, Bedford found herself in a sexual relationship with Huxley’s wife Maria, while Aldous was having an affair with Bedford’s mother. The complex romantic peregrinations of these folks render the most outré Netflix drama boringly prosaic.)
Bedford published her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio in 1953. Based on her Mexican trip, it originally appeared under the title The Sudden View. It was a widely acclaimed hit, to the delight of all those friends who had financially supported her for decades. “HE CAN WRITE, HE CAN WRITE!” wrote her close friend and former lover Allannah Harper, one of those to whom the book was dedicated. (Bedford and her lovers often referred to each other by masculine pronouns in their correspondence). Even today it’s widely considered a masterpiece of travel writing.
This was followed over the next 40 years by four semi-autobiographical novels. The first, A Legacy (1956), was widely acclaimed; the following two – A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and A Compass Error (1968) — met a mixed reception. Her final novel, Jigsaw, appeared in 1989 to a broadly positive reaction.