Sybille Bedford, Selina Hastings

This Sybille Bedford Biography Is Worthy of Its Subject

Masterful writer Sybille Bedford finally gets a biography as rich and expansive as her life from Selina Hastings.

Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life
Selina Hastings
February 2021

“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 HastingsSybille 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.

The Spice of Life

In addition to fiction, she cultivated widespread acclaim as an essayist whose work centred primarily on food, travel, and the law. She was obsessed with court cases since her youth – she thrilled at the ritualistic behaviour they involved, and often attended court cases for fun – and came to be frequently called upon by news agencies and magazines to cover important trials, including those of Jack Ruby, D.H. Lawrence, and several Auschwitz concentration camp guards. She even published a book-length comparison of legal systems, The Faces of Justice

Bedford’s work is characterized by a profound joie de vivre. Her style is sprightly, upbeat, expressing her delight and fascination with human nature. Her analytical essays – even those on law – are deeply insightful, yet never ponderous or didactic, always written with a light touch and a view toward the inherent comedy and pathos of the world. Her writings on food and travel – the things she loved, perhaps, the most — are a pure delight, fully expressive of her joy in these pursuits and informed by a broad base of knowledge and experience. 

These qualities are expressed perhaps most thoroughly in her breakthrough work, A Visit to Don Otavio. The first-hand narrative chronicles the aformentioned trip to Mexico, taken with her then-lover Murphy (referred to simply as E in the text). No matter how dicey things get or what dire situations they find themselves in, one senses that Bedford always has a smile tugging at the edge of her lips, observing their predicaments with wry humour and ceaseless fascination at the ways of the world. The style combines, perhaps, the confidence of someone who comes from wealth and has never really had to worry about muddling through life, together with open-mindedness and perceptiveness born from wide-ranging experience.

In her travelogues, one gets the impression Bedford doesn’t think anything can ever really go wrong. In her legal essays, one gets the sense she sees in them – beyond the ritualistic formalities that so fascinated her – a linear view of social and historical progress, with humanity ever inching forward, occasionally stumbling, but picking itself up and continuing onward. 

It’s the upbeat optimism of her work – more restrained in practice than my appreciation perhaps suggests – that I find so endearing in her writing. It offers a delightful antidote to today’s writers, both fiction and non-fiction alike, who so often write with a ponderous worldliness, taking themselves and their work so seriously.

Bedford also wrote about important subjects – navigating the world as a lesbian of Jewish descent amid the rise of fascism; court cases that would reshape legal history – but it’s always with a light-hearted sense of whimsy and wonder at the ways of the world. She takes neither herself nor her weighty subjects, too seriously, frequently deploying a self-deprecating sense of humour in perfect doses.

Her novels, to greater or lesser extents mostly autobiographical, don’t age as well. This is broadly characteristic of any fiction from the early to mid-20th century – one can appreciate the form and style, but they don’t compel us the way contemporary fiction does. Still, parts of them retain a sort of timeless wisdom. They’ve experienced their own mild resurgence and are mostly all still in print. “Superb by any standard” is how literary critic Brenda Wineapple describes A Legacy, writing in New York Review of Books as recently as 2015. Nevertheless, it’s her essays and reportage that I find most compelling, still of relevance to today’s world, and still a pure literary delight to read.

 There is always an ethos of ‘live life to the fullest’ in Bedford’s work. A noted gourmand and oenophile (she became good friends with Julia Child, whose cookery she looked down upon as “competent…first-rate mass produced [food]” compared to her own), food occupies a remarkable degree of space in all of her writing. For this, she was chastised by more pragmatic writers like Gellhorn (“Do you realise that not a chapter of your present book is without detailing eating?” complained Gellhorn in a letter. “People do meet at meals; good. It cannot be avoided. But the menus can be skimped. I know I am right. There is too much of it…PLEASE Sybille.”) Yet other readers – myself included — are drawn to it. “Your own writing about food is so beautiful, and the passage…in The Legacy is to me one of the most luminous and moving of expressions of the impact of the Mediterranean that I know,” wrote the bestselling food author Elizabeth David, about the same book that set off Gellhorn.

Appreciating the good things in life was part of Sybille’s charm. It’s hard to read her work without wanting to go out and eat well or experiment in one’s own kitchen. This appreciation for life extended to travel – in her work, one experiences the visceral thrill of speeding down a foreign highway, discovering random pubs and inns along the way, hiking along Alpine lakes (always with a well-stocked picnic basket, of course). Bedford loved exploring the world and all it had to offer, and the charm of her work is that it conveys these joys to the reader in gorgeous, unadulterated prose. (She considered editors’ modern tendency to chop up a writer’s prose to be a sign of the deterioration of literature, and readers are lucky that she fought so ruthlessly against editorial cuts to her work.)

Part of what’s so remarkable about Bedford’s work is that she could so easily drift between the serious and the trivial. She wrote articles on food and travel for popular magazines and covered complex legal cases for news agencies. She wrote romantic fiction (full of good eating and tangled sexual affairs based on her own life) but was also commissioned to produce a detailed, two-volume biography of Huxley after his death.

Forever a generalist, she drifted effortlessly between different fields of study and literary genres, without any apparent doubt that she had something worthwhile to contribute. Like all writers, she struggled with the writing process – each book took her years of struggle, and her letters describe in detail the days and weeks that went by without her getting a single word out– but once she got it done, her competence was rarely questioned.

Bedford lamented that she waited so long to start writing seriously, whiling away her younger decades enjoying life. “I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love,” she told an interviewer late in life. She perhaps failed to realize that those years provided the necessary fuel for the writing that would follow. All of her fiction and her idiosyncratic memoir were produced by plumbing those early years for content and drama and working and reworking the raw material of life into the inimitable style of Sybille’s trademark prose. 

Indeed, critics often complained that Bedford relied too heavily on those early years and that she refused to share details of her later life with readers, even in her memoir. Fortunately, Hastings does a superb job filling that gap, chronicling Bedford’s later years with precisely the attention to detail that the vague and obtuse Bedford avoided in her work. This includes, of course, her personal life. “I think she was very highly sexed,” wrote the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, a close friend Bedford was attracted to in the 1980s. (Howard, unrelentingly straight, declined her amorous advances).

That’s certainly one way of putting it. Although in her later years, Bedford routinely assumed every broken-off relationship would be her last, she continued falling in love right through her 90s (engaging in relationships with women who were often several decades younger than her). Reading these passionate affairs, one is reminded of another lesbian literary entrepreneur – Natalie Clifford Barney, whose literary salon helped establish turn-of-the-century French modernism. Barney (who’d had an affair with Sybille’s long-term lover Murphy) also embarked on affairs in her later years. Barney’s final relationship was with a diplomat’s wife she met at the age of 88 (the other woman was 32 years her junior) and left her husband for Barney. Sybille might not be impressed with the comparison: she met Barney in the 1950s and considered her a bore. 

Nevertheless, the staying power of Bedford’s “appetite for life” was remarkable. Romantic affairs aside, the oenophile celebrated her 90th birthday in 2001 with a multi-course meal including seven different wines (plus champagne). She kept writing to the end, publishing her final book (Quicksands: A Memoir) at the age of 95. 

Being a fan of Sybille Bedford still feels a bit like an in-club. But that’s not a bad thing. Just as she relied on a globe-spanning yet tight-knit and intimate cohort of friends to make it through her eclectic life, so her work continues to thrive thanks to an appreciative fanbase that seems to neither grow nor disappear. To Sybille’s delightful body of work, we can now add Hastings’ biography, a delightful read which combines a light narrative touch akin to Bedford’s own with engrossing and impeccably researched detail. It’s a fitting tribute and an aspirational reminder of what it looks like to live life to the fullest.

Additional Works Cited

Kimball, Roger. “Without Rancour: Sybille Bedford’s Achievement”. The New Criterion. April 1994.

Rollmann, Rhea. “The Mexican Journey That Made One of the Twentieth Century’s Finest Writers”. PopMatters. 29 September 2016.

Wineapple, Brenda “The Brilliance of Sybille Bedford”. The New York Review of Books. 5 March 2015.