Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life 
by Selina Hastings.
Chatto, 432 pp., £35, November 2020, 978 1 78474 113 6
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At​ the beginning of November 1918, the sailors of the German High Seas Fleet mutinied in ports across the North Sea and Baltic coasts. Red flags went up first in Kiel, then in Berlin on 9 November, when Wilhelm II was deposed. Seven-year-old Sybille Bedford, meanwhile, was on a train with her amazing, ludicrously flighty mother, trying to get back to the family château in Baden from the seaside resort where, presumably, Lisa had been meeting up with one of her many lovers.

At one point we were marched out of the train at Schwerin … and corralled in the lounge of a hotel on the main square, and here the sailors with their banners and slogans were mutinying all right … There was shooting and much noise. Our fellow passengers shouted that we were being machine-gunned. The windows giving on to that square were broad and high. Most of us were crouching on the floor. Not so my mother: she stood up to look. The sailors, she said firmly, were right to mutiny – it was time, the Kaiser’s regime was rotten. My mother had spontaneous physical courage (not inherited by me). I crept after her, for one or two cautious looks.

Sybille’s father, the Baron Maximilian von Schoenebeck, was the second son of a minor Bavarian nobleman. He did his time in the Prussian cavalry – ‘that overgrown body of sabre-rattling drones, that state within the state, that romping ground of insolent and idle aristocracy’ – but was fonder of roulette, his pet chimpanzees, and gourmet cooking, which he did himself, on a portable stove he kept in a pigskin case. Lisa Bernhardt was his second wife and twenty years his junior. She read and spoke French, English, German and probably Italian, and had ambitions as a writer, but got distracted by talking – ‘she was an extraordinary talker, a storyteller who could make the truth with all its ambiguities come whole’ – and her many romantic scrapes. It has been common among Bedford fans to assume that Lisa was English, but according to Selina Hastings in her new biography she wasn’t. She was German, from Hamburg, and at least partly Jewish (‘I never learned how partly, nor through whom. Nobody cared much, or had to – happy days’). Her mother, Bedford once said, ‘instilled into me the idea that it was a very grand thing to be a writer … Being brought up to talk about Dostoevsky at breakfast was a great advantage. I owe her an enormous amount.’

Sybille Bedford attempted to process the story of her origins in four novels, each a differently disguised autobiography and family history, and one more straightforward memoir. To read these books is to enter a strange space of lenticular shimmer, partly because of all the glamour: Berlin, Rome, Paris, New York, where Bedford sat out war in Europe in the 1940s, and especially Sanary-sur-Mer, on the ‘unsmart side’ (by Bedford standards) of the Côte d’Azur, where she and her mother settled for some years among the émigré colonies of the 1920s and 1930s. She was taken in, kind of adopted, by ‘the (Aldous) Huxleys’. She chauffeured a large black poodle across America for the (Thomas) Manns; she drank cocktails in Paris with Jane Bowles and Martha Gellhorn; in Grasse and California she cooked and ate with M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child. And when she settled in England in the 1960s, Elizabeth David told her that the bit in her first novel about a dinner of sea urchins, ‘heaped in a great armorial pile … like the unexplained detail on the hill by the thistles and the hermitage of a quattrocento background’, followed by a plain grilled loup and no potatoes, was ‘one of the most luminous and moving expressions of the impact of the Mediterranean that I know’.

There are other, deeper reasons for the dazzle. In her work Bedford wrote again and again about the same few relationships, changing angles and names and details sometimes slightly, at other times a lot. The mother is English, or Italian, or American. She’s a child, a dashing young woman, a shrunken ghoul. The father is German, the father is English, the father is dead, or barely there. Childhood happens in Jewish Berlin or Catholic Baden; adolescence is mostly in Sanary, and can look stiff and weirdly proportioned when done in the fictional third person – A Favourite of the Gods (1963), A Compass Error (1968) – but flows richly from the anamnestic first person in Jigsaw (1989), told from the point of view of an older person looking back. ‘I wanted to try what painters sometimes do – the same subject in a different format, light etc,’ she once said.

Some of these books are more autobiographical than others, but all of them are occluded, attenuated, elaborated, in one way or another. This is one reason, as Hilary Mantel, for example, has noted, that the novels are easier to follow when you already know their stories in outline (as might also happen with fiction that embroiders well-known personalities from history, like Robespierre or Thomas Cromwell). You might start reading Bedford for the food and the celebrity gossip, but you reread for the thrilling materiality, ‘concrete and fastidious’, as she herself once suggested, of her prose: odd, elaborate framings and risky hanging slabs of dialogue; locutions that started life in French or German or maybe Latin, bent and heaved – ‘it’s like picking up paving stones,’ she said – into eccentric, but correctly grammatical, English shape. The loveable relish with which the polyglot parrot picked up phrases, the crooked elegance with which she stuck them in: ‘Life with you could be incalculable.’ ‘I did not accept her as ma semblable.’ ‘Strike me pink.’

It was only in Quicksands (2005), written when she was in her nineties, that Bedford attempted to extend her range beyond childhood and adolescence and Sanary in the 1930s, ‘a near decade of early adult life, a time I stubbornly wanted to last and still long to live again’. A corollary is that it’s only in Quicksands that she writes much about what Lisa Cohen has called ‘the close-knit, fractious lesbian networks of New York, London and Paris’: from Eva to Allanah to Esther to Evelyn and then Eda, with many side projects and much criss-crossing, as Allanah darts off with Eda and then Jane, around the same time Esther is dallying with Joan, who is Eda’s ex. It’s a shame, perhaps, that Hastings’s attention is not especially attuned to the fascinating modernity of these women, the lives and relative freedoms they made for themselves with their trust funds. Esther Murphy, for example, the entertainingly anti-travel ‘E’ who accompanied Bedford through Mexico for her first book, The Sudden View (1953; since renamed A Visit to Don Otavio) was herself acclaimed, in her own circles, as a polymath and raconteuse. The story of Murphy’s talents, and how thoroughly she soused them, is told in Cohen’s marvellous All We Know: Three Lives (2012), through which, as Terry Castle noted, Bedford flutters, ‘a benign sapphic putto’.

Bedford too came from money, and although she seldom had much of it (her trust fund was confiscated by the Nazis after she published ‘one outspoken aggressive paragraph’ in Klaus Mann’s Die Sammlung in 1934), her connections gave her easy access throughout her life to houses, dinners, holidays, mates’ rates in the Nazi baronessa’s high-end Ischia B&B (‘One cannot think much, oddly enough, about the political angle once one is under their roof’). In the 1930s, a Sanary neighbour lent the would-be jeune écrivain a room for as long as she needed it: ‘Ne touchez pas ses oeuvres,’ the femme de ménage was told. In the 1940s, Allanah Harper, a former lover, tithed Bedford a portion of her own private income for three years. In the 1950s, her first novel was getting little notice until Esther Murphy sent it to her old friend Nancy Mitford, who sent it on to Evelyn Waugh. ‘Cool, witty, elegant,’ he wrote shortly afterwards in the Spectator. ‘It’s the one thing I hang onto sometimes,’ Bedford said many years later. ‘Much the best thing that ever happened to me.’

Bedford never found writing easy. ‘I sit before my hostile typewriter and sicken,’ she wrote in the late 1950s. ‘What is this blight I have suffered from all my life that makes trying to write … such tearing, crushing, defeating agony?’ ‘I feel that I have made fausse route in my life and that it is irretrievable now,’ is another statement from around that time. ‘The foolish truth is that I have never grown up, and did not do so because I always missed having a real mother and father: parents in fact, a family … And I don’t feel being a writer is a substitute at all.’

As a teenager in the 1920s, packed off to London by her mother, Bedford developed a hobby of sitting in the public gallery at the Royal Courts of Justice. ‘Transfusion of astringent reason with righteousness and a sublimated romanticism was most seductive. I was hooked for life.’ She would have liked, she wrote, to have trained for the Bar, but felt her sex was against it, and her almost total lack of formal education. So she started writing about the law instead, in pieces about the Stephen Ward and Lady Chatterley trials for Esquire, Jack Ruby for Life, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial for the Saturday Evening Post. ‘The law, the workings of the law, the daily application of the law to people and situations, is an essential element in a country’s life,’ she wrote in The Faces of Justice (1961), which compared judicial systems in England, France, Switzerland, West Germany and Austria. ‘It shapes, and expresses, a country’s modes of thought, its political concepts and realities, its conduct … It all hangs together whether people wish to acknowledge it or not.’

Another great thing about legal process is that it offers a reliable narrative structure when you have things you know you want to write about but no idea how to start. In 1957, at a loss but with the success of her first novel behind her, Bedford got a contract to write an entire book about the trial of John Bodkin Adams – the Harold Shipman of his time – at the Old Bailey that year. The book begins with the judge’s entrance, ‘trailing a wake of subtlety, of secret powers, age’ and ends three and a half weeks later with the not guilty verdict. In between, the book is structured like a calendar: four weeks divided by weekends, each week divided into days.

Adams was a doctor, based in Eastbourne, who specialised in tending to rich old women who rewarded him with lavish bequests. In 1956 he was charged with murdering Edith Morrell, 81, who had died six years earlier of complications, or so it had been thought, after a stroke. The prosecution’s contention was that it hadn’t been the stroke that killed her so much as the medically unnecessary and bizarrely huge quantities of barbiturates and other soporifics, morphine and heroin and papaveretum ‘the Doctor’, as Bedford always called him, had administered, manipulating the doses between addiction, withdrawal and certain death in a sinister pas de deux with Morrell’s writing and rewriting of codicils to her will. ‘Poor soul, she was in terrible agony,’ the Doctor said.

Ostensibly, Bedford’s book is about what the writer calls ‘the law’s patient production – quixotic, almost, in its extreme sesquipedalian way’. But it’s also a showcase of writerly technique, alternating passages that pay minute attention to shifts in logic, tone and body language with bright stripes of slangy, unattributed dialogue, representing, perhaps, the choral function of press and public:

‘In the bag?’

‘It’s a walkover all right!’

‘Do you think there is a doctor in England who will go into that box and stand up for heroin?’

And it’s an essay of a modernity you don’t expect from the leaf-green Penguin Crimes of the 1950s, a close study of duration, airlessness, inescapability. The long hours in Court No. 1 at the Old Bailey, beneath its ritual function ‘no more than a large room’. Days and nights and years as suffered by the poor dying patient, whether in actual ‘agony’ or not. The question of motive, of what the Doctor thought he was doing: ‘Motive will be everything,’ Bedford once wrote, ‘but motive as usual will be scrambled.’ The ‘sense’ that sometimes overcomes the writer, ‘of not being away at all, of having been there since the beginning of time’.

Buddenbrooks meets Brideshead: that’s the thing people always say about the first and best of Bedford’s novels, A Legacy (1956). It opens, like Buddenbrooks, on a portrait of haut bourgeois opulence: the family at home in the family town house, the family business, the second breakfasts and creamy puddings and silver plate. The plush is thick, the family ties as sturdy as the bell-pulls, the fortune as solid as the mahogany: except that fortunes and territory in Europe can be fluid, and in the German-speaking lands of the 19th and 20th centuries so often on the verge of melting into air.

The Buddenbrooks parallels only go so far. Bedford’s house is not in Lübeck, but Berlin, backing onto the Chancellery. We’re starting not in the 1830s, but the 1900s. Bedford’s haut bourgeois family is Jewish, and we will meet others from the Catholic aristocracy, ‘somnolent, agrarian, backward looking’ or ‘obsessed by ecumenical dreams of European dimensions’. The Prussian military comes into Mann only as the main source of the family fortune – the Buddenbrooks supplied the army with grain in the war with Napoleon – but in Bedford, a Prussian cadet school enacts in the 1870s a staggering institutional cruelty that destroys a child, scars a family, and many years later leads to murder, ‘audible sabre-rattling’ and a ‘political scandal … remarkable for the variety of ill-natured emotions it aroused’, including class rancour, antisemitism, and in the middle of it all, the birth of a girl who in the novel is called Francesca, in reality – in which the chain of events was only a little different – Sybille.

Bedford based the welcoming, philistine Merz family in A Legacy on the family of her father’s first wife, Melanie Herz, who died of tuberculosis in 1905. The historical Herzes were one of Berlin’s most prominent Jewish families, descended from Henriette, the 18th-century salonnière, and had made their money manufacturing detergents. Melanie’s marriage to ‘le beau Max’, as Sybille’s father was sometimes called, produced a daughter, Katzi, born in 1899. The little girl mostly lived in Berlin with her grandparents after her mother’s death, and the Herzes went on giving money to Max, even after he remarried in 1910. Neither Max nor Lisa was terribly interested in the baby that appeared in 1911, so the small Sybille was often parked with the Herzes too, with Katzi and her toys to play with, in the ‘ugly opulent’ Berlin house.

The fictional Von Feldens – ‘old, landed, agreeably-off … undilutedly Catholic’, drinkers of hock and claret, lute-makers and birdwatchers and tinkerers with steam – were based, obviously, on Bedford’s father’s family, the Schoenebecks.

At the time of my father’s birth, the language spoken in his family was French, the temper and setting of their lives retarded 18th century; their seat had always been in a warm corner of Baden, that mild bland rural country of meadows and trout-streams, small farms, low mountains and small towns; their home was Catholic Western Continental Europe, and the centre of their world was France. They ignored, despised, and later dreaded, Prussia; and they were strangers to the sea.

In the introduction she wrote in 1999 for the Penguin Classics edition, Bedford described her father as ‘a man brought up to pleasure … trapped early and late between fears and events’. As a boy, Max had seen his family blighted by the brutality his brother, Gustav, suffered in an ‘evil’ Prussian cadet school, an experience rendered in the novel. The fictional child, Johannes, never recovers, but the real-life Gustav did, well enough to join the army and marry, only to be murdered by his wife’s jealous lover. The fictional scandal in the novel, with its nasty journalistic insinuations concerning ‘our Israelite plutocracy’, was based on the ‘rumours, innuendoes, half-truths, vengeful tales’ that Bedford knew about as a result of her eavesdropping on ‘retainers, cousins, hangers-on’ as a child.

In the novel, le beau Jules meets his second wife, the scintillating Caroline, at a Berlin dinner party given by Sarah, his ‘tall, cool, elegant’ sister-in-law, an entirely fictional character whom Bedford imagines as secretly in love with both Jules and Caroline herself. ‘There was a flurry by the door, the swish of thrown-off furs, and there came forward into this overlighted room …’ Caroline Hastings in A Legacy is English, young, beautiful, rich and – ‘do forgive the Hans Andersen word, one can hardly use it at table’ – an orphan. She is also much in need of a hasty exit from an ill-starred attachment to a married man. Bedford’s actual mother was just as young and rich and beautiful and rakish, but German and with a German mother alive and well in Hamburg. In the novel, Caroline is bounced into marriage with Jules because she feels sorry for him when his brother is murdered. In life, it seems, that’s pretty much how Lisa came to marry Max.

A Legacy quickens with the arrival of Caroline, much as we saw her entrance quicken the mood at that Berlin dinner. She’s a bewitching, almost unembodied presence, like Tinker Bell, known and felt mainly through the force of her lines: ‘A thirst for knowledge is very well – it wears off so early – but you must be more selective in your inquiries, duck. There is nothing so fatal as a good vast subject.’ The daughter addressed at this point might be three or four. ‘Lie if you must, lie – as long as you remember you are lying; it’s more honest, less stupid, than this niggling shuffle with the general and the particular.’ In the novel, the little girl fingers a scar on her forehead from when a ‘cobble’ was thrown through the window of a closed carriage; in reality, the stone came over the wall of Bedford’s father’s Schloss. ‘And for goodness’ sake don’t let’s make too much of that absurd episode – it was no flight to Varennes. My grandfather, your great-grandfather that is, faced the Luddites … Oh my poor little parrot, fowl or bird, you have much to learn.’

The narrative structure of A Legacy is tricky. Timescales jump around a bit, as does the dialogue, and the point of view, supposedly that of the little daughter, does what Bedford herself called ‘a Cheshire cat’, disappearing early, only then to turn up again, with sudden substance and personality, towards the end:

My knowledge of the institutions, government and temper of the Kaiser’s Germany is sketchy, conventional and instinctive, full, no doubt, of inaccuracies and gaps … It is lurid knowledge of the kind one might acquire of a house through which one has made one’s way with a candle in one’s hand … For me, it was never a new story. Every second hand had touched a first; to every fragment there had floated up another … I do not know a time when I was not imprinted with the experience of others.

In her 1999 introduction, Bedford mentioned a long and terrible block she experienced three years into writing her novel: ‘Nothing was happening. The story, if it existed, was veiled.’ Then suddenly, ‘I was writing in the grip of deep emotion: a passage would arise not out of memory or deep contrivance but stream onto the page through sudden seeing and feeling. Discernible to a reader? I wish I knew.’ The anamnesis towards the end of A Legacy goes on for a page and a half and then it’s done with. ‘In a sense this is my story,’ it concludes.

But​ why Brideshead? Bedford said that as a teenager she did dabble in writing French, ‘like Stendhal’, but quickly realised that if she was going to be a writer she needed ‘one firm language’ to do it in. ‘My attachment to England was instinctive, a bid for, if not roots, a kind of self-preservation … I held onto the English language as the rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multilingualism that surrounded me.’ German seems never to have been an option, partly because of ‘the vast and monstrous thing’, as she called it, but for reasons of prosody also. Thomas Mann, Bedford wrote in Quicksands, disapproved of her ‘intended abandonment of what he devoutly called the German Sprachboden’, but another thing she knew instinctively was that ‘the structure, the run of the grammar would not bend in the ways I would one day want to shape what I would try to write.’

She was just fourteen when her mother first sent her to London for her education, but seems always to have enjoyed her ‘detached’ status with the people she lodged with, the ‘notion’ it gave her ‘that some day there might be other fish for me to fry’. She made friends with the mysterious sisters, themselves Jewish and from Berlin, whom in Jigsaw she calls Kate and Toni Falkenheim – their actual name, Hastings says, was Silbermann. It was Kate, later discovered to have spent decades as the secret mistress of a high court judge, who introduced Sybille to the pleasures of judicial process. It was Kate, too, who pressed on her a copy of her first Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay.

Bedford was tremendously impressed with Huxley’s novels. ‘They seemed to bring to me everything I would then have liked to know and think.’ She was equally impressed with the Huxleys themselves, Aldous and his first wife, Maria, when she met them in Sanary in 1930, and idealised both of them for the rest of her life: ‘Poor Sybille,’ Matthew, the Huxleys’ son, wrote on reading her adulatory two-volume biography of Aldous in 1973. The Huxleys, for their part, gave Bedford lifelong friendship, quasi-parental support and an initiation into the possibilities of open relationships: Sybille and Maria started sleeping together in the early 1930s, and Hastings cites the unkind portrayal of Mary Amberley in Eyeless in Gaza as evidence of Aldous’s affair with Sybille’s mother at around the same time.

It was the Huxleys, too, who helped Sybille find a British husband in order to secure her an escape route from Nazi Europe. Inspired by the example of Erika Mann, who had recently married W.H. Auden, Maria approached the window cleaner of the Huxleys’ London pied à terre in Albany: ‘He was a British subject. She didn’t actually know from where, the West Indies probably, possibly from Africa … Aldous wasn’t quite certain he would do.’ The Huxleys then asked around what they called their ‘bugger friends’ in Bloomsbury, whereon a barrister friend found ‘a designer friend who had a butler who had a friend – an ex-friend, in fact’, who was willing to marry for £100, with dinner at the Trocadero and a variety show thrown in. The Home Office was suspicious, but the Huxleys pulled more strings until the marriage was allowed to happen. Walter Bedford thereafter ‘melted back into his existence’ and seems never to have been heard of again.

As a child, Bedford spent a lot of time on long train journeys, ‘bundled to and fro’ (a phrase from A Legacy) between Berlin, Baden and sometimes Hamburg, where she would visit Anna Bernhardt, her mother’s mother – it was probably after one such visit that Lisa dragged her to the seaside intrigue that entangled them in the coat-tails of the German Revolution. In 1925 there was an especially momentous journey, from Germany to Italy, from her father to her mother: ‘The train crossed the Alps over the Brenner Pass and on its slow descent I had the first sight on a September morning of a southern sky and light, and took to it with the alert joy of a creature born in and emerging from the north.’ Max and Lisa had finalised their divorce three years earlier and this was Sybille’s first trip to see her mother. The visit unexpectedly became permanent, when le beau Max fell ill and, shortly after, died.

When Sybille arrived, Lisa had only recently met a handsome Italian nearly twenty years her junior called Nori Marchesani. They married in 1925 and to begin with lived in Italy, until they started worrying that the Fascists might spot that they were using Sybille to smuggle in copies of the New Statesman under her pinafore. They crossed the border to France by train one evening in 1926, heading to Biarritz laden with ‘suitcases, coats, a picnic basket, boxes of books and Lisa’s three little black and white Japanese spaniels’, one of which was about to give birth. But Lisa got bored and suggested they get off early. The next morning, they liked what they saw, the puppies arrived, they were offered a place to rent. That’s how Sanary-sur-Mer became Sybille’s base until 1940, when she slipped the border to Italy and made the last passenger ship out of Genoa by the skin of her teeth.

Like the leap across the mountains from dark to sunlight, the flight from Italy to Sanary becomes mythical in Bedford’s writing, recounted in different ways in three successive novels and also in Quicksands, in which she fuses her own memory of the view from the hotel balcony that very first morning with that of her long dead mother: the waterfront, the mairie, the bars tabacs, ‘compact and panoramic, as a spectator might take in a theatre set’. ‘I have seen this before,’ the daughter says to her mother in one of the novels. ‘You have,’ the mother replies. ‘It’s been painted over and over again’: it’s a real place, but also generic, an ideal backdrop for a spot of sophisticated rite de passage. ‘Exultation by environment’ is a phrase Bedford uses in Quicksands, a ‘happiness … of place’.

‘The archetypal Mediterranean landscape of rock and olive, wild thyme, vineyards, light’, Bedford’s Provence is an expat fantasy every bit as heedless as that of Peter Mayle, but her cosmopolitan sophistication, the pressures of her entre-deux-guerres historical moment and the terrible events of which she sometimes wrote, help to tease the fantasy apart: the ‘illusion of freedom’, as she sometimes called it – ‘the French used to be good at providing that’ – and ‘the Mediterranean addiction’. Bedford and her mother and all those other shiftless souls talked and wrote a lot about the sunshine and the sea and the heavy green cool unlabelled bottles of wine, and mostly died as they had lived, ‘numbed; stunned by movement, people, impressions … bound to and borne by a huge apparatus of travel’ as a character in A Legacy says. Does any of it work, though? ‘Everything that can be done in countries such as these for a woman such as you will be done for you. And to you it will be dust and ashes and great emptiness.’

But the happiness of Sanary is also, as per the genre, an excitement of ‘amorous pursuits’, as the chunky, boyish teenager who starts the evening admiring her elders from the bottom of the table gradually works her way up – filling the ladies’ glasses, lighting their cigarettes – until at last she makes it into bed with her hostess: ‘Si on est amis, il n’y a aucune différence si on fait l’amour avec,’ as the hostess says in Jigsaw. The selfsame evening is rendered in more detail in A Compass Error, and with delightful candour: ‘The always-known, the click into place, acceptance,’ thinks Flavia, the Sybille stand-in. ‘How cosy. How reassuring, how nice.’

But, actually, something even cosier happens on a bed in Jigsaw, when the mother’s young husband goes off on a job, mother and teenage daughter spend a wonderful few weeks on their own together, reading Balzac, Zola, George Sand – ‘“All essential in their so various ways,” my mother told me firmly’ – and eating takeaway from the traiteur. Then comes the time to snuggle up for ‘lucidity, clarifications’: ‘There was much to chew over,’ Bedford explains. The Gauls, Charlemagne, Jeanne d’Arc, ‘that hyper-civilisation … at the same time war after war – wilful wars – brutishness, oppression, injustice, la misère; and then the great flings into convulsive turbulence: the Terror, Napoleon, the 19th-century see-saw’.

‘Mummy,’ I said, ‘are we talking about history or human nature?’

‘Both. They do hang together.’

The longer you can keep her talking, the longer she’ll have to let you sit there on her bed in your blanket. ‘I took it in.’ The next time the mother and daughter find themselves talking in the mother’s bedroom, the husband is about to go away for good. ‘Sit by me, she said, as we used to, discussing peace and war late at night … Her eyes looked different.’ The husband has been straying and the mother cannot bear it: ‘I was like the proverbial wounded animal … I was destroying him and myself.’ A local doctor, ‘gaunt as a starving horse’ and called (‘I cannot help it’) Joyeu, has prescribed morphine. It gives her ‘an extraordinary sense of lightness’, as though she’s ‘no longer vulnerable or human … I could stop a world war.’ The text falls into ellipsis. ‘No, it does not last.’

Terrible scenes follow, in Jigsaw and Quicksands, of the mother’s ‘galloping addiction’ and decline. It becomes the daughter’s job to go ‘scrounging round the pharmacies’ of Bandol, La Ciotat, Le Lavandou, and when the prescriptions cease, the waterfront bars of Toulon. Failed cures, gin bottles in the bed, a desperate night drive over unmarked hill roads, the mother screaming for her hypodermic, beating her own legs with her fists. ‘I shall control this two-edged offering of the devil and the gods,’ she says, ‘I must ration the hours in my artificial paradise’; and for a while she seems to do so, with ‘gin, wine, veronal’ in between. Then comes the afternoon she pressures her daughter to try an ampoule: ‘My mother’s action that afternoon brought me a plausible insight into the enigma of Docteur Joyeu. Proselytism.’

Bedford said goodbye to her mother for good in 1934, at Toulon station. She was on her way to being placed in the care of her own mother in Berlin. ‘Lisa looks frightfully old and fanée,’ Anna wrote to her grand-daughter; and another time, ‘Lisa is the hole into which everyone sinks.’ Anna also complained a lot about hyperinflation reducing her fortune, but barely mentioned the Nuremberg Laws or the Nazis. In 1936 Lisa developed appendicitis, then a depression so severe she tried to kill herself by eating broken glass: in February 1937, she died in hospital, ‘I fear, though I hope not, alone.’ Belatedly in dread, Hastings says, of her own arrest and transportation, Anna killed herself a few months later.

‘Things have been difficult in some ways in the last decade, domesticity, cookery, paperwork, entertaining, trying to sew buttons,’ Bedford wrote to Robert Gottlieb, her American publisher, in 1986. Between 1956 and 1976, Bedford’s domestic situation had been fairly settled: cash injections from Gellhorn and Huxley’s second wife, Laura, a live-in relationship with Eda Lord, an American émigré writer, chain-smoker and intermittent alcoholic who by the sound of it did all the drudge work. ‘Like living with a caged tiger,’ Lord wrote to a friend in 1964. ‘I’ve been nurse, housekeeper, errand boy, and the huge garden S wanted for her healthful exercise was tied round my neck with heavy chains.’ ‘When people live one does not know how fortunate one is and only grumbles about the cigarette smoke,’ Bedford wrote to a friend after Eda’s death.

For most of her life, Bedford lived, like her mother, ‘oblivious of housework’. Servants, she had noticed, tended not to like Lisa – ‘curious perhaps as [she] thought of herself as a socialist’. ‘I’ve read the Fabians about it,’ the Lisa character says in one novel. ‘It’s a generous thing to be.’ One time in Bologna Lisa joined a demonstration of striking waiters, marching ‘with the workers and banners … with shining eyes replete with the cause and human fellowship’. The problem may be that she found women domestics less inspiring. In Italy, ‘the maids were afraid of her.’ In Sanary, ‘the house was kept going by a femme de ménage who came in the mornings, a dumpy woman, not too well disposed; we thought her a slut.’

A Compass Error begins with young Flavia, left behind again by her mother and her latest lover, swimming and reading and preparing for her Oxford entrance exam. ‘Ideas,’ she reckons, ‘are what she believed she was after’: one great inspiration is Huxley and another, Michel, ‘the man of principle’, a fictionalisation of a Sanary friend who also appears in Jigsaw and Quicksands (‘what he seems to stand for are clean hands, disillusion, withdrawal … motor rallies, dawn sorties into the country to catch a view of a cathedral in a certain light’). A femme de ménage, thank goodness, comes in to cook her lunch, but dinner she eats at a nearby restaurant, where she muses on ‘the great mundane issues … of peace and war, violence and political choice’. ‘Non-revolutionary redistribution of the means of production’ is mentioned at one point. At another, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Bedford was certainly fervently anti-Nazi, and wrote in Quicksands of her regret at not having done more about it: ‘As such I owe.’ But the inchoate political positions of her youth seem to have crystallised first into a combination of indifference and plain snobbery – she got ‘fed up’ with Ibiza because of its ‘dumb natives’ and ‘lower-middle-class English’, and much preferred the proximity of ‘people of one’s own kind’. With age her views soured further. ‘The one problem that no one dares to talk about is overpopulation,’ she told Country Life in the 1990s. ‘You can’t do it by force or by exposing children on hillsides any more … but you could … reduce taxes for people who are not interrupting their working life by having brats.’ She considered joining the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, but found it lacking in sexism and racism: ‘I do believe there are marked differences in many, many ways between the two sexes,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘and that some races are superior or inferior to others … So – possibly no fiver from me to the SDP.’ Her work with English PEN, for which she served as vice-president in the 1980s, was marred by a ‘dire’ talk from ‘a pedestrian and resentful Indian writer, the Midnight’s Children man. Exasperated and coarse.’

‘It was an interesting new life for a couple of decades,’ she wrote in Quicksands about her later years in London. ‘As long as one could hop about.’ But she never got round to writing much about it: ‘There seems to be no time.’ She ate out when younger friends took her and was a member of a wine-tasting group that met at the Reform Club, but mainly subsisted, Hastings was told, on corned beef, Bovril and instant mashed potato from Waitrose. ‘The best must be made, here and now, of the best that can be got,’ as she wrote in the Bodkin Adams book. ‘Fallibility is not a spectre but a calculable risk, and we plod on.’

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