With knobbly hands, shoulders bowed under the burden of arthritis, the little old woman tested the hasp of the front door and then turned to me, the last remaining guest from her tea party of that week. ‘Well, that’s someone who knows how to behave well,’ she said of the female guest who had just left.
The little old woman also knew how to behave well, invariably writing me a stiffly formal Collins on the morning after I had taken her out to the theatre or dinner. But her way of behaving well was totally different from that of her female guest.
If Ivy Compton-Burnett seemed unnaturally starched, as though she had to brace herself for the task of good behaviour that she set herself on these occasions, her guest, Sybille Bedford was totally relaxed. She had said something obliquely complimentary but undeserved about the cake, bought that morning by Ivy from the Apple Blossom Tea Room; she had breathed ‘Oh, lovely!’ as she stooped over the wilting begonias in a vase on a desk; she had discussed with obvious sincerity the merits of our hostess’s just published Manservant and Maidservant — ‘For me it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.’
On occasion Sybille could be critical, sharp, even dismissive. But unlike her contemporary Olivia Manning, who had long since acquired a reputation for deliberately upsetting other people, Sybille never did so. Not beautiful, not glamorous, not particularly well turned-out, she nonetheless radiated charm. In her own way, so different from Ivy’s, she rarely failed to behave well.
Now, when I recollect that good behaviour, what arises first in my mind is a journey that she and I made together by train to a PEN Congress in Lyons. There was some sort of strike of French porters in Paris, so that it was left to us delegates to hump our own often cumbrous luggage. Sybille looked far too fragile for this task, and, having got my bag up on to the rack, I then struggled and eventually got her suitcase up there as well. Then I heard a voice behind me. ‘I wonder if you’d mind being my porter too?’ It was a brilliant but tiresomely pushy female member of PEN, Kate Nott. ‘Yes, of course, I’d be only too happy to help,’ I responded, far from happy. Her suitcase seemed to be twice as heavy as Sybille’s.
As soon as our cab reached our hotel, Kate Nott was the first to jump out of it. With no attempt to contribute to the fare, she at once nobbled one of the hotel porters, who was already trying to deal with V. S. Pritchett’s bulging rucksack, and in a moment, having somehow wriggled her way to the front of the queue of guests already waiting to register, she was scuttling up the stairs, turning from time to time to ensure that porter and suitcase were still following. She had already totally forgotten both Sybille and me.
Sybille was handing me some francs. ‘Is that enough?’ ‘I’m sure it is.’ It was far more than her share of the fare. ‘Now we’re going to have a really stiff drink after all that work you put in as a porter. How about a half of champagne? Not that this dump is the sort of place to make one drink champagne in celebration of one’s arrival at it.’
The next day I asked if I might invite Peter Ackroyd, then at the outset of his distinguished international career, to join us for lunch. Sybille was delighted. Without any consultation, she ordered our food, she ordered our wine. If anyone else had done this, we might well have been miffed. But to be miffed was rare when confronted by Sybille’s good behaviour. In fact, we were not miffed even when, Peter having filled her glass to the brim with Chablis, she screamed at him: ‘No, not full, not full! Where were you brought up?’ She was teaching this new acolyte a lesson; but it was one devoid of any ill-feeling or malice. At the end of the meal she insisted on rifling her bag to pay for all three of us.
Some people, usually men, would make fun of Sybille’s obsession with the needs of her inner woman; but she had many followers, usually female and upper-middle-class, who enjoyed nothing more than to listen to her discourse on the subject of food and drink. To her credit, she liked to boast not so much of the extravagance of this or that meal or bottle just consumed, as of the surprisingly low price paid for such quality. In those days, when PEN was still an intimate and cosy little club of writers and not the grand — perhaps even grandiose? — organisation that it has now become, it was she who brought her natural fastidiousness to the search for modest but excellent wines for its now long since abandoned dinners.
On the first occasion that I invited her out to a meal in London, it was at a favourite resort of hers, an exclusive little French restaurant, Le Colombier, that blazed its light under the menacing shadow of the Marsden Hospital. Barely glancing at the bill of fare, she announced that she would have the shepherd’s pie. ‘And no starter’, she added. Horrified, I decided that she must have made this proletarian choice out of pity for my supposed lack of funds. But then she commented: ‘You won’t find a better shepherd’s pie anywhere in London.’
However, as a gourmet she could be exigent. When she had told me how much she wished to meet the music critic Peter Heyworth, I offered to invite the two of them to dinner together. ‘Good. But just the three of us,’ was her response. After that I had little peace for ten days. Please, no smoked salmon, it was terribly overrated. And it ruined the palate for good wine. She would have to arrive half an hour early to decant a rather special claret that she was bringing with her. If there were to be any chocolates on offer with the coffee, then her favourites were from Prestat.
Most of Sybille’s really close friends were women. Often one learned, not of course from her, that, having travelled the world dressed with an elegance with which she herself could rarely be bothered, they had become rich either by inheritance or failed marriages. She had a rare gift for attracting patrons from among such people, so that after some needy years when she had kept herself by such tasks as transporting Thomas Mann’s dogs by car the length of the United States, she found her small, elegant feet and then spent most of the rest of her life on them.
What I myself found irritating, but seemed to add to her attraction for her fans, was the dance of the seven veils that she mischievously insisted on performing, both in her life and in her books. It teased and tantalised and led to a lot of unlikely speculation. Inordinately inquisitive, I repeatedly attempted, at the outset of our friendship, to discover her secrets. During the early years the most importunate of these was: Who was Mr Bedford? But when I began to probe I always received the same sort of impatient, even irritable answer: ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered with all that sort of thing. It’s of no interest to me, so why should it be of interest to anyone else?’
Was she a great writer or only a highly talented one? When a few days ago I put this question to one the sharpest critics in the business, she answered: ‘Well, her trouble was that she kept on grinding away at only two things — aristocratic pretension and a thoroughly tiresome mother.’ But writers of the stature of Hilary Mantel, Evelyn Waugh and L. P Hartley had no doubts that here was one of the supreme novelists of her time. My own view lies somewhere between. Her first novel, The Legacy, remains her finest, to be read with a mixture of admiration and awe. Unlike Penelope Fitzgerald, whose last novel was, in its soaring splendour, her best, Sybille’s best was this first one that in subsequent years she never quite equalled, let alone surpassed.
No matter: 16 March 1911 was the date of birth of this remarkable woman. Let us raise an invisible glass of champagne to celebrate her mastery of her vocation and the constant delight that it has given us.
Then, as one of us begins to pour out the Veuve Cliquot, we hear yet again that voice, slightly hesitant and slightly anxious and yet amazingly clear, as she inexplicably raises a hand to her lips to silence it: ‘No, not to the brim! Not to the brim! Where were you brought up?’