Sara Wheeler

Sybille Bedford — a gifted writer but a monstrous snob

Her books are much admired, but she was impossibly arrogant, and exploited her friends mercilessly, according to Selina Hastings

A fine writer, but a monster: Sybille Bedford emerges as arrogant, fickle, snobbish and exploitative. Credit: © Sandra Lousada/Mary Evans Picture Library

Sybille Bedford died in 2006, just short of 95. She left four novels, a travel book, two volumes of legal process and a memoir. Selina Hastings has written a wonderful biography, with lashings of lesbian lovers, which provides a soundtrack to one version of the 20th century.

Born German in 1911, Bedford grew up in a schloss in Baden’s Feldkirch, near the French border, her father a Bavarian Catholic baron and old soldier, her mother a beautiful and unstable bolter. ‘Her childhood,’ writes Hastings, whose previous books include lives of Nancy Mitford, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, ‘was both intellectually inspirational and… emotionally deprived.’ Both parents were wealthy.

Short and sturdy, with cornflower-blue eyes, a high brow and blonde hair cut ‘boyishly’, Bedford was restlessness made flesh. She liked France and England best, and enjoyed long stints in Italy (chiefly Rome) and seven years in the US, the latter mostly in California. She often expressed ‘contempt for America’, but it was a handy hideaway during the war. Fluent in three languages, she always wrote in English and lived longest in London. Sanary-sur-Mer, halfway between Toulon and Marseilles, furnished inspiration for many years, as did, later and for nearly four decades, her former partner Allanah Harper’s house in the Provençal back-country north of Cannes.

There was tragedy — there always is. Bedford’s mother’s morphine addiction turned her, according to her only child, from a Giorgione to ‘a Rembrandt woman, an ageing Jewess howling by a wall’ (Lisa, the mother, had Jewish blood). Both Bedford and Hastings describe this descent into hell with infernal empathy.

The name Bedford came from a husband procured for £100 when Sybille needed a British passport

A procession of famous names prances the boards, from Peggy Guggenheim (‘Guggers’) to Cyril Connolly, who sits reading before the fire with an incontinent lemur on his knee and a sardine skeleton as a bookmark.

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