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SYBILLE BEDFORD by Selina Hastings


A Life

by Selina Hastings

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-101-94791-3
Publisher: Knopf

A writer's long, passionate, peripatetic life.

In 1935, German-born Sybille von Schoenebeck (1911-2006) was living in France, where, because of her German-Jewish ancestry, she felt increasingly vulnerable in a charged political atmosphere. Taking friends’ advice that a British passport would ensure her safety, she married Walter Bedford, an attendant at a London gentlemen’s club, who agreed to the marriage in exchange for a fee of 100 pounds. After dinner and an evening out, the couple never saw each other again. Drawing on archival material, correspondence, diaries, and Bedford’s autobiographical novels and memoir, Hastings, biographer of Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, and other literary figures, offers a gossipy, well-informed chronicle of a woman noted for her intelligence, talent, and, not least, her circle of famous friends. These included Aldous and Maria Huxley, Thomas Mann and his children, various Bloomsbury denizens, Peggy Guggenheim, Martha Gellhorn (who offered her writing advice), Janet Flanner, and M.F.K. Fisher. Bedford’s early life was difficult: Her parents’ marriage was contentious; her father died when she was a young teenager; her mother was vain and self-absorbed. Sybille was sent to study in England, where she was taken in by a sympathetic couple, beginning a pattern that was to continue throughout her life: “friendships, attachments to a group, a couple, a family not my own” that made her “buoyantly happy.” One woman who looked upon her with a “motherly eye” also initiated her into lesbian sex. After her mother remarried, Bedford lived with the couple in the south of France, where she met the Huxleys, neighbors who became her confidants and supporters. Maria also became her lover, one among many affairs. Hastings traces a “complex web of love and friendship—and occasional hostility” that spun around Bedford, who worked hard to succeed as a writer, producing a travel book based on a stay in Mexico, several novels, a reverent biography of Aldous Huxley, and a memoir.

A sympathetic, engaging biography.