A Legacy: Sybille Bedford

With a backwards glance at the private lives of the privileged against the background of a newly-unified Germany, Sybille Bedford’s loosely-structured novel A Legacy follows two connected families: the Merzs, an extremely wealthy bourgeois Jewish Berlin family and the aristocratic Catholic von Feldens who live on a Baden estate.

a legacyThis non-linear tale is broken into five distinct sections: A House, Augustans, The Captive, A Free Agent, and A Reprieve. We begin with the narrator discussing her birth and her father, Jules (Julius) von Felden. As she relates the history of her family, the narrator is at first unnamed, but as the history unfolds, by the fourth section, we know that the narrator is Francesca, the second daughter of Jules von Felden from his second, British wife, Charlotte. But back to the beginning of the book which begins with the narrator telling us that she was born “in a flat rented for the occasion,” and not in the home of the Merzs (and their extended family), “a huge Wilheminian town house in the old West of Berlin” on Voss Strasse. Jules (Julius) von Felden, part of the noble, but not oozing in wealth aristocratic German family, was married briefly to Melanie Merz, but she died leaving behind a daughter, Henrietta, and this bound von Felden permanently to the Merz family, so that he continued to receive a generous allowance from his former in-laws. With the description of the privileged, idiosyncratic cocooned life of the Merzs, I was hooked:

No music was heard at Voss Strasse outside the ball-room and the day nursery. They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets.

They took no exercise and practiced no sport; they kept no animals–except carriage horses–and none were allowed in the house. The caretaker couple kept a canary in their basement by the furnace, but no truffled nose had ever snuffed the still hot air upstairs, no padded paw had trod the Turkey pile, no tooth had gnawed, no claw ripped the mahogany and the plush, and there was a discreet mouse-trap set in every room. The Merzs had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no-one besides the family, the doctor and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table. They were never alone; when it wasn’t the barber, it would be the manicure. Grandmama Merz had never taken a bath without the presence and assistance of her maid. They did not go to shops. Things were sent to them on approval, and people came to them for fittings. They never read. There was a smoking-room, and a billiard room nobody used, but there was not so much as a courtesy library, and I cannot ever remember ever seeing a book about.

And this is the way the Merz family manage their money:

In his younger days Grandpapa Merz had gone to board-meetings; now he still received at intervals the visit of a decent-looking individual who presented himself with a satchelful of papers to be signed, bank-notes and gold. This man was called the book-keeper. The money he brought was handed over to the butler, Gottlieb, who paid the wages and the house-keeping bills, had charge of his master and mistress’s personal expenses, tipped my mother’s cabs at the door and lent what were not always small sums to my half-sister. The banknotes were new. Money, like animals, was not hygienic, and no-one employed in the house was supposed to handle used notes. Thus everybody was paid straight off the press. The subsequent problem of change was not envisioned.

Money management is one of the central issues of the story, and second son, Friedrich, “a leather-faced, idle bureaucrat” saves “half of his allowance and all his pay” while ruining his career through his relationship with a “not respectable” Frenchwoman. “One of the counts against her was that in an age of rubber tubs she travelled with a silver bidet.” The eldest son, Edu Merz is a spendthrift and a gambler who finally exhausts the patience of his heiress wife, the formidable Sarah.

My mother once said that everything about Edu was impersonation: that his passion was not cards, but seeing himself at cards. She may have been right. It is certain that Edu adored his chosen personality; and its setting, in some measure, depended on his wife. Edu at race-meetings, at bachelor suppers, Edu with the duns, was one thing; Edu with Sarah was another, and as a couple they were something else again. Obviously their marriage was a failure, but that was something both were able to put aside, and if they had little else in common, they shared at least two things–a belief in the importance of society, and the habit of being rich. Both were at home in their time.

The Jewish Merzs are in contrast to the Catholic aristocrats, the von Feldens, the widower Baron and his four sons  who lead a much more active lifestyle with animals and with notions of honor and duty occupying an important place. They are “agreeably off without being the least rich.” The fact that Julius von Felden owns, lives with and travels with monkeys becomes a major problem when he marries one of the Merz daughters, Melanie.  And under the growing influence of Prussian militarism, another son, Johannes is “carted off to a cadet corps to be made into an officer,” and it’s this decision that has lasting and tragic ramifications for both the Merzs and the von Feldens.

At times A Legacy is not easy to read due to its occasionally knotty prose–so much so that I found myself rereading and trying to unravel many sentences repeatedly. As the book moves on some parts are elliptical in nature with obtuse conversations or repeated general opinion rather as though the author recreated snippets of dialogue which she overheard.  But in spite of its faults, A Legacy depicts a brilliant, intimate representation of the twilight hours of a lost world.

Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) wrote a memoir of her life, Quicksands, and it’s impossible to ignore the autobiographical details of this tale: she was born in Germany, to an aristocratic father, was “bundled between two houses,” and the author has this to say about her semi-autobiographical novel:

Thus what I know or feel I know about the places and the men and women in this story is derived from what I saw and heard and over-heard as a child at the age of roughly three to ten, much of which I managed to absorb, retain and decades after, to re-shape in an adult mode. The rest is invention and surmise.

Bedford admits that a couple of the characters are of her “own devising” but that many of the elements of A Legacy did occur in the history of her family. So it’s no wonder that the book rings with an authenticity, a presentation of a shimmering now lost world of the wealthy and the privileged, the German aristocrats, the wealthy Jewish bourgeois family–people who thought they were the movers and shakers of German society who were, as Bedford says, in reality “playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany and of what was brewing therein.”

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Filed under Bedford Sybille, Fiction

11 responses to “A Legacy: Sybille Bedford

  1. One of my all-time favourites. I’ve read two more of her novels, which go over ground that is more explicitly based on her own life, but focus on different aspects – one book (A Favourite of the Gods) puts her parents marriage front-and-centre, the other (A Compass Error) deals more with the fallout on the Francesca character. I’m saving the last two books, Jigsaw and Quicksand.

  2. I didn’t realize that her other novels were connected as this is my first (not last) Bedford. Thanks

  3. I’m a great admirer of Sybille Bedford, but the novel I’d recommend above all the others is A Favourite of the Gods.

  4. Not sure why, but I must have missed this post last week. Still reading from my TBR at the moment but I’m very interested in picking this up at some stage. I like how you’ve described it as a representation of the twilight hours of a lost world – the quotes have that feel. Definitely one for the wishlist.

  5. I see what you mean about the prose. I see it in the passages that you quoted. In relation to this as well as the repetition and elliptical nature of the story that you allude to interesting. Sometimes I like it when a writer does unconventional things like like only because it seems refreshingly different.

  6. I didn’t see this post either.
    I’m a bit afraid of the knotty writing but apart from that I’m sure she’s a writer I will like. I’ve got Quicksand but after seeing A Favourite of the Gods mentioned twice, I think that might be the one I’ll try first.

  7. After reading that first quote I wondered : what to the Merzs do in life, apart from breathing?

    It sounds great but probably too difficult for me. It’s hard to imagine such a world now, with all these rules and all the fun they were missing for the sake of propriety.

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