First published in 1956, Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Legacy, tells the story of two very different families connected by marriage. As long-standing members of Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie, the Jewish Merzes are very wealthy and very traditional. By contrast, the aristocratic von Feldens hail from Baden, part of Germany’s Catholic south; they are comfortably off but not rich.
Set against a backdrop of a newly-unified Germany, the book moves backwards and forward in time alighting on various points in the late 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War. Our narrator is Francesca, the daughter of Julius von Felden from his second wife, Caroline, although much of the story she relates has been pieced together based on her conversations with various relatives, coming to her ‘at second and at third hand, in chunks and flashes, by hearsay and tale-bearing and being told.’ Plus there is a touch of ‘putting two and two together’ to complete the picture.
As the novel opens, the narrator recalls the early years of her life, a time she spent shuttling between two houses in Germany: an ‘outrageously large and ugly’ town house in the West of Berlin (home to the Merzes) and a small château in the South (bought for her father by her mother, Caroline). We are then introduced to the Merz household as Francesca spirals back into the history of this branch of her family.
They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons. While members of what might have been their world were dining to the sounds of Schubert and of Haydn, endowing research and adding Corot landscapes to their Bouchers and the Delacroix, and some of them were buying their first Picasso, the Merz’s were adding bell-pulls and thickening the upholstery. 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 they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets. (pgs. 10-11)
By contrast to the Merzes, the members of Julius von Felden’s family are much more engaged with their surroundings; they are country gentleman, landowners with interests in the countryside, the arts and various natural sciences. Julius has three brothers, two of whom, Gustavus and Johannes, also feature prominently in the story.
The two families come together when Melanie Merz meets Julius von Felden during a trip to the South of France. Melanie has been staying with her brother, Edu (a man with a terrible weakness for gambling) and his wife, Sarah, a highly capable woman who is independently wealthy in her own right. There are some wonderful scenes where Sarah and Edu discuss Julius’ intentions towards Melanie. If they are to marry, there is the question of the difference in religions to be settled despite the fact that neither of the two families appears to be practising. In time, Melanie slips away from her family to get baptized, an action which leads to no end of confusion as the first ritual is carried out by a Protestant minister (not a Catholic one), and so a second ceremony has to be conducted in its place.
Even though Julius ends up marrying Melanie (a young woman several years his junior), I couldn’t help but wonder if his heart was really in it, especially when I read the following passage. In this scene, which takes places in the Merzes’ house in Berlin, Melanie is expecting Julius to propose.
They stood among the ferns and azaleas in great fear. He saw the threat to his existence, a cloud moving in that would engulf his private, careful life, a threat of which this house, this town, these people, were at once the portents, the tools and the reality. He felt caught up with, brought by the incomprehensible enmeshment of events to the brink, once more, of change; felt he must give battle or become submerged, felt submerged already by his own depression and forebodings. […] Melanie moved before him: not anything like pacing, taking small steps from flower-tub to window seat; her feet were delicate, her dress swished a little, she managed her skirts well. He was not aware of her at all. (pg. 137)
The couple marry and move to Spain, but their marriage is a brief one. Shortly after the birth of her only child, a baby girl named Henrietta, Melanie falls ill with a succession of bronchial conditions which ultimately lead to her death from consumption.
This is just one of a number of tragedies that touch the members of these two families during the course of the novel. As a young man, Julius’ brother Johannes was packed off to Benzheim, a brutal Prussian cadet school, a place where boys were left to spend their formative years in ‘an atmosphere of organized hunger, brutality and spiritual deprivation.’ As someone used to the wide open spaces of the countryside and the gentle company of his family, Johannes could not have been less prepared for the experience; it leaves him a broken man. The fallout from Johannes’ time at the cadet school continues to reverberate for several years affecting both the von Feldens and the Merzes in the process.
One of the most impressive things about A Legacy is the insight it offers into this vanished world, the glimpses into the rather insular lives of the highly privileged Merzes in Berlin coupled with the eccentricities of the von Felden family in the South. Before his marriage to Melanie, Julius’ closest companions were his three chimpanzees, Robert, Léon and Tzara. There are some very amusing scenes when Julius travels to Berlin with his chimps in tow, especially given the mischief the animals get up to during the train journey.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the novel’s title, money plays a prominent role here, and there is much discussion of allowances, gifts, debts and legacies. Everything is portrayed with great care and attention to detail: the conversations, the clothes, the train journeys, even the meals – an extensive second breakfast, a daily event in the Merz household, is described in all its glory. I loved the following passage featuring Melanie’s father, Grandpapa Merz, and his penchant for ladies with shapely legs. (Gottlieb is the Merzes’ butler, the man who manages pretty much everything in their household.)
Grandpapa was far too frail to be allowed out cavorting with the corps de ballet, and members of the corps de ballet at Voss Strasse were unthinkable. Where then could a shapely leg be found, this being literally the one perfection insisted on by the old gentleman. […] The answer was in the Prussian aristocracy. Long well-turned legs were natural to the ladies of that caste, and as a caste they were not well off. Thus a succession of stinted sisters of splendid cavalry brothers and thinly-pensioned widows of line-regiment captains, long-limbed woman of sparse figures and worn, closed, shiny faces, [….] presented themselves at Voss Strasse after the luncheon nap to read the Kreuz Zeitung and to go for drives, clothed in plain, high blouses and long skirts that revealed sometimes the promise of a fine-made ankle. They were styled companions; and Grandmama used to shake her slow head at the turn-over. For none of these stiff women lasted long. The old gentleman had tried to push a bank-note under the garter of Fraülein zu der Hardeneck, and had called Frau von Kummer his little mouse. Gottlieb, who knew everything, saw to the successors. (pgs. 13-14)
While there is much to enjoy in this novel, I couldn’t quite bring myself to love it. Bedford’s prose takes a bit of getting used to with its highly allusive conversations and indirect references to various events. The cast of characters is large, and their lives are complicated. In fact I haven’t even mentioned the third family to feature in the novel, the Bernins, who are linked to the von Feldens by way of another marriage. (A family tree would have been very helpful indeed.) As a consequence of all this, I found myself drifting in and out of this novel as I made my way through it. That said, I’m very glad I read it – as a portrait of a certain milieu, I suspect it’s pretty hard to beat.
A Legacy is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.