A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

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.

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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.

For other thoughts on this novel, here are links to reviews by Ali and Guy.

A Legacy is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

55 thoughts on “A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

  1. gertloveday

    Sybille Bedford has only been at the furthest fringes of my book world and I had classed her with those brittle English society writers for some reason until your mentions of her. I didn’t even know she was born in Germany. I’m going to read “A Compass Error”.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like Sybille Bedford – her life sounds fascinating. Let me know how you get on with A Compass Error. I think it was a sequel to an earlier novel (A Favourite of the Gods) although it looks as if the two can be read as standalone works.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Perhaps if I’d read A Favourite of The Gods I would have liked it better. As it was, I thought it was melodramatic to an almost grotesque degree, rudimentary from the point of construction and very unconvincing in its characterisation. The setting was memorable, and the character of Flavia has sparks of truth that I’m sure come from her own experience. It sounds from your rv as if A Legacy is miles better.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh no! Well that certainly doesn’t sound too good. A Legacy has some wonderful vignettes, but as a novel it is rather unconventional. The characters were convincing here, if somewhat eccentric, and the construction was interesting. It was the style I found difficult to get to grips with – maybe Bedford is an acquired taste. I’ll give her another try next year, either Jigsaw or A Favourite of the Gods. The more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to plump for Jigsaw, especially given your thoughts on A Compass Error. Thanks for dropping back.

          Reply
  2. Cathy746books

    Sometimes when I read a heavily populated book like this, I sketch out a family tree to keep me on track! Although that usually says more about me than the book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had a bash at doing just that as I was reading this one! It doesn’t help that some of the male characters are also known by pet names/shortened versions of their Christian names. At one point, I thought they were separate characters. :)

      Reply
    2. Lady Fancifull

      Thank you for such a simple, obvious solution to the problem of a book with many characters. I’m hitting my ahead against the wall in annoyance at my years of stupidity! Why didn’t I think of this? I shall bless you here on in!

      Kindles I suppose make it easier but as one generally reads in fits and starts, you don’t necessarily remember everyone and everywhere. Another use for one of the multiplicity of little notebooks I seem to acquire!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        I tend to keep a notebook close at hand when I’m reading just for this type of thing – notes on the characters and connections between them. Funnily enough, I think I’d find it easier to flip backwards and forwards with a physical book, especially if it contained a family tree or list of characters at the front. Mind you, I tend to prefer paper over e-books per se, so maybe it’s a question of personal tastes!

        Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Ah, I guess it would be possible to access more information about a character by clicking on their name – is that what you mean by the advantages of an e-book? (I don’t use my kindle very often, so it’s not something I’ve very familiar with!)

            Reply
            1. Lady Fancifull

              Yes, you can click on anything, and find instances of its listing in the book, so, something I’m reading at the moment, which said ‘when he last met Graham’ and I couldn’t remember exactly who Graham was, typing in ‘Graham’ would have led me back to the one page where ‘Graham’ had been mentioned. I suppose it encourages one not to pay attention because you know you can always find what you forgot!

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked it, Simon – it’s just that I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped or expected. It’s funny – I found Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart more accessible and engaging than the Bedford, even though the Bowen came with the reputation of being a challenging read. Thanks for the links – I’ll head over to yours in a little while to take a look at your posts.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Wd be interested in hearing your views on my take. It is perhaps a bit patrician & cool in tone, but I thought that worked well with this novel.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I liked the combination of form and style in the early sections of this book (as illustrated by my quotes on the Merz family and your passage on the von Feldens) – and I agree, this worked well within the context of the novel. However, the subsequent sections (from around the middle of part two onwards) were more problematic for me. Bedford’s approach seemed to change at this point with the inclusion of those passages of rather allusive dialogue and oblique references to certain events that were not always entirely clear (especially at first). I suspect I missed some of the nuances in the text here. Nevertheless, the characters were fascinating. (And I am drawn to these novels that give the reader an insight into a vanished world!)

          In some respects, this novel (and my response to it) reminded me a little of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but if not it’s worth a look in spite of my reservations.

          https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/the-end-of-days-by-jenny-erpenbeck-tr-susan-bernofsky/

          Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I have several Bedfords on the shelf which I’ve yet to read and I’ve debated on which would be best to start with. Intriguing how you didn’t entirely engage with this book – that does happen sometimes so that we admire a book rather than loving it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Oh, I’ll be interested to see how you find her. If this one is anything to go by, then she has a very particular style which might not be to everyone’s tastes. Yes, admire is a good word for this. I was fascinated by the milieu Bedford portrays here, but it’s a book I liked and admired rather than loved. I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing out on some of the subtleties along the way.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. Yes, it’s a book that requires quite a lot of concentration. Sleepless Nights – that’s Elizabeth Hardwick, isn’t it? I’ve wondered about trying her work so I’ll keep an eye out for your review.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        I hope it’s not presumptuous or bad etiquette to link to my blog again, Jacqui, but I posted on ‘Sleepless Nights’ back in Feb. 14: http://bit.ly/1W4Eetr. Can’t say I’d liken her style to SB’s, which I think is more rococo and less airily lyrical…though come to think of it there is a certain amount of similarity at times. SB seems to me more rooted to an earthed reality, in some respects, though both are grittily urban (and urbane), and both are capable of delightful verbal surprises. In case that shortened link doesn’t work here it is in full:
        http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2014/02/dangerous-salvations-elizabeth-hardwick-sleepless-nights-considered/

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No, not at all, Simon – always happy for you to link to your reviews. I think I must have missed your post at the time. That’s interesting re your observations on Hardwick’s style. I shall head over to yours for a proper read. :)

          Reply
          1. Tredynas Days

            Very generous of you, Jacqui, thanks! I had mixed feelings about the Hardwick – reminiscent of Renata Adler, but less satisfying, I found.

            Reply
  4. heavenali

    I remember this as a very complex book which I did like very much. However it took a lot of effort. I much preferred A Favourite of the gods and A Compass Error.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad to hear that, Ali, as I would be open to trying another Bedford – maybe not for a while, but at some point in the future. That’s great – I’ll take a look at those two. I liked this one, but there were times when it felt like hard work.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    It sounds as if this book explores all sorts of worthwhile issues. In particular the religious interactions of the families, and a young man trapped in a brutal situation are ripe for a compelling plot.

    You described the prose as being

    “highly allusive conversations and indirect references to various events.”

    This may seem like an odd comparison but that description reminds me of the way that Frank Herbert wrote.

    Fantastic commentary as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. The whole milieu is fascinating, as are the particular families and personalities depicted here. If anything, I would have liked to hear more about Johannes and his time at the military academy, but that might have made for a very different type of novel to the one Bedford had in mind. (As a slight aside, it’s one of the most powerful sections in the book. It also made me wonder if there was something in the German culture at the time – a school of thought or tendency to subject teenagers and children to beatings and abuse, not just as a means of discipline but to strengthen their characters in some way. I was reminded of Jakob Wassermann’s autobiographical novel My First Wife/A Marriage and Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon, both of which tap into this theme to some extent.)

      I’ve never read Frank Herbert, so it’s difficult for me to comment on any comparisons with Bedford or similarities in their styles. With A Legacy, there are times when you just drop into the middle of a conversation without really knowing who is speaking to whom. Things start to become a little clearer as you continue to read, but it’s not always easy to tell what’s going on in each scene (especially at the beginning). Also, some of the individual passages are quite short, so I’m sure I missed some of the nuances in the text. It’s a good novel, though – not my favourite read from my Classics Club list, but still worthwhile.

      Reply
  6. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I think I would enjoy this novel for its depiction of the milieu, especially as I have not read much set in this particular time and place. But since it might require some extra attention and time, and I already have a bunch of your recommended reads waiting for me, I think I will skip this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a fair call. I think you’d find it interesting, especially give the links to Germany, but it sounds as though you’ve got more than enough books and recommendations to keep you going for quite a while. :)

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    This doesn’t really sound like something for me, particularly when you’re not entirely convinced yourself, but given that it’s semi-autobiographical I must ask, are the chimps based on real events?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I don’t know if the chimps and their antics are based on reality, but it’s such a bizarre detail that it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it turned out to be true. That side of the family was rather eccentric. I’m not sure this is your cup of tea either, Grant – plus I preferred Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (which I think was of greater interest to you anyway).

      Reply
  8. bookbii

    Interesting review Jacqui; I’ve been interested in Bedford’s travel writing for some time but never quite got around to it. Not sure I’d bump it up the queue, but nice to know what kind of writing to expect. Sounds like a good, if confusing read (but perhaps will stick to her non-fiction works).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Based on a couple of the comments here and on Twitter, I think her other books might be more accessible and less oblique than this one. M. L Kappa recommended A Visit to Don Otavio (a travelogue) in her comment above, so it might be worth a look at some point. I would be very curious to hear what you think of her writing, Belinda.

      Reply
  9. litlove

    I felt exactly the same as you about this one – great respect, but couldn’t ever quite break the brittle surface and get inside it. However, I adored A Favourite of the Gods (read it first and was a bit surprised by Legacy) and I’m looking forward to A Compass Error. Sybille Bedford was an extraordinary woman. The American critic, Joan Acocella wrote a brilliant piece about her in her wonderful collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints. A collection I warmly recommend. It’s always a pleasure to read your reviews, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria – ah, a kindred spirit when it comes to this one. Brittle is a very good description for the style. I found it hard to penetrate at times, almost as though I’d walked into a room in the middle of a conversation without really knowing what was happening. You’re the third person to recommend A Favourite of the Gods, so that’s definitely going on my list for the future. (Jigsaw seems to be well regarded too.) Plus I’ll take a look at that collection of essays you’ve recommended – I must admit to being rather intrigued by Bedford as a result of reading this novel!

      Reply
  10. Guy Savage

    I think this is a book that you can’t read and put down too often as it’s easy to lose track of what is going on. Thanks for the mention.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Guy. Yes, and I ended up reading it in fairly small chunks on account of the style. It’s a bit of a vicious circle in some respects. I’ll try another Bedford at some point – maybe not this year but in another 12 months or so.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds like a good plan as it seems to be emerging as a favourite – no pun intended! I’m quite keen to read it myself at some point.

      Reply
  11. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    I have an elderly Penguin copy of this tucked away, but it does seem that I might do better to try A Favourite of the Gods, which has lived on the Virago bookcase for a while now, first. Then I can go back to this armed with familiarity with her style and a notebook and pen!

    Reply
  12. Scott W.

    I’m a sucker for works from this pre-WWI period, glimpses of that “lost world,” and the chimpanzees and leg fetish stuff sound pretty funny. I know nothing about Sybille Bedford, so perhaps I should get acquainted.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Scott – there’s a good chance you would enjoy this novel a great deal. While I didn’t love it as much as say Banffy’s They Were Counted trilogy or Szerb’s A Journey by Moonlight, I liked it enough to want to try another Bedford in the future. There are many gems to enjoy here, little vignettes about life in the Merz household and the characters’ various eccentricities. Gottlieb (the Merz family butler) is deserving of his own book! (If anything, I would have liked to hear more about his command of the household.) Add Bedford to your list, Scott – I have a feeling you’ll take to her!

      Reply
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  15. Emma

    I checked her on Wikipedia, it seems like part of the novel is inspired by her own family.
    It is a fascinating period.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. The intro to the NYRB edition goes into some of the similarities between Bedford’s family and the dynasty depicted here. Bedford’s father, Maximilian von Schoenbeck, was a somewhat eccentric aristocrat from Baden, while her mother, a great beauty some twenty years his junior, was born in England. (In the novel, Julius’ second wife was English.) In effect, Francesca’s/Bedford’s family background or ‘inheritance’ was a story of ‘Prussian pride, political scandal, anti-Semitism, and moral negligence’ – in effect, the legacy of Europe in the 20th century (hence the novel’s title). As you say, such a fascinating period.

      Even though I didn’t love this one, I’m sufficiently intrigued by Bedford to read another of her novels. Ian Curtin’s read five of her books, so I’m going to try one of his recommendations next – either Jigsaw or A Favourite of the Gods.

      Reply

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