Bedford in 1989
16 March 1911|
|Died||17 February 2006
London, England, UK
Sybille Bedford, OBE (16 March 1911 – 17 February 2006) was a German-born English writer. Many of her works are partly autobiographical. Julia Neuberger proclaimed her "the finest woman writer of the 20th century" while Bruce Chatwin saw her as "one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose".
She was born as Freiin Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck in Charlottenburg, west of Berlin, to Baron Maximilian Josef von Schoenebeck (1853–1925), a German aristocrat, retired lieutenant colonel and art collector, and his German-Jewish wife, Elisabeth Bernhardt (1888-1937). Sybille was raised in the Roman Catholic faith of her father at Schloss Feldkirch in Baden. She had a half sister, by her father's first marriage, Maximiliane Henriette von Schoenebeck (later Nielsen, aka Jacko or Catsy). Her parents divorced in 1918, and she remained with her father, under somewhat impoverished circumstances in the midst of his art and wine collection. He died in 1925, when she was 14 years old and Sybille went to live in Italy with her mother and stepfather, an Italian architectural student. During these years she studied in England, lodging in Hampstead.
In the early 1920s, Sybille often traveled between England and Italy. With the rise of fascism in Italy, though, her mother and stepfather settled in Sanary-sur-Mer, a small fishing village in the south of France. Sybille herself settled there as a teenager, living near Aldous Huxley, with whom she became friends. Bedford interacted with and was influenced by many of the German writers who settled in the area during that time, including Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. During this time, her mother became addicted to morphine prescribed by a local doctor, and became increasingly dysfunctional.
In 1933, Sybille published an article critical of the Nazi regime in Die Sammlung, the literary magazine of Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. When her Jewish ancestry  was subsequently discovered by the Nazis, her German bank accounts were frozen. At this time it was difficult for her to renew her German passport, and staying in Italy without a valid passport or source of income carried the risk of being deported to Germany. Maria Huxley came with a solution in 1935. Maria is known to have said, on the question of who should marry Sybille, "We need to get one of our bugger friends". Sybille entered a marriage of convenience with an English Army officer, Walter "Terry" Bedford (an ex-boyfriend of a former man-servant of W.H Auden's), whom she described as a friend's "bugger butler", and obtained a British passport. The marriage ended shortly thereafter, but Sybille took her husband's surname, publishing all of her later work as Sybille Bedford.
With assistance from Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, Bedford left France for America in advance of the German invasion of 1940. She followed the Huxleys to California and spent the rest of World War II in the United States.
Career as a writer
After the war, Bedford spent a year traveling in Mexico. Her experiences on that trip would form the basis of her first published book, a travelogue entitled The Sudden View: a Mexican Journey, which was published in 1953. Bedford spent the remainder of the 1940s living in France and Italy. During this time she had a love affair with an American woman, Evelyn W. Gendel, who left her husband for Bedford and became a writer and editor herself. In the 1950s she became Martha Gellhorn's confidante.
A Legacy, Bedford's second book and first novel, was published in 1956 (successfully dramatised by BBC television in 1975), and was described by Francis King as "one of the great books of the 20th century". Though ostensibly a work of fiction, it was somewhat autobiographical - it presents a stylized version of her father's life, as well as some of the author's early childhood, in Germany. That novel was a success, and enabled Bedford to continue writing. In her lifetime, she published three more novels as well as numerous works of non-fiction. As a writer of non-fiction, Bedford was best known as a travel writer and as a legal reporter.
Bedford spent the 1950s, '60s and '70s living in France, Italy, Britain and Portugal, and during this period had a twenty-year relationship with the American female novelist Eda Lord. In 1979 she settled in Chelsea in London. In 1981 she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. She worked for PEN, was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1994 became a Companion of Literature. Bedford's final work was Quicksands, a memoir published in 2005.
Awards and honours
- The Sudden View: a Mexican Journey - 1953 - (republished as A Visit to Don Otavio: a Traveller's Tale from Mexico, a travelogue)
- A Legacy - 1956 - her first novel, a work inspired by the early life of the author's father, which focuses on the brutality and anti-Semitism in the cadet schools of the German officer class.
- The Best We Can Do: (The Trial of Dr Adams) - 1958 - an account of the murder trial of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams
- The Faces of Justice: A Traveller's report - 1961 - a description of the legal systems of England, Germany, Switzerland, and France.
- A Favourite of the Gods - 1963 - a novel about an American heiress who marries a Roman Prince
- A Compass Error - 1968 - a sequel to the above, describing the love affairs of the granddaughter of that work's protagonist
- Aldous Huxley: A biography - 1973 - the standard, authorized biography of Huxley
- Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education - 1989 - a sort of followup to A Legacy, this novel was inspired by the author's experiences living in Italy and France with her mother
- As It Was: Pleasures, Landscapes and Justice - 1990 - a collection of magazine pieces on various trials, including the censorship of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the trial of Jack Ruby, and the Auschwitz trial, as well as pieces on food and travel.
- Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales from Europe - a reissue of the above, removing the legal writings, and including two additional travel essays.
- Quicksands: A Memoir - 2005 - A memoir of the author's life, from her childhood in Berlin to her experiences in postwar Europe.
- Louise Carpenter: "Sense and Sensuality", Good Weekend, 16 July 2005.
- Telegraph obituary
- Sybille Bedford: Secret history - Features, Books - Independent.co.uk
- Feldkirch in literarischen Zeugnissen
- Funerals in Berlin (and Sussex) - Features, Books - Independent.co.uk
- Her mother was a German Jew, with some English ancestry. "I don't know to this day the actual percentage or exact provenance of my Jewish blood", Bedford wrote in Quicksands: A Memoir
- Recounted by Victoria Glendinning in Sybille Bedford: In Memory (Eland, 2007), page 41
- "Evelyn Gendel, 61, Senior Editor With Bobbs-Merrill Since 1952", The New York Times, 20 December 1977
- "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
- Martin Mauthner: German Writers in French Exile, 1933-1940, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2007, (ISBN : 978 0 85303 540 4)
- (German) Peter Brugger über "Die Baroness von Feldkirch", biografische Korrekturen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bilder und Zeiten, 5 June 2010
- Appearance on Desert Island Discs - 10 July 1998