Obituary : Sybille Bedford was born Sybille Von Hoenebeck on 16 March 1911 at Charlottenburg on the outskirts of Berlin, her father, Maximilian, ‘a slightly eccentric Baron’, her mother, part Jewish, part English, beauty. Her early childhood was spent in a small Schloss in southern Germany, until her father died suddenly when she was ten and Sybille was sent to join her mother and stepfather on their wanderings through France and Italy. They finally settled in the south of France, in Sanary, then a modest fishing village, which during the 1930s became the centre of a group of refugee intellectuals, among them Brecht, Feuchtwanger and Thomas Mann. But the couple who had the greatest influence on Sybille at that time were Aldous and Maria Huxley, ‘the two people I owe most to’, she said, ‘who educated me morally, intellectually, whose conduct and many of their beliefs are still a basis of my thoughts and actions’. Her remarkable two-volume biography of Aldous Huxley was published in 1973.
It was twenty years before this, however, that Sybille wrote her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, about Mexico, which is widely recognised as a classic of travel literature. This was followed in 1956 by her best-known novel, A Legacy, the first stage in a journey of imaginative autobiography continued throughout Bedford’s fiction, brilliantly culminating in her penultimate work, Jigsaw. A Legacy was widely praised. Evelyn Waugh, reviewing it in The Spectator, said this: ‘Written with an air of authority which compels acceptance, a novel has just appeared by a new writer of remarkable accomplishment... We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion. But we gratefully salute a new artist.’
Above everything, Sybille was a writer, one who dedicated her entire life to her craft. From her earliest appearances in print the name of Sybille Bedford increasingly became synonymous with a style both elegant and spare. Like most real writers, Sybille always knew that she wanted to write. ‘To be someone who wrote,’ she said, ‘was what I had wished to be from childhood, seeing it as an exalted calling, a vocation bestowed on me, however unworthy.’ A vocation it undoubtedly was, but one realised not without struggle. The painful business of writing she compared to ‘breaking stones’, and there were many false starts and agonising frustrations, days, weeks, months alone with the typewriter, before ‘that one true first sentence’, in Hemingway’s famous phrase, would form: before Sybille at last found her own distinctive authorial voice. As Elizabeth Jane Howard, a friend of over 30 years, said of her, ‘There is nothing self-conscious nor pretentious about her style. It is very true and honourable and exact, just as she is.
In 1935 Sybille made a marriage of convenience in order to obtain a British passport, her Jewish ancestry making it unwise for her to remain under German jurisdiction. She settled permanently in London in 1979, although she always remained a citizen of the world, at home in many countries and in many tongues, with the exception of Germany and German, from both of which until the very end of her life she chose to keep her distance. Her imagination was fed by her passion for reading, and her knowledge of European, and later American, literature was unusually wide in scope. English, however, was the language she loved the most, and like Conrad, Nabokov, Isak Dinesen before her, she became a master practitioner. English with its flexible structures and rich vocabulary provided her with just the instrument she wanted, and also it gave her a kind of life-line. As she put it in Jigsaw, she held on to English ‘as a rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multi-lingualism that surrounded me’.
Sybille was always diffident about her literary ability, and at the same time set herself the very highest standards, bringing to all her work, as novelist, reporter, travel writer, biographer, essayist, a strong intelligence and an incorruptible morality. Despite tormenting difficulties with her eyesight, Sybille imposed a stern discipline on her working life, revising over and over again before she was satisfied. She was a superb stylist, bringing an almost painterly precision to her prose; she had, too, perfect pitch in judging the balance and fall of a sentence, and, essentially for a novelist, she maintained throughout her long life a profound interest in her fellow human beings. Her passionate interest in justice and the workings of legal systems led her to write The Best We Can Do (1958), an account of the trial of the notorious Dr Bodkin Adams, followed in 1961 by The Faces of Justice, describing proceedings in English, German, Swiss and French courts of law. As well as articles on travel, and on food and wine, two more novels were published, A Favourite of the Gods in 1963 and A Compass Error in 1968. Her last work was her marvellous memoir, Quicksands, that miraculous mingling of artistry and recollection, so vividly evocative and teasingly elusive, which with a harmonious sense of resolution she completed in the year before her death.
Sybille was very much a writer’s writer. In 1964 she was made a Fellow of the RSL, where she regularly attended lectures, served for seven years on Council, and (which was particularly appreciated) always showed a sensitive interest in new young writers. She worked tirelessly for PEN, whose vice-president she became. In 1981 she was appointed OBE, and in 1994, together with William Trevor and V.S. Naipaul, she was elected Companion of Literature, joining a small group of illustrious predecessors, among them Samuel Beckett, Ivy Compton-Burnett, E.M. Forster, Philip Larkin, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. That this meant a great deal to her she made gracefully apparent in her letter of acceptance. ‘I am delighted to accept,’ she wrote to Council. ‘In fact, I cannot think of anything at this stage of my life that would give me greater pleasure.’
A gifted and intensely subjective writer, Sybille was a mesmerising personality: a fascinator, fiercely intelligent, ruthlessly demanding, prone to frightful anxieties, and endowed with enormous kindness, sensitivity and charm. Her standing among the distinguished writers of the last century is firmly assured.