Last week I got grumpy about failures in historical writing, where we are asked to accept cringe-making historical howlers or listen to medieval characters speaking in awkward modern slang. Sybille Bedford’s novel A Favourite of the Gods from 1963, in contrast, was a total joy. It retrieved my faith that fiction set in the past can be written impeccably to the highest style, crossing historical periods without distracting the reader with annoying niggles about word use and periodicity. Bedford’s technique is to focus on the characters and their relationships, in a similar way to how G B Stern wrote her tremendous sagas about Anglo-Jewish matriarchies, so that the reader becomes enthralled with the characters and what they say, and does not care what king is on the throne.
A Favourite of the Gods begins in a railway carriage about to cross the border from Italy to France, and there is a delay. The travellers are Constanza and her daughter Flavia, on their way to Brussels to meet Lewis, whom Constanza is to marry. The delay causes them to miss the Calais train, and they find rooms for the night in an uncomfortable hotel in the south of France. In the morning, the cause of the delay is not resolved, and Constanza casually decides to wait. They are mistaken for a lady and her daughter who have made an appointment to view a house for rent, and, amused, and not displeased with the house, Constanza decides to take it. She puts Lewis off with a series of vague telegrams, and Flavia decides that she will remain with her mother and not, after all, take up her plan of studying in England. They stay in France for eleven years.
Now, after that beginning, who would not want to read on and find out why, what, and how things turn out? It is not clear what era we are in, though since the ladies are travelling independently and this is considered normal, it is probably in the twentieth century. Constanza clearly has plenty of money, and she has an imperious mother called Anna, referred to as the principessa, who hurtles from Florence to their French hotel to investigate why their delay – the loss of a ruby ring – has not been resolved.
The lives of these three women form the story: from Anna’s upbringing in New England, her marriage to a Roman nobleman, her blissful life in his family palazzo embraced by his mother and sisters, and her attempts to stave off boredom and find purpose in her life through travel and good works. Her judgement is faulty, and her instincts betray her. There is a terrible rupture in the marriage, and Anna sweeps off to London with the sixteen year-old Constanza, leaving her sulky son Giorgio – a spoiled and uninteresting little boy – with his father. It is the Edwardian era, a great age of salons and modern intellectual conversation.
After being taken away from her father and unwilling to probe too deeply into the reasons why, Constanza directs her own life in England, becoming as fashionable and desirable as her mother. Her marriage to the devastatingly witty dilettante Simon during the First World War, produces Flavia, and her subsequent divorce, arranged so that Simon can marry his mistress, introduces her to Lewis. The family money continues to supply Anna and Constanza with a decent and correct lifestyle that has no problem living in hotels and supplying Mena, Anna’s devoted Italian maid, with wine at every meal.
The story swoops back and forth between the lives of the three women, revealing the connections between things they did and said in the past, with how they affect their futures. Anna’s main interest is living correctly, upholding her position in life, and following decencies she was vaguely brought up to admire. On her return from India – a journey she was encouraged to take by her husband before she caused any more trouble by trying to reform Roman society – she brings him an inset ruby, a gift from a rajah who asked Anna to offer it to her husband since she would not accept it for herself. When Constanza meets Simon for the first time, he is amusing some people at a ball with the story of her mother’s rapid departure from Rome, since he has met her father and has heard all about it, far more than Constanza knew herself. He also brings her a present from her father: the ruby set in a ring. When Flavia and Constanza are waiting in the railway carriage for the Italian police to release the train across the border, Constanza’s brother Giorgio appears to pay a farewell visit, and it is at this point that the ring unaccountably goes missing. The secrets of these three generations of women, and of their plaintively uncomprehending Roman relations are the heart of this marvellous, absorbing novel. It has a sequel, A Compass Error (1968), now on my Must Find And Read list.