Sybille Bedford is a glorious writer. She’s alluringly readable, and the two novels I have read by her were instantly absorbing. Her prose exudes authority and intelligence, her novels charm, intrigue, persuade and convince. She is magnificent, and I don’t understand why she has received so much less attention than, say, Elizabeth Bowen or Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve written elsewhere about her 1963 novel A Favourite of the Gods. Here I will babble enthusiastically about her earlier and unconnected novel A Legacy, from 1956.
A Legacy was apparently Nancy Mitford’s favourite novel, and one can see why. The dialogue is quite Mitfordian, in that information about situation and character is conveyed in unadorned passages of dialogue, and then the focus swings to somewhere entirely different, so the reader scampers to pick up the relevant information while keeping up with the plot. Rereading it is a joy, and is exhilarating at any stage.
A Legacy is narrated by the daughter of Jules, or Julius van Felden, a nineteenth-century aristocrat from the Saarland. His family was francophone, indolent and leisured, as well as slightly eccentric. But after the Prussian empire absorbed their lands, Jules’ younger brother Jean (or Johannes) was sent to the Prussian cadet school of Benzheim. There the disaster took place that would shape the lives of three very rich German families with the inevitability of Fate brandishing scissors.
The brutality of Benzheim is so extreme that Jean, a highly resourceful and fit teenage boy, has the audacity to keep trying to escape, and then one day, beaten and half-starved, he manages it. He makes his way across country and across many kilometres, back to his father’s estate, in a way that would make the narator of Rogue Male deeply impressed. But on the way, under the pressure of fear and determination, he has lost his mind, and can never again be in the presence of a military uniform (he leaps at the throat of the next soldier he sees). His brother Gustavus’s fiancée Clara Bernin insists on engineering the official response, which results, through complex twists of circumstance, in Jean being given a sinecure in the Prussian Army which saves the face of Benzheim and its reputation, and allows Jean to live in peaceful seclusion, training army horses.
Jules drifts off to Spain, where he meets Melanie Merz, the only daughter of the phenomenally rich Merz family from Berlin. She is diffident, beautifully dressed, has hardly been out of her doting parents’ house before, and is chaperoned by her sister-in-law Sarah. For her own reasons Sarah introduces her old friend Jules to Melanie, and Melanie is overwhelmed by the impact of Jules who is the most marvellous person she has ever met. She and Sarah return to Berlin after some months, convinced that a marriage has been arranged.
But has it? Jules is very, VERY vague. He admires Melanie’s taste and her appearance, but he is much more interested in buying beautiful art and furniture and arranging it. When invited to visit Melanie’s parents, he travels to Berlin accompanied by his three young charges who smash up his train. On crossing into Prussia Jules finds that his money and position, and his indolent ways, will not move a Prussian official intent on following the law. He is charged with wilful damage of government property, and he may now not leave Berlin until the law has run its course. Because Jules cannot leave the city, the marriage preparations take place almost as an afterthought, since the fabulously rich Merzes cannot understand why anyone would not want their treasure in all haste. Jules and the fervently Roman Catholic Clara, now Jules’ sister-in-law, realise that Melanie is not Catholic, and they almost manage to cancel the wedding. But the Merz servants rally and conduct Melanie secretly to a church where she converts from Judaism before breakfast. Unfortunately, none of the Merz servants understand the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant church (in fact none of the Merzes do either), so Clara has to iron out this difficulty herself, so determined is she to manage this van Felden as well as all the others she has dominated. There is no way out for Jules between the irresistible forces of misunderstanding and Prussian inflexibility.
So there is a marriage. Melanie and Jules live in Spain, then in France. A baby girl is born, while Jules is busy with his art and his furniture in their very beautiful rented chateau which is unfortunately too damp for Melanie’s consumption.
Jules brings the baby and his wife’s body back to Berlin, and resumes his place as a son of the Merz family. The first Merz grand-daughter is absorbed into the household and grows up doted upon, but also strangely ignored, since she is not Melanie. Years pass. Jules meets a very attractive Englishwoman who has decided to give up being the mistress of a prominent English politician, because her reputation, even in Belle Epoque Paris, is a little too uncomfortable. He cables the Merzes to let them know that he will be marrying again, and would they be so kind as to increase his allowance?
A second daughter is born, and also grows up in the Merzes’ magnificent town house, lacking nothing, and listening and watching with great attention. As she grows older – a beady, observant child – the different strands of the convoluted Merz, van Felden and Bernin family stories begin to come together, and the politics of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Prussian rule begin to rend these families apart.
The novel is a tragedy, but it is so entertaining, in the way that a G B Stern epic is gripping but shocking at the same time. The Merz family comes from the same world of Stern’s stories of nineteenth-century Jewish matriarchal life; magnificent and lavish but also terrible. The van Feldens are not so much feckless as benignly entitled with blinkers on, but their indolence is their undoing. The Bernins are professional government employees at the highest level, and immensely resourceful, but their supreme Machiavelli is Clara. She is well-matched against (sometimes with) Sarah Merz, the independently wealthy wife of Eduard Merz, who takes a stand against her husband’s gambling after many years by advertising in the Berlin newspapers that she will no longer honour his debts.
These impressive women manage the three families with almost no resistance from the weaker men to whom they are linked forever by blood and marriage. When Jean’s madness exposes him again to the revenge of the Prussian military authorities, the legacy of Clara’s controlling instincts – always in the service of the Church – are finally exposed.
It’s a shocker of a novel. You emerge almost breathless with the intensity of the emotions and events. The plot unfolds in intricacy like a monstrous butterfly’s wing, or a three-dimensional puzzle of humans left stranded where they never expected to be. There is an inherent madness in the characters’ actions, all based on what they think is reason, and on how things have always been, that could be funny. But it would be funny with an aghast expression, appalled at the dreadful consequences. And the final revelations are so important, and plot-changing, that you want to plunge back in, to begin again at the beginning, to relish the amazing saga all over again.