The first biography of the universally acclaimed British writer, Sybille Bedford, by the celebrated author of books about Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.
Passionate, liberated, fiercely independent, Sybille Bedford was a writer and a journalist, the author of ten books, including a biography of Aldous Huxley, and four novels, all of which fictionalized her extraordinary life. Born in Berlin, she grew up in Baden, first with her distant, aristocratic father, and then in France with her intellectual, narcissistic, morphine-addicted mother and her lover. She was a child with a German Jewish background who survived two world wars and went on to spend her adult life in exile in France, Italy, New York, and Los Angeles, before finally settling in England.
Bedford was ahead of her time in many ways, with great enthusiasm for life and all its sensual pleasures, including friendships with bold faced names in the worlds of literature and food as well as a literary network of high-powered lesbians. Aldous Huxley became a mentor, and Martha Gellhorn encouraged her to write her first novel, A Legacy; in 1989, her novel Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In the 1960s, she wrote for magazines and newspapers, covering nearly 100 trials, including those of Auschwitz officials accused of Nazi war crimes and Jack Ruby, on trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Brenda Wineapple has called Bedford "one of the finest stylists of the 20th century, bar none." In this major biography, Selina Hastings has brilliantly captured the fierce intelligence, wit, curiosity, and compassion of the woman and the writer in all the richness of her character and achievements.
About the Author
SELINA HASTINGS is the author of The Red Earl, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann, and The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has been a judge for a number of literary awards, including the Booker and the Whitbread. She lives in London.
“In this well-wrought biography of one of England’s most celebrated authors of both fiction and nonfiction, Selina Hastings’s Sybille Bedford is a work the likes of which arrive on the biographical scene only rarely, destined to become foundational. . . . In this copiously noted literary explication of a life well-lived, Hastings is, at once, consummate storyteller and astute literary anthropologist, unpacking and interpreting her subject’s passions and predilections against a backdrop of literature; war and fascism; food; friendships both true and not; joy, and the encroachment of age, which did not slow Bedford down, until it did. Riveting.” —Elissa Altman, Avenue “Throughout Bedford’s books, the depth of human tragedy lies just beneath a comedy of manners. . . . Selina Hastings, acclaimed biographer of Somerset Maugham and Nancy Mitford, fills in many of the blanks that Bedford, basically a reticent person, left even when writing obliquely of herself and a wide circle that included Martha Gellhorn and Thomas Mann. [Sybille Bedford is] gracefully written, largely sympathetic, and very gossipy.” —Brenda Wineapple, The Wall Street Journal
"This is such a fantastic read . . . Hastings’s delicious biography, with its abundance of intricate and intimate detail, is total heaven. It helps that her subject wrote novels [...] that were thinly disguised autobiographies, and that the material is so very rich . . . [This biography] brings a fundamentally shy and private woman out into the light and is populated by the sorts of people who don’t seem to exist anymore — madly clever, slightly louche, culturally omnivorous, sexually fluid, crisscrossing Europe and each other in search of fun and new ideas." —India Knight, The Sunday Times
“With its stupendous cuisine, its tortoises, hares, and great beasts, its disdain for sample chapters and its certain boldness, if not perhaps setting out with this aim in view, Selina Hastings has written a comic masterpiece.” --The New Criterion
“Sybille Bedford is not a household name, but among her coterie of admirers in Europe and America she is held in high esteem. . . . [Bedford’s life is] elegantly related by Selina Hastings, the author of finely wrought, literate biographies. . . . It is to be hoped that Sybille Bedford, a largely sympathetic and very readable biography, will bring new readers to Bedford’s oeuvre. . . . [Bedford’s] works are dense, exotic, rich with historical hindsight. In a life that spanned most of the 20th century, she lived that century in all its high drama and delivers it to the 21st in idiosyncratic, textured prose.” --Brooke Allen, The New York Times
“Hastings’s approach to Bedford’s biography is [. . .] judicial. She enters her subject’s life through a side door, puts her witnesses in the box, and hears the evidence for and against Bedford’s literary merit. . . . The biographer’s task is to preside over the rituals by which the truth is formally established by presenting, without prejudice, a full range of critical opinion.” --Frances Wilson, The New York Review of Books
“Selina Hastings’s biography, rich with excerpts from diaries and letters, does full justice to Sybille the writer, but she intrigues the reader most with her account of Sybille’s relationships. As a fisher of friends, Sybille cast a net around the globe and the century. . . . Sybille Bedford’s many loves—of food and wine, of London, Paris, and Rome, of lovers and friends, of literature and the tough task of creating it—live again here.” --Air Mail
"Reading Selina Hastings’s rigorous biography, the first full life of this extraordinary, somewhat neglected writer, one almost wonders how she got any writing done at all . . . Hastings is impeccable on the facts of Bedford's life – almost every meal and certainly every trip and romantic fling is exhaustively detailed – yet she refrains from passing much comment on Bedford's character, instead letting Bedford's personal writings, and the not always admiring correspondence from her many friends, paint a picture of a much loved, self-centered, convivial bon vivant." —Claire Allfree, The Evening Standard
"Hastings reveals the ways in which Bedford found her voice as a writer . . . Hastings has had the cooperation of the Bedford estate and full access to diaries and letters, and she and her researcher have delved heroically and judiciously. She is an accomplished stylist and her prose suits her subject: elegant, deft and restrained, as operatic arias ‘hiss’ from the horned gramophone in the schloss . . . My favorite Bedford book is A Visit to Don Otavio (1953) . . . Both this and A Legacy will stand the brutal test of time — as will Selina Hastings’s biography." —Sara Wheeler, The Spectator
"A writer's long, passionate, peripatetic life . . . Drawing on archival material, correspondence, diaries, and Bedford’s autobiographical novels and memoir, Hastings [. . .] offers a gossipy, well-informed chronicle of a woman noted for her intelligence, talent, and, not least, her circle of famous friends . . . A sympathetic, engaging biography." —Kirkus Reviews
"As Selina Hastings recounts in this richly entertaining biography, in which the whole literary world of the 20th-century is laid before us in all its glamour, indolence, gossipiness and upheaval, what took Sybille’s literary achievements so long was that her appetite for life kept getting in the way—in particular, her appetite for love . . . [Sybille Bedford] is an eye-opener, reminding us how much freer life was for gay women than gay men in those days when male homosexuality was still a criminal offense. . . [A] fascinating book." —Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Daily Mail
"This is not just an account of a single life but of a whole world—the cosmopolitan, socially cross-referencing, peripatetic, multilingual, intellectual circles of mid-twentieth-century Europe. There is good living in interesting and unusual places, parties, conversation, creativity, intellectual challenge and eye-poppingly flexible attitudes towards monogamy . . . Selina Hastings' biography is a wonderful chronicle of one life amid a myriad of other, fascinating, now ghostly, interlocking lives. And it's a depiction of a small, vivid, condensed world gone forever." —Lucy Lethbridge, The Tablet
"In Sybille Bedford, Selina Hastings sifts life from fiction. It is an extraordinary story . . . Hastings writes with her hallmark elegance, insight, and forgiveness. Bedford’s faults as a writer, friend, and lover are laid bare and understood." —Laura Freeman, The Times (UK)
"Elegant . . . Perhaps this scrupulous biography’s greatest achievement is to remind us that Sybille Bedford had a second string to her writerly bow. From the 1950s she became a high-grade court reporter, writing several long-form essays about legal cases, including the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the Profumo affair." —Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian
"As a companion to Bedford's own writing, this biography could hardly be bettered. It is comprehensive and sympathetic, but not entirely uncritical." —Cressida Connolly, Literary Review
"Selina Hastings traces Bedford’s life from a German schloss to louche and bohemian Bloomsbury, her many love affairs and her great success as a literary observer of famous trials." —The Times ("Best Books about Books")
"Compellingly lurid." —Iona McLaren, The Daily Telegraph
"Selina Hastings is a punctilious chronicler . . . Fluently told . . . Hastings' biography, in short, contains multitudes – of lovers, of friends, of meals, of journeys, of remarkable and colourful characters." —Julian Evans, The Telegraph
"Bedford published four novels that relied heavily on her early life . . . Selina Hastings' biography is at its most vivid when it covers the same material . . . At least half of Hastings' biography—and rather more than her subject's very long life—is taken up by a whirl of overlapping affairs with women in a social circle where everyone else's former lover . . . It's not clear whether holding back from the good life would have made Bedford any more productive as a writer, but Hastings' book goes a long way towards explaining why that good life was quite so important to her." —Fatema Ahmed, The Prospect