I've been meaning to write about Sybille Bedford for a while.

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Today feels perfect. It's unbearably hot, here in Los Angeles, so I'm drinking English Breakfast tea with my back to a cooling fan and hoping it's cool enough to go for a walk soon. I wonder if she had days like this in Sanary-sur-mer, in the South of France circa July 1930.

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It feels as if Sybille's work has been in my bookcases, wherever I've lived, forever - but that can't be true. What I do know is that as soon as I read about her (The Guardian? FT Weekend?) or saw a vintage copy of one of her novels in a second-hand shop in London (after university?), I instantly sought more.

In 2005, when her memoir Quicksands came out - I was living 4 blocks from the beach, in Ocean Park, CA. This was before I moved to NYC, then back to the west coast. I remember ordering it online and it arrived. I took it to bed, lay down, and pretty much didn't leave my apartment until Sunday evening (and it's not a quick read, I warn you).

After I'd returned to L.A. (2013, in case you're curious), I started writing for a living again (I had a fancy international executive job in Manhattan, you see), and ELLE China commissioned me to do a story. They asked me who my favorite author was and so, of course, I said Sybille:

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yes, that's me - in ELLE China.

Her "effects", as the British call them ("papers" = USA) are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin (one wonders why there). I have been to UT Austin, and, in fact, to a photography exhibition at the gallery, part of the center, but I did not have time to request access to her boxes - one day, when this infernal COVID-19 has gone through all of us and exited stage left from the planet, I'd like to, very much.

This is the entry in the research archives for Sybille Bedford:

Creator: Bedford, Sybille, 1911-2006

Title: Sybille Bedford Papers

Dates: 1914-2001 (bulk 1940s-1980s)

Extent: 52 boxes, 2 oversize boxes, 1 galley folder (21.84 linear feet)

Abstract: Correspondence, typescript drafts, handwritten notes, photographs, clippings, drawings, address books, date books, calendars, and diaries document the life and work of Sybille Bedford from the early 1940s through the beginning of the twenty-first century.

RLIN Record ID: TXRC03-A5

Language: English, German

Access: Open for research

Document Types
Address books.
Appointment books.
Love letters.


Sybille Bedford (1911–2006)

Born: Freiin (Baroness) Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schönebeck in Charlottenburg, Germany.

Raised variously in Germany, Italy, France, and England, she lived with her mother and Italian stepfather after her father’s death when she was seven, and was educated privately. Encouraged by Aldous Huxley, Bedford began writing fiction at the age of sixteen and went on to publish four novels, all influenced by her itinerant childhood among the European aristocracy.


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A Legacy, Jigsaw (short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize)

A Favourite of the Gods

A Compass Error

A Visit to Don Otavio

The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover

The Trial of Doctor Adams

The Faces of Justice

2 x volumes: Biography of Aldous Huxley

..this is Sybille's favourite piece of music.


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"In Europe, where human relations like clothes are supposed to last, one's got to be wearable. In France one has to be interesting, in Italy pleasant, in England one has to fit."

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey

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"For many of us in the shrinking West the 20s and 30s were hard times, restricting times, beginning with much hope, moving on to loss of work, inflations here, financial crashes there, covert, soon open, fears . . . Meanwhile for a few—always only a few: the lot of men, the lot of life itself, human and animal, is to live below their par, misfortune always lurking, to kill, be killed—for a few though the years between the wars were good and in some enclaves talent and pleasures flourished. (Let us think of France.) . . . By September 1939 all existences snapped in two."

Quicksands [memoir]

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"The 19th century well-to-do lived well at home; they were not going to live less while now wherever they were or went on land or sea. Ingenious commercialism and the opulent new appetites built the transatlantic liners, the grand Babylon hotels, railway sleeping cars, Monte Carlo, Torquay, Saratoga Springs. Plush, mahogany, and conspicuous space in public places, plastered halls, the champagne bucket, roasts cradled in silver trolleys wheeled along the well-set table d'hôte, the subdued, well-trained servants in place of the hordes of ruffianly soup-stained waiters – such were the complements of the steam engine and industrial change, the props at the brief gilded Age of travel that flourished until 1914."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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"It was in that spirit that I decided to make a journey, an unambitious journey, to Italy through France without a timetable or a single reservation."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

"By six o'clock Flavia shut up shop. She went back to the sea - the sun had gone from the rocks – for another, shorter, bathe, a sustained fast swim to wash off indoors, books, the heat. When she got back to the Villa it was evening. All the rooms except dining-room and her bed-room one unused and shut up."
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"Flavia rather quickly went upstairs to tidy herself for going out. She changed into another pair of trousers, freshly laundered and beautifully pressed - the cleaning woman whom she scarcely saw did her very well – and light blue shirt of Egyptian cotton and a silk neckerchief of conventional design. Rope-soled shoes, stiff chalk white, dark blue jersey over the arm and she let herself out again, put the key under the pot and walked down the hill. It was still broad daylight. She carried a book."
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A Compass Error

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“One will have friends, one will have lovers. These were part of Flavia's vision of the sensual life, disembodied future apparitions, urbane, agreeable, vague; what the sensual life spelt out for her most vividly were picnics, lobster salad, hock and selzer, and going to the opera, in Italy, in summer.”

A Compass Error

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"My own idea was down to Rouen, quickly, and a very good lunch."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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"One good way to drive down to the South of France, if one wants to avoid the overcrowded and overpriced National roads No.'s 7 and 6, and I always do except in the dead of winter and in a great hurry, is to go roughly by Chartres , Blois, Bourges (or through the Loire), Moulins….() and come out in the Rhône Valley anywhere between Valence and Avignon."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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"Rome. It is a name so potent, a spell so great. Rome, the most superb of the live hunting grounds of magic, the seat of the gods and man, the capital of pleasure, a feast to the eye, to memory, to all the senses... Love renders mute. I cannot write about Rome; it is far beyond my powers."
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Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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"Almost at once I go out into the streets, intent on immersing myself in the stream of evening life. The shops are about to close, but food can still be bought, and drink, and the coffee houses are alight, and the bookstands."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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"The Model T had done its good work and was being left behind. Balloon tyres and self-starters had come in, and reasonable speeds; comic breakdowns were a thing of the past. Cars were cheap enough, manageable enough, worked well enough to be bought and used with insouciance. One could take a chum, a girl, a suitcase, set out on a fine morning, start in the cool of night, comme le coeur vous en dise. … Suddenly there was choice; the world had opened up, even the world twenty miles beyond one’s doorstep. The Iron Horse had abbreviated the distance between A and B. With the new toys of freedom one could dash to F, see X, dance at Y, and get to B as well. In its minor way it was a dawn, and to have been in it, and alive, was good."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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“Meeting Martha Gellhorn, being addressed, being taken notice of by her, was like being exposed to a fifteen-hundred-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage.”

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

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“True, when the train had crossed the Alps and engaged its slow descent into a sunlit fruitful valley, I had experienced a state of sheer joy, a fulfillment of a longing that lies dormant in many of us whose birth has been into the rain.”


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"A back room attached to a kitchen, bare communal tables, benches, cool scowls for welcome, crowded to overflowing, but no queue. No diamonds, no foreigners, no Giuliettas. The customers: Florentine aristocracy and workmen with a sprinkling of professional men. Good bread, olive oil, bowls of grated cheese, fresh-cut lemons….."

Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller's Tales From Europe

What Other People Are Saying (about Sybille)

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> [A Legacy] “a book of entirely delicious quality.”

---Evelyn Waugh, The Spectator

"All of Bedford's fiction was based on her family history and her own experience, which she reworked with such intensity and imagination that when she came to publish a memoir, Quicksands, the year before she died, there seemed little to add beyond making some identifications, filling in some gaps, and trying to make sense of everything that had happened to her. "Is everything only what we remember it to be – neither more nor less? Where, then, and when is truth?" Her work as a whole seems a creative tussle between memory, imagination and the desire for truth. She is the most sensual of writers, with a painterly gift for evoking atmosphere, place, gardens, interiors.

-----Victoria Glendinning, The Guardian

Bedford—that fantastically glamorous, cosmopolitan writer—spent the Second World War penned up in Manhattan; before her return to England she “had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible.” So she traveled through Mexico with a woman friend. She took no notes, but she sent postcards; when she got back to London, she called her correspondents to collect those cards and started writing. The result was this, her first book and—by wide agreement—one of the great works of travel literature. Bedford is a hard, even somewhat cynical writer, but she “wanted to make something light and poetic,” and her sharp eye and precise language allowed her to fashion this enormously sensuous work. (Bruce Chatwin declared, “When the history of modern prose in English comes to be written, Mrs. Bedford will have to appear in any list of its most dazzling practitioners.” Without question.) Sporadically out of print, it has just been reissued. Buy and read this marvel."

----- Benjamin Schwarz
July/August 2003 ATLANTIC

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"Her father’s love of fine wine and a proper table stood Sybille in good stead. She went on to become a travel writer for Esquire, Vogue and Harpers, in a loose, discursive manner like that other foodie and writer-wanderer in these parts, MFK Fisher. Travel and food went hand in hand."

-----Padraig Rooney

In Memoriam

Finally - Sybille was on Desert Island Discs in 1998 - I uploaded the podcast version here - enjoy!

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