A Legacy – Sybille Bedford

(Penguin Modern Classics 2005, originally published 1956)

Set in the late years of the nineteenth century, this novel is set largely in recently-unified Germany, and tells the stories of the wealthy, bourgeois Jewish family of the Merzes in Berlin, and the rural aristocratic von Feldens on their estate in Baden. The families are united by the marriage of Melanie Merz and Julius von Felden, and even after Melanie’s death, von Felden keeps a close association with the Merzes. The narrator, daughter of Julius and his second wife, begins A Legacy by remembering the houses in which she spent her early childhood: a large and ugly townhouse on Voss Strasse in Berlin, and a small and beautiful chateau in the Vosges. Using this device to describe the personalities and people associated with Voss Strasse, first of all, the reader encounters Eduard Merz, one of the sons of the family and brother to Melanie, an inveterate gambler, and his intelligent and wealthy wife, Sarah.

Separated from Edu, Sarah went to live in Paris, where the narrator tells us her parents met, and then we are introduced to the von Feldens. This is an entirely different life, and one which appears to have been drastically affected by the cause célèbre of Johannes von Felden, Julius’s younger brother. The von Feldens are Catholic and culturally French, with the Baron, Julius’s father, speaking French in preference to German, and uneasy with the new Germany resulting from the Franco-Prussian war.

“[Baron Felden] was seventy himself and, without realizing it, had always done as he pleased; now they told him one must swim with the times. There had never been any talk of this kind at Landen; before his tour Julius had wanted to be a cabinet-maker and his brother Johannes an animal trainer. The old man got rattled and Johannes, at fifteen, was carted off to a cadet corps to be made into an officer; Julius, who was too old for this fate, was boarded with a crammer at Bonn to be got through the new examination for the Diplomatic Service. The lemur died.”

(p37)

Johannes was packed off to a military academy, where he was bitterly unhappy, bullied and tormented, and from which, at length, he ran away. The lengths taken, the blackmail and moral persuasion which followed, to compel the von Feldens to return Johannes to the academy, cause profound rifts in the family, with Gustavus, the eldest son, on one side and Julius on the other, with the Baron not really understanding the stakes involved. It doesn’t end well, but the outcome isn’t clear until several years have passed.

It is Sarah who introduces Melanie to Julius, though she is aware that this is not necessarily a wise thing to do: it’s quite clear that Sarah cherishes tender feelings for Julius, though she would evidently not act on those feelings, even if she dislikes and does not respect her wastrel husband. Julius is also a good deal older than Melanie, and so set in his bachelor lifestyle (which includes a good deal of directionless travelling and the acquisition of pet animals, including a trio of chimpanzees) that he has no idea how to include a wife into it.

Melanie dies young of tuberculosis, having produced a daughter, who is sent to live with her grandparents. It is some years later that Julius meets Caroline Trafford, also, ironically, a friend of Sarah’s. However, it is now for Caroline that Sarah has deep and tender feelings. Caroline is a wealthy Englishwoman, not very old, deeply in love with a married man, with whom she has been having a passionate affair.

“[Sarah] felt herself filled with certitude and strength and a great wave of love for the young woman before her. “Leave it to me. I will see you through. I will take you away.” The words were in her and she knew that Caroline would seize what was held out to her, as a child accepts to have itself led upstairs from a room of wreckage. But she hesitated; held back by the sense of  how paltry, helpless, conventional and meagre her plan must sound to Caroline—held back by the consciousness of her own joy.

“Then Caroline spoke again and the moment had passed.”

(p 236)

It’s fascinating stuff. Bedford writes beautifully, though her style requires some attention, and there’s a lot of dialogue. The sense of her characters living through changing times is powerfully evoked, though they might not necessarily realise it. She draws her characters well, too, particularly Julius, Caroline and Sarah, and the reader has a great deal of sympathy for Johannes, in particular.

There’s betrayal of several different sorts, and love, and thoughts of revenge, and all in all is a story of two families unhappily intertwined. I’m not entirely sure what the title refers to – if it refers to any one thing – but one has a sense of the narrator being a product of her own past and those of her parents.

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This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Fiction, Historical fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Legacy – Sybille Bedford

  1. Hilary Thomson says:

    I am hugely enjoying re-reading A Legacy, which I first read when I was far too young, led to it by (I seem to remember) a very good BBC TV Classic Serial version. A lot of it was over my head the first time round. I think her writing is incredible and in many ways its use of ‘choruses’ – of gossips, elderly relatives etc – was ahead of its time. Of course the sense of history is much stronger this time. But I think what I enjoy the most is how she delicately balances the tragic and the ridiculous and how all her characters seem entirely credible – even the relatives about whom we know very little. It reads like autobiography at its best. Perhaps she will be rediscovered by television, although I imagine like the author of ‘North Riding’ she has never actually been out of print.

  2. Ela says:

    There was a very interesting profile of her in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph which suggested that A Legacy was semi-autobiographical. I’m not sure that one could adapt her work well for television – it would turn out, I expect, like any other costume drama, and one would lose the pleasures of her prose style.

    I’d agree that all her characters are entirely believable, even when their lifestyles are so different to ours – their emotions are so raw and deeply felt that when tragedy strikes, the reader really feels it.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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