A Legacy was Sybille Bedford’s first novel, and like the rest of her fiction is very autobiographical. Based upon Bedford’s own upbringing in Germany, it is the story of two large and complex families united by a brief marriage. This is an extraordinary novel- charting these intertwined lives from around the time of the Franco-Prussian War to just before the First World War. The story is narrated by Francesca the youngest daughter of Baron Julius von Felden by his second wife, although most of the story takes place many years before her birth, and even before her parents meet.
“I spent the first nine years of my life in Germany, bundled to and fro between twohouses. One was outrageously large and ugly; the other was beautiful. They were a huge Wilhelminian town house in the old West of Berlin, built and inhabited by the parents of my father’s first wife, and a small seventeenth-century chateau and park in the South, near Vosges, bought for my father by my mother.”
Upon the marriage of Julius Von Felden and his first wife Melanie Merz the fortunes of two very different families become linked. The aristocratic, Catholic Von Felden’s from rural Baden, who in the mid 1800’s were still French speaking, and the Merzs a wealthy, bourgeois (non-practising) Jewish family from Berlin. Bedford recounts numerous family trials and tribulations in her fictionalised account of German life that quite obviously bears a striking resemblance to her own. In A Legacy Sybille Bedford shows us a world we don’t often see, a world now totally lost to us. It is a world of brutal military academies, the Kaiser’s Germany, backwoodsmen, eccentric landed gentry, gamblers, money and legacies.
The cast of characters is fairly large, Julius one of a large family of brothers, the most memorable of these Johannes is sent by his father to a brutal military cadet school. His experiences here totally destroy him, his flight being the beginning of a long political and diplomatic tussle that involves the family of his sister’s fiancé – and is still being felt many years later when our narrator herself is a young girl. Amid the darker aspects to the stories of these families, Sybille Bedford scatters some truly joyously humorous moments, we see an eccentric younger Julius travelling Europe in the company of three chimpanzees at the time he meets his first wife – booking himself and them into smart Berlin hotels – and needing to pay the price of the repairs which naturally must follow. To say that Julius and his chimps are something of a shock to his prospective in-laws, is an understatement. Poor Melanie… when informed she must be baptised before she marries the Catholic Julius (to her family’s horror) she takes herself off to church without telling anyone – later proudly producing her certificate of baptism – from a protestant church!
“In the morning Edu went to the hotel to fetch Julius. The boy had not arrived. Julius explained that he could not go out.
“The servants here do not seem to be kind.”
Edu inquired what he was to tell his parents. Julius said “You see, it is only because of Robert. Robert has a difficult nature. He is his own worst enemy.”
The boy remained lost for several days. Edu and Friedrich did the telegraphing. Grandpapa was persuaded to call at the Kaiserhof. Julius had wangled an anthracite stove, the management having refused to re-light the central plant. Julius himself suffered, but Grandpapa found it as warm as his own house. The chimpanzees too, comfortable for the first time, were in an amiable mood; Robert poured Madeira, and Tzara showed an interest in the old gentleman. He gave her a gold-piece, and went home impressed.
“As good as the Opera,” he described at luncheon. “The Opera in the old days.”
Following Melanie’s early death Julius remains very much at the heart of his in-laws family. His sister-in-law Sarah, a wealthy woman in her own right who has for years refused to pay her husband’s gambling debts – becomes perhaps his greatest friend. I have to admit to particularly liking Sarah – her toughness and straight talking, her friendship with Julius I really liked. It is through Sarah that Julius meets Caroline, thirty years his junior, who becomes his second wife, the mother of our narrator. Caroline’s story is continued in the sequel to this novel, Jigsaw: an Unsentimental education.
The writing is glorious, unsurprising to me, having already read A Favourite of the gods and A Compass Error, which introduced me to Bedford’s fabulous prose, her dialogue is superb, the interplay between characters feels very authentic. Once or twice the dialogue is a little hard to follow, but overall it’s really exceptional, giving voice to the society in which the author herself grew up. (There is one conversation that takes place on the final page, frustratingly- which I was a little confused about – so if there is anyone who has read the book who can remind me of the significance of the Spanish letters Caroline refers to, I would be very grateful.) Don’t let that put you off – true, this is the kind of book the reader needs to concentrate on, it is probably not an easy read –but even admitting one or two mild confusions I really loved it. Nancy Mitford apparently called A Legacy ‘One of the very best novels I have ever read’ while Francis King called it ‘One of the great books of the twentieth Century.’ Thankfully I have the sequel to this novel Jigsaw: an Unsentimental Education waiting on my bookcase, I can’t wait to read it.