A Favourite of the Gods & A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford

These gorgeous books were sent to me by Daunt Books a couple of weeks ago (along with their equally divine reprint of Illyrian Spring). Known as a high end independent bookseller specialising in travel books, they have several branches in chi-chi London neighbourhoods and organise their shelves eclectically by country of setting. They also started up their own stylish publishing imprint a short while ago, producing beautiful Persephone Classic style paperbacks with flaps, decorative endpapers and striking cover art, all printed on thick, creamy paper and held together by very sturdy bindings. It’s definitely worth looking at their catalogue to see if there’s anything that takes your fancy!

I had never heard of Sybille Bedford before A Favourite of the Gods and its sequel A Compass Error appeared on my doormat; cursory googling revealed that she knew everyone who was anyone in mid century Europe and  had an incredibly interesting and colourful life. The scarcity of reviews online suggest that while her writing is sublime, she has remained somewhat under the radar; jealously guarded by a niche group of discerning readers.  I am honoured to say that I have now joined this elite band of followers, and am thoroughly disappointed in myself for not having come across writing so effortlessly exquisite and evocative before.

Partly autobiographical, these two novels explore the lives of three women across three generations of the same dysfunctional, aristocratic family. They are wealthy, beautiful, pampered and unthinkingly privileged, but also headstrong, intelligent, ambitious and brave. Their world takes us from late 19th century Rome to pre war Provence, and the sights, sounds and smells of the various exotic locations come alive just as marvellously as the protagonists do. I became completely immersed in their stories, reading both novels back to back in two days, completely unable to tear myself away. They are something really quite special. If you trust my judgement at all, you have to believe me when I say you need to get hold of these now. The women; Anna, Constanza and Flavia, are still haunting me nearly three weeks later. Sybille Bedford was a truly remarkable writer.

A Favourite of the Gods starts with a ravishing woman named Constanza and her young daughter Flavia finding themselves halted on their train journey from Italy to Paris by a lost ruby ring. They get off the train in a Provencal coastal town and plan to stay a few days until the ring turns up. They end up staying for twenty years. With this tantalising preface, we are then launched into the story of Constanza’s childhood, and the life of her mother, Anna. Born to a Rhode Island based, WASP family in the 1870s, Anna Howland was blessed with brains, beauty and fortune. A romantic with a love for Europe, while on a trip to Italy she meets a handsome Roman Prince. They marry, set up home in the crumbling family Palazzo, and quickly produce Constanza, their golden child. Anna is the talk of Rome; her stunning good looks and sharp intelligence earn her the devotion of all who come across her, and she is the centre of a circle of wealthy, intellectual Europeans and Americans who have come to adopt Rome as their own. She and her Italian Prince appear to have a charmed marriage, and their beautiful little girl only adds to the picture of perfect domestic harmony. Constanza is given a free rein by her young, indulgent parents, and Anna arranges for her to be educated by the finest minds available. Her time split between the sumptuous Roman palazzo and the family’s Umbrian estate, with few other children to talk to, Constanza grows up a curious, mature, wild thing with an insatiable appetite for life. As such, when her mother decides to whisk her off to London and forbids her to never see her father again, Constanza doesn’t initially understand the enormity of what has happened and sees it as just another adventure. For the rest of her formative years, England becomes Constanza’s home. She effortlessly slots into English country life, and is adopted by all the great and good of the day. Her beauty, intelligence and reputation as the daughter of the famous Principessa Anna open every door for her, and everything appears magnificent until war breaks out in Europe and Constanza’s glittering, frivolous world collapses inwards. A hasty marriage results in the birth of her daughter Flavia, but Constanza does not have the rigid moral codes and expectations of her mother, and will go down a very different path in her own pursuit of happiness.

A Favourite of the Gods is absolutely sublime. I don’t want to ruin the intricacies of the plot by revealing too much, but the crux of the novel is based around cultural differences and societal expectations. Anna has been brought up to believe in fidelity and honour; her husband’s failure to adhere to these moral codes is tantamount to treason in Anna’s eyes. He does not understand or appreciate the value Anna places on such matters, and fails to take the steps necessary to save his marriage. Constanza grows up in an age and in a country where the standards Anna upholds no longer exist. Her own life decisions will be very different, but she too will be haunted by a mistaken marriage and an inability to settle in any one place. Mother and daughter increasingly do not see eye to eye, and have the ability to wound one another deeply. They live a peripatetic existence, moving from one sumptuous location to another, never quite finding a home anywhere. Anna’s heart is still in Rome, where she refuses to return; Constanza’s is nowhere, and with her daughter under her mother’s care, she will drift her way through adulthood, desperately seeking some meaning to a life that has been too charmed for its own good. Bedford breathes life into these fascinating, complex women, and she creates their world so vividly that I felt I was part of it. Every location and era she describes comes exquisitely to life; the flaking paint on a 14th century Palazzo ceiling; the dappled sunlight of an Umbrian olive grove; the dazzle and glamour of Edwardian London; the salty air and bleached landscape of a Riviera resort. Her prose is clear sighted, effortless, marvellously evocative. This is a heady novel, one that stays with you, clinging to your skin, tugging at your heart, immersing you so deeply in its world that you emerge from the pages feeling dizzy and confused. It’s a masterpiece.

While A Favourite of the Gods was very much Constanza’s story, A Compass Error , its sequel, is Flavia’s. Set over a few short weeks in the summer of 1929, it takes up where the Preface of A Favourite of the Gods left off, introducing us to Constanza and Flavia’s life in the Provencal coastal village they ended up settling in. Flavia is 17, and has been left alone while Constanza and her lover go abroad to get married. She is studying hard for her Oxford entrance, and spends her days alternately reading, swimming in the crystal clear waters of the sea beneath her villa, and eating alone in a restaurant on the harbour. Her life is blissful; simple, picturesque, thrillingly independent. One day she meets Therese, the wife of a famous painter. They have bought a house on the cliffside, and have a constant round of eclectic and artistic visitors. Therese takes a shine to the precocious daughter of the enigmatic Constanza, whose reputation is legendary, and invites her to dine at her home. Flavia happily goes along, and is drawn into the adult and experimental world of Therese and her friends. This triggers a series of events that will shatter Flavia’s innocent existence and irrevocably change the course she has chartered for her future.

A Compass Error is just as beautifully and evocatively written as its predecessor, and Flavia is an engaging and intriguing character. However, she lacks the enigmatic and complex qualities of Anna and Constanza, and Bedford’s decision to have the entire back story of Anna and Constanza’s lives retold from Flavia’s point of view in a rather contrived monologue felt clumsy and more of a recap for readers who hadn’t read A Favourite of the Gods than a necessary part of the novel. Perhaps if I had read it as a stand alone, or had a break between the two novels, I would have appreciated it more. It certainly deserves to be appreciated; it is a fine and sensitive piece of prose, perfectly capturing the emotional turmoil and misguided belief in your own maturity that marks the late teenage years. Over the course of the two novels, Bedford demonstrates the changing times, beliefs and lifestyles that mean each of her three heroines live very different lives and have access to very different choices, but somehow all end up rather lost and dissatisfied nonetheless. Beautiful, rich, confident and charming, the world was their oyster; from 19th century Rome to Edwardian London to Jazz Age France, they blazed a trail and were unafraid to take the path less travelled by. They are magnificent creations, whose stories are made even more remarkable by the fact that they have autobiographical origins. This is a family saga, but also a story of social change and the widening role of women, alongside being a stunning travelogue of a vanished Europe. Read them now!

26 comments

  1. Reserved both of these from the library. Thanks for the heads up, another author that I’d never heard of before.

  2. I really must find these, Rachel. You always, always write such compelling reviews. Right now I’m in the middle of One Writer’s Garden, which takes us into the life and garden of Eudora Welty, but, both books are now on my TBR list.

    Sometimes, I like to review my TBR list. Interesting reading in itself. tee hee

    1. Thanks Penny! That book you’re reading sounds very interesting – I need to pop over and read your review.

      I hope you can find the Bedfords – I’m certain you’ll enjoy them!

  3. I agree. Sybille Bedford is superb. Do read Jigsaw and A Visit to Don Otavia. Both are splendid and were my reads of last year as I visited Daunts while in London and bought all of them. I have been singing her praises to all my reading friends.

    1. I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across her before, Enid – all of her books sound fascinating. I actually went to Daunt’s yesterday but they only had A Legacy and I wanted Jigsaw. I’ll have to order it online! Thanks for the recommendations.

    1. They really are! I believe they were once published by Virago but went out of print – so you might be able to find them in their original green!

  4. I’ve skim read this post as I’ve had a delightful Friday evening mooch in Daunts spending birthday book tokens. I went in to buy Illyrian Spring and came out with that, A favourite of the gods and Mrs Bridge. Have a good weekend Rachel.

    1. Ooooh so excited that you have them, Rachel! You will love them all – Mrs Bridge is a wonderful book – I read that and Mr Bridge when I was a teenager. I must revisit it, if I still have it – probably in a box somewhere.
      Hope you are having a lovely weekend! x

  5. Hi Rachel, thanks for your reviews. I would highly recommend Jigsaw. It is set mainly in Provence and has real heart in the mouth quiet tragedy. I would rate Sybille Bedford with Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Ann Bridge, Elizabeth Von Arnim and Rose Macauley.

    1. Hi Merenia! So lovely to hear from you. I am so surprised that I hadn’t come across her before when she has so many similarities to my favourite authors – I’m thrilled to have discovered her and can’t wait to read more. I went o Daunt’s to find Jigsaw yesterday but they didn’t have it, so I will order it online! Thank you for the recommendation.

  6. Was about to recommend A Visit to Don Otavio but see that somebody else has beaten me to it. I must dig these out again … I read them years ago in Virago’s heyday.

    1. I want to read that, Mary! I shall work my way through all of her books – sadly there aren’t that many so it shouldn’t be too hard! I can’t believe I missed these as they are Viragos – though more that they have let go out of print. I don’t understand that!

  7. Also – A Legacy, the first book she wrote and the first I read by her. There was a TV series made with some great actors starring. I even gave my son his second name after one of the characters (Johannes)!

    Her autobiog novel shows what a glamorous but sad mad life she had. She was highly thought of.

    I’m so glad you have reviewed this as people take notice of your bloggy opinions.

    1. I saw this in the book shop yesterday and didn’t get it! Oh well. I’ll order it online! It must be brilliant if you named your son after a character!!

      Thanks Chrissy – that’s so kind!🙂 I am so glad I have discovered her – it’s always a joy when I find a new author who is so divinely good. It doesn’t happen often these days but that makes it even better when one does come along!

      1. Still so many to come, Rachel. A whole lifetime isn’t enough.

        Are you any nearer to reading The House in Paris? (Nag nag).

  8. This was chosen for a bookclub read , which is why I finished reading it whereas I would normally ditch such a book after the first three chapters . I was glad that I had persevered as it has a few rewards. I immediately disliked the cast of effete , self indulgent characters, even the ‘spirited clever daughter ‘[ oh yes we know this one]was a formulaic sketch with no depth . I read yards of similar stuff in the 80’s , there was a glut of these would be aristos writing about the idle rich.We have wonderful classics by writers like Henry James, Evelyn Waugh , Aldous Huxley, EM Forster …the list goes on . They write with colour, warmth and always a sense of self mocking humour . There is no humour in this book , everyone takes themselves very seriously . There is little colour or sense of place , no sense of the South . I think after a month has passed since I read this, I remember the the characters as inhabiting grey rooms in dreary weather.The lesson I did learn was that one has to stop disliking a book because its characters are uninteresting and address the very obvious fact that in life we are too ready to judge from our very particular viewpoint. Instead we must always be prepared to try to see from that different angle, even if the angle seems dull. When I placed myself in the shoes of the frigid American heiress , the cheating Italian husband , or the spirited daughter the book came to life . After all , who wants to read about people like themselves ?

  9. Thanks for broadening my horizons this year although I failed to warm to A Favourite of the Gods. I have issues with Simon T’s verdict that Sybille Bedford does not do grotesques – Constanza’s husband is a monster of the old school.

    One resolution for 2013 is to give Elizabeth Taylor a try, probably starting with the short stories and Mrs Palfrey. If you can fit in another Barbara Pym next year (and continuing the oldie theme) I would recommend her come-back novel from 1977, Quartet in Autumn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s