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!