A Legacy, by Sybille Bedford

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Spanning the period from just after German unification in 1871 to shortly before the First World War, Sybille Bedford’s first novel A Legacy follows two families: the wealthy Berlin assimilated Jewish Merzes and the not quite so wealthy but aristocratic South German Catholic Feldens.  Having been briefly brought together by a marriage between Melanie Merz and Julius von Felden, ending in Melanie’s premature death, their fortunes continue to intertwine over the succeeding decades.

It is a rich novel, examining the dynamics of the two extended families amidst tensions arising in a new country, the creation of which had brought together disparate cultures in an uneasy union.  Germany’s citizens were having to come to terms with a national identity that eclipsed regional loyalties, with the urban northern Länder stronger and exercising greater influence than the more agrarian southern regions.  At the same time upper-class hegemony was being challenged by the growing strength of the working class, and in the novel, casual acts nepotism are later shown in an unfavourable light when subjected to scrutiny by a radical press that targets privilege and mocks old notions of deference.

Bedford shows the passing of an age, class- and status-conscious families content to live on dividends, isolated from the source of their wealth and frequently enjoying a standard of living beyond their means because they take their prosperity for granted.  In this ossified society, the decision to send one of Baron von Felden’s sons to a brutal military academy for which he is temperamentally unsuited ends in a tragedy and breakdown when he absconds and against all the odds makes his way home, but then is forced back so that the authorities can save face.  It is this action, propelled by selfish family interests, which culminates in a scandal decades later.

While the Merz affluence has been reduced through complacency and poor management, their religion is not shown to be a factor in their decline.  No sense of anti-Semitism penetrates the family, and they exhibit no foreboding that their life in Germany will be over in just a couple of decades.  The Feldens are running out of time as well: essentially provincials, they are too decadent to survive in a far harsher age of wars and totalitarianism, and a determination by Julius not to read newspapers comes to symbolise the self-absorption and lack of awareness of a society that was becoming more hostile to their archaic way of life.

The title in part refers to the preoccupations with money and its transmission within families, but it is used too in a wider sense.  Bedford writes in her introduction, added to a 1999 reissue, that there was much to dislike about Germany in those years, and also ‘a German dottiness, devoid of humour … Is some of this a foundation of the vast and monstrous thing that followed?  Did the private events I lightly draw upon leave some legacy?  Writing about them made me think so.’  It is a simplistic approach to the historical currents of the late nineteenth century, but one can see that the drift towards barbarism is facilitated by wilful ignorance.

Bedford’s style is elliptical to the extent that it would be easy to forget that she is writing in English because it has the feel of a translation.  She is not concerned to hand-hold the reader, and her obliqueness does not make for an easy read; she herself notes that while Evelyn Waugh praised the novel, he added that there was a bit too much Henry James in it.  Apart from untranslated stretches of dialogue in French, she will sometimes begin conversations without specifying who is speaking, and the exchanges are often cryptic.

On top of that, it can be difficult to work out relationships, and the inclusion of family trees would have been invaluable in orienting the reader.  For some reason Bedford chose a younger daughter, Francesca, as the narrator, and the novel opens with her presence, promising that the story will be told entirely from her point of view.  Yet she disappears for stretches, and scenes are recorded at points when she was not present, or even born, making an uneasy transition.  It is unclear whether Bedford is being consciously artistic or unconsciously inept with these strategies.

What is noteworthy, though less obvious to the modern reader than it would have been when the book was published in 1956, so soon after the second of two great conflagrations that scarred the century, is the compassion she shows to her characters.  Many are weak, self-absorbed, self-destructive, myopic, yet others are strong and insightful.  There is no caricature here, just a narrow slice of society in a changing world, focusing on people who have a tendency to make unsuitable marriages and manage their finances badly.  If that sounds unpromising, Bedford can at times be funny, notably when Melanie decides to convert as her non-Catholicism is an obstacle to marriage for the Feldens and unwittingly becomes a Protestant, necessitating a second conversion.

That it is partly autobiographical surely helps Bedford’s dissection, though there is no sense that she is too close to her material, and her eye is cool and dispassionate.  She admits in her introduction that she did no research for the book, and as she had left Germany, where she was born, as a child she could not draw on first-hand experience for a portrait of Wilhelmine society.   There is little sense of the evolving political environment in the forty-five year span of the novel but that is the point – she is concentrating on a hermetically-sealed milieu, divorced from the currents that will eventually pour in on them and sweep them away.

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