A cold grey morning that begins in the kitchen, the only warm room in the house. I grind the coffee beans, pour the milk into a jug, let the coffee steep. Every move is a silent homage to my friend Sybille who was serious about anything involving ritual and skills. Finally, I open the papers to the obituaries. Times, Telegraph and Guardian. A full page in each, large photographs with Sybille’s unflinching gaze. Except for the profile shot in The Telegraph with the caption ‘Sybille Bedford reading in the marble bath of her penthouse in Rome in 1950, photographed by her lover Evelyn Glendel’. What pictures don’t show: eyes as blue as the Mediterranean, pale, wispy hair as soft as the bottom feathers of chickens.
Obituaries set the record straight: born in Charlottenburg, outside Berlin, in 1911, only daughter of a feckless half-English mother and a German aristocratic father. We were friends for a quarter of a century before I knew Sybille’s maiden name was von Schoenebeck. I knew that Aldous and Maria Huxley had arranged a marriage for her in the Thirties so that she could become a British citizen. But if she was reticent on the subject of Walter Bedford, she was grateful for his plain English name.
In the mid-Eighties we made a journey to Berlin, her first for 50 years. In the no-man’s land of Checkpoint Charlie, she became mute with fear, almost reviving over lunch with relatives who lived in the East, but only recovering when we were back in West Berlin at the Cafe Paris, a French restaurant that served impeccable entrec-grill-pommes frites and Fleurie served frais. She refused to eat anywhere else.
Sybille’s decision to write in English her third language after German and French gave her words the rich unexpectedness found in Isek Dinesen and Joseph Conrad. She conquered her adopted language, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, receiving an OBE. In 1992, she was made a Companion of Literature, this country’s highest honour there are only ever 10 at any time. Sybille came to my wedding, but predicted that marriage and country life ‘will take up a lot of time’.
Our quarterly dinners dwindled to annual dinners, although whenever I was in London I dropped off rabbit terrines, confits of duck and partridge, slabs of Suffolk ham. Her heart sank when people sent flowers she begrudged anything that was not edible or buvable coming into her tiny flat on Old Church Street. On her 90th birthday, I gave her a modest ‘lifetime’ monthly wine allowance at Lea and Sandemann. In return, she gave me grateful and detailed wine reports, laced with gossip.
In June last year, when her memoir was published, she complained that the reviews praising her book read ‘like obituaries’. The reviews left out the most important relationship in Sybille’s life: her translator and close companion, Aliette Martin. For years, this French woman converted Sybille’s hieroglyphics (she was, by then, too frail to type) on to disks. Without Aliette’s devotion, intelligence and care, Quicksands might still be a sheaf of pale green papers.
Sybille regretted that her books were praised and honoured but never profitable. Plagued by ‘doubt, despair and sloth’, she also regretted the meagreness of her output (12 volumes all the same), that too many years passed ‘in idleness, in pleasures, in much private grief’. They say that when a person dies they take a whole world with them. For her friends and readers, Sybille leaves a world behind. Call it a legacy.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on March 2, 2006.