Good Reading : August 2001
authorprofile daughter towards an appreciation of fine claret (from the age of five!) and food. ‘He could not stand clever women,’ notes Bedford, so it is perhaps fortunate that he died when his only daughter was not yet a teenager, before he could witness her intelligence. ‘I’m interested in the unlearned about cruelty to man; we have to learn compassion, we ruin everything. I find politics too narrow, but I despair of this country (Britain) because of the hooligans, the violence, the debasement of language.’ ‘He remains an enigma to me,’ she says, with a hint 22 of regret in her voice, ‘I feel that I neglected him but he could not show that he loved us, he loved animals more than people.’ Von Shoenebeck was an art collector, but Bedford has reacted strongly against his acquisitive nature. ‘I loathe objects,’ she says, and it is true that she has very few; none of the paintings mentioned in her novels, including impressionists and cubists, have survived the vicissitudes of the family’s fortune’s to be handed down to her. ‘I don’t like hostess tables and elegance, I like plain white china and friends,’ she says, clearly not regretting days of former grandeur when, as a small child ‘I had smart silk pyjamas with initials and a coronet on the pocket.’ Although she had been writing since adolescence, Bedford was more than forty when she published her first book. She has since alternated between fact and fiction, beginning with her hilariously dry account of a journey through Mexico, A Visit to Don Ottavio, which deserves to be recognised as a classic. She went on to develop a distinguished career as a journalist fascinated by justice and the workings of the law. One critic has suggested that this is because of a scandal in her father’s family which threatened to bring down the government of Austria at the time, but it could just as well be explained as an inherent trait in Bedford’s personality that she abhors acts of inhumanity and has an innate sense of fairness. As a teenager, she was taken to the Courts of Law in London, which had a profound impact. Lacking the education to become a lawyer, she abandoned that wish for the growing certainty that she would be a writer. The earliest thing in Bedford’s consciousness, she says, is the First World War, then the sudden onrush of fascism across Europe, ‘while we were sitting under leaves, drinking wine with friends it was happening all around us’. Prompted by the turbulence around her in 1929, Bedford stopped writing fiction. ‘I’m interested in the unlearned about cruelty to man; we have to learn compassion, we ruin everything. I find politics too narrow, but I despair of this country (Britain) because of the hooligans, the violence, the debasement of language.’ She has said elsewhere that ‘the catastrophe of my life was not my mother’s illness but the arrival of Hitler’. She had written anti fascist articles which made it dangerous for her to remain in France when the Germans invaded in 1940, so she fled to America, joining the Huxleys in California. She later lived in New York, Rome, (‘the happiest years of my life’) and settled in Britain in the 70s. One of the things that has perhaps contributed to Bedford not finding the audience she deserves, is her chameleon like quality, which allows her to shift so easily from writing about frivolous topics one minute to serious the next. She has been marginalised and overlooked for years because of writing pieces for glossy magazines about food and wine and the pleasures of life, often from a position of privilege. What has been forgotten is that she has also written some of the most acute and perceptive reportage of key trials of the twentieth century. There is her coverage of the trial of Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald, and of the Auschwitz trial in the 1960s and of the obscenity trial at the Old Bailey prompted by Penguin Books decision to publish DH Lawrence’s classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover unexpurgated. Her travel sketches are timeless, although the people and places she visits may have disappeared. She has been marginalised and overlooked for years because of writing pieces for glossy magazines about food and wine and the pleasures of life, often from a position of privilege. One bottle of Bollinger and three hours later, I have run out of tape and paper and covered only the sketchiest details and anecdotes of a life lived so richly as to be almost unimaginable. I am painfully aware that there is so much we have not even touched on. Remarkably, Bedford seems less exhausted than I am, though she concedes that she is feeling a little weary, and puts herself to bed in a stark room devoid of ornament, where, apart from a chair, the only furniture is the kind of single bed one might expect to find in a hospital or a boarding school dormitory. I am simply asked if I would mind turning out the lights before letting myself out.