“Show, don’t tell” — that’s what we’re instructed, as writers, to do. But after finishing Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, I no longer remember just why that is. To…. keep the reader interested? To keep the plot ticking over? If Bedford had spent less time telling, we wouldn’t have lovely paragraphs like the one in the middle of A Legacy that ruminates on the nature of life — “never as bad nor as good as one thinks… Never as good, never as bad, but a drab, bearable half-sleep banked by a little store of this and that, subsiding after visitations and alarms… an even-paced irreversible passage.”
She can stop and ruminate by this point, because she has the reader so completely hooked on a story that might not be superficially appealing. It concerns, as she says in the introduction, three German families in the late nineteenth century. The families, linked through marriage, represent different facets of the German upper class — a wealthy Jewish mercantile family in Berlin, and two families of Catholic aristocrats from southern Germany. One, the Feldens, live in a strange rural bubble that is almost eighteenth-century in nature. The old Baron, for instance, is the best veterinary surgeon in three counties, yet his children are barely literate and certainly enumerate. The other family, the Bernins, are more worldly and ambitious, influential in the politics of Baden — but Baden is soon absorbed by the German Empire. When a young Baron von Felden marries the Jewish Melanie Merz, the two families are so different that nobody makes clear just how the poor bride is supposed to convert to Christianity: she gets it wrong the first time, and becomes a Lutheran.
Some of this is very funny. One of the Merz sons has a French mistress who “though presentable was not respectable. One of the counts against her was that in an age of rubber tubs she travelled with a silver bidet.” Yet on the whole, it is tragic. The level of incomprehension and lack of communication among people and kinds of people has wretched consequences for both both individual and national levels. The saddest part is… well, twofold. Bedford ruefully portrays a pre-modern world in which a damaged younger son could be packed off to an Army stud farm and kindly cared for. It is the new Prussian order that has so damaged him; yet by the same token it is his dreamy, self-indulgent pre-modern family that permitted him to be so damaged. Lovely as that world was, Bedford sees it clearly. But sadder still is the inability of the characters to connect emotionally — often, even to converse. I’ve often wondered how those marriages worked, in the days when nothing at all could be discussed. Bedford’s imaginary version seems quite plausible.
This would not be a compelling read, were it not for Bedford’s writing. It’s witty, it’s generous, and sometimes she take immense pleasure in the material delights of the world she can’t actually have known. For instance, a card game called Grabuge: “a game played by two people with one hundred and twenty-eight packs every single card of which is a spade.” Could this really exist, or did Bedford make it up? It hardly matters.