Dress Down Sunday: A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

Published 1956   Part 3 chapter 5  set in the 1890s


[Newly-married, Julius and Melanie are living in Spain]

She was easy enough to have about; how easy, having no points of comparison, he did not know; and very pretty; and this, coming in sometime at twilight from the Granada road, he could see again. After the brief greeting, after his bath, after the first glass of manzanilla by himself, pale, light, lightly iced, coming down again at that hour when the heat of day still rises from the earth and walls, and cool is divined already in the veins and skin, he would find her in the opened loggia in muslin and ribbons, her shoulders bare, her hair high, the small, shod, pointed feet visible on the chaise-longue, and make his own entrance like a man at the play into his box, during the second act, before the aria by the new soprano.

observations: This has been one of my all-time favourite books since I first read it 25 years ago, but I have never known for sure what the legacy was, and tootling around on the Internet looking it up, I’m not alone in that. But I also found a reference to an interview which quoted Bedford as giving the answer: that the rise of the Nazis, and attendant horrors, were the legacy of the brutality and anti-Semitism of the cadet schools of the German officer class. Which actually doesn’t quite sound right, it’s a surprising idea: to be precise, the cadet schools are shown to be brutal to a mediaeval degree, but there is no sign of anti-Semitism. German society in Berlin is shown to be very divided along religious lines, but it is done with a very light touch (the Jewish patriarch: ‘My son been to the moneylenders?... Who does the fool think he is, a Goy?’) and it certainly doesn’t prevent any of the marriages in the book. Poor Melanie, above, gets herself baptized so she can marry Julius, but doesn’t realize she has gone to the wrong kind of Christian church.

The story of three families, their marriages and careers, is underpinned by the deeply upsetting story of Jean/Johannes at the Cadet School, which brackets the book. Of all the moments, the one where Jean sends his niece a dog is the saddest.

But actually this is a very funny book, full of wonderful conversations and lines

Here Clara made the movement of her mouth that had contributed so much to the boredom of Gustavus’s life.
-- a line that resonates even more by the end of the book. The food at one house is ‘almost ostentatiously perfunctory and, if it was not, appeared skimpy.’ There is an ambitious political character whom the others suspect never married in the hope that one day he might become a Cardinal, and who-knew-what after that…

There’ll be another entry on this book later this week.

The picture, In the Boudoir by Friedrich C. Frieseke, comes from The Athenaeum website.


  1. Love this pic.
    Your blog is changing the way I read. Now paying much more attention to what everyone is wearing and trying to visualize/find correspondences. Current reading is Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels and there is something lurid about the descriptions of the father's pyjamas and yellow slippers that haunts me now.

  2. Thanks so much Sara, and thanks for another great suggestion. I think you mentioned Marina Endicott's Little Shadows to me a while back - I got it on your suggestion, and have just finished reading it. LOVED it + of course it will provided several entries....

  3. I agree with Sara. Reading your blog has made me slow down my reading and pay more attention to details. Which is a good thing, because I tend to hurry through books (the excitement, you know) and miss a lot of things I shouldn't. If I really like a book, it does not matter if I read too fast; but if I have not enjoyed a book so much, I wonder if I have given it a fair chance.

  4. Moira - It's really in the lives of the people who lived during that time that we see the effects of those larger movements (like Nazi-ism and Anti-Semitism). I've always thought that a much more powerful way to tell a story anyway. And that there's wit in it too only makes the story that much stronger.

  5. Thanks for all your kind comments...


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