Caroline Chapman on Sybille Bedford, Slightly Foxed Issue 38

A Bath with a View

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I once met Sybille Bedford. ‘Met’ is perhaps the wrong word; I pounced on her at a crowded Time-Life party and began raving about her novel A Legacy which I had just read. She looked at me vaguely. ‘Another lunatic’, I could see her thinking. Then we were separated in the crush, much to her relief I suspect. Sybille, I feel sure, was not one to suffer fools gladly.

On the back cover of her memoir Quicksands, published a year before her death in 2006, is a remarkable photograph. It shows Sybille sitting naked in a large marble bath, reading from a sheaf of A4 pages. It is a startling image, and it provides clues to several aspects of her life and singular personality.

The photograph was taken in 1950 by Evelyn Gendel, Sybille’s close companion for several years – an attachment she described as one of her happiest. The bath plus an L-shaped studio and small kitchen were contained within ‘a longish kind of shed’ perched on the roof of an office block in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. To reach her eyrie she had to climb up five floors and a flight of wooden steps. For Sybille, the inconvenience of this ascent counted for nothing when compared with the incomparable view it gave her over the rooftops of Rome. The shed came to her, as did so many things in her life, through the kindness of friends; in this instance Theodora and Constantine FitzGibbon, who were leaving Rome and wanted someone to take on the unfinished lease of their ‘flat’.

The sheaf of papers could well be a section of A Legacy, since it was during these contented years with Evelyn that she wrote the novel. On close examination the pages appear to be covered with her famously atrocious handwriting: although Sybille had taught herself to read, her formal education was so brief and fragmentary that she had never been taught how to write. The eyeshade was a necessity as she suffered from an intolerance of glare – a particular hazard for someone w

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About the contributor

Caroline Chapman has recently published a biography of the founders of the Bowes Museum in County Durham and is now researching a character who played a pivotal role in the Grand Tour.

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