Selina Hastings, Sybille Bedford, SF 69

Bruised, Shocked, but Elated

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I first met Sybille Bedford in London in the early 1980s when an old friend of mine, Patrick Woodcock, who at the time was Sybille’s doctor, invited us both to dinner. As a keen admirer of Sybille’s writing, I was thrilled at the prospect.

I was the first to arrive, a little nervous and full of anticipation. Soon afterwards Sybille made her entrance, a small, neat figure with short grey hair, dressed in trousers and waistcoat, a red-and-white spotted kerchief tucked into the neck of her shirt. Patrick introduced us, Sybille nodded acknowledgement, and from that moment on she completely ignored me, addressing all her conversation to Patrick. The chief topic, I remember, was her current infatuation with a woman artist in Richmond, only interrupted by a detailed analysis of the food – Patrick was an excellent cook – and of the wine we were drinking, both always a matter of supreme importance to Sybille.

I returned home feeling slightly snubbed, and it was several years before I encountered her again. This time it was at dinner in the flat of another old friend, Stanley Olson, a great gourmet and wine connoisseur. That occasion was very different: Sybille was charming, talkative and highly amusing, and from then on I saw her at fairly regular intervals, every few months or so. We met at her tiny flat in Chelsea, or at my house or in restaurants, and once she asked me to an oenophiles’ gathering to pay homage to a rare claret, which of course was way above my station. We also talked on the telephone, long conversations which usually started with Sybille complaining about some domestic irritation – a plumber who had failed to turn up, noisy neighbours on the floor above – but which almost always evolved into some fascinating recollection of her extraordinary, and often harrowing, past.

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About the contributor

Selina Hastings has written biographies of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann, Somerset Maugham, of her father, The Red Earl, and Sybille Bedford.

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