Tea or Books? #47: sequels vs new-author sequels, and A Compass Error vs Pleasures and Landscapes

Sybille Bedford and sequels by the original author vs sequels by a different author… we need to come up with snappier titles for these things.

In episode 47, we start with a topic suggested by Karen via email – sequels, and whether or not we like sequels written by a different author to the original book. In the second half, we look at a novel (a sequel, in fact) by Sybille Bedford alongside some of her travel writing – A Compass Error (a sequel to A Favourite of the Gods) and Pleasures and Landscapes. This is also a contribution to the 1968 Club, because A Compass Error was published in 1968.

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Here are the (many!) books and authors we mention in this episode:

Stephen Leacock
Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson
Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson
My Remarkable Uncle by Stephen Leacock
Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan
Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman
A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy
Oliver Sacks
Coral Glynne by Peter Cameron
Thrush Green series by Miss Read
The Sense of the Ending by Julian Barnes
The Past is Myself by Christine Bielenberg
Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The Backward Shadow by Lynne Reid Banks
Two is Lonely by Lynne Reid Banks
Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma by Diana Birchall
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean
Return to the Hundred Acre Wood by David Benedictus
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers
Guy Fraser-Sampson
Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith
The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
The Book of the Green Planet by William Kotzwinkle
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott
Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
Closing Time by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Paradise Regained by John Milton
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Provincial Lady series by E.M. Delafield
Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
Unguarded Moments by Diana Tutton
The Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
A Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth in Rugen by Elizabeth von Arnim
A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford
Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia by Penelope Chetwode
John Betjeman
The Faces of Justice by Sybille Bedford
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford
A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford
A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden
The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden

Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford

Another book review to point you to in Shiny New Books! This one is by an author I’d love to know more about – Sybille Bedford. She seems so fascinating. I loved her novel A Favourite of the Gods, and so I took Daunt Books up on their offer of her collected travel writing, Pleasures and Landscapes (2003, although collected from mostly 1950s and 1960s articles).

I usually don’t like travel writing, so I was nervous, but I really liked the way Bedford writes – and the unusual (often food-orientated) take she has on the world. If that’s tickled your fancy, you can read the whole review on Shiny New Books

A Favourite of the Gods – Sybille Bedford

Let’s take a moment, before I begin, to praise how beautiful this book is – the book-as-object, I mean.  Well, you can only see the picture – sadly, you can’t feel it.  It is beautiful to read.  The cover flips closed with a beautiful soft clunk; the pages slip beautifully together.  It is a little soft to the touch.  It’s delightful.  This is why I love books, not just reading.  This is why I won’t get an e-reader.

But, thankfully, it didn’t end there.  A Favourite of the Gods (1963) is also a really good novel, which Daunt Books kindly sent me a few weeks ago, along with the sequel A Compass Error, which I’ve yet to read.  You might already have spotted Rachel’s enthusiastic review of the books – and I’m jumping on the same bandwagon, because I think Sybille Bedford might be something rather special.

A Favourite of the Gods concerns three generations of women – Anna, Constanza, and Flavia – over several decades, dealing with Italian and English society, living lives governed by different moral systems, yet somehow inextricably bound together, even when understanding each other least.

The novel opens with Constanza and her daughter Flavia on a train to Paris, intending to meet Constanza’s fiancée.  Everything goes rather awry when the train stops and Constanza realises she has lost her ruby ring… they get off the train and stay locally for a while.  And then we leap back to the beginning of the story… as with Wise Children, this technique irked me a bit, but I’ll let them get on with the show…

Since the plot is the least important part of the novel, I’m going to whizz through part of it… Backtrack to 1870s American Anna – who heads off to Rome and falls in love with an Italian Prince, as you do.  Marriage and a baby girl, Constanza, swiftly follow.  Some years later, Anna discovers something that makes her whisk Constanza away to England, forbidding to let her ever see her father again.  When Constanza becomes of age, she resolves to see him anyway, now she is no longer under her mother’s well-meaning but possessive control – only, war is declared.

Right, that’s as far as I’ll go – but, obviously, somewhere along the way Constanza’s daughter Flavia appears…

Thinking back over the novel, there are a few significant moments, but for the most part the events don’t particularly matter.  Bedford writes, instead, about relationships between mother and daughter; how people come to understand the world around them, while relating their new-found understanding to their upbringing; how children grow to see their parents as people, and not simply parents; how events affecting the whole of Europe can equally affect tiny family units.  And, throughout all this, Bedford has an astonishingly subtlety.  Nothing is overstated; a lot is barely stated.  Bedford depends upon her fine character drawings, rather than exclamatory narrative interjections.  Anna is dignified and calm, but very proud; Constanza is more rebellious, but ultimately loyal.  Their mother/daughter has a thousand shades in it, and is wholly believable.  I loved how Bedford managed to convey this with tiny linguistic decisions.  For example…

Constanza said: “There hasn’t been one word of marriage; and there won’t be.”

“But dearest girl, why?”

“One doesn’t marry like that,” said Constanza, “just like that.  For a bit of love.”

Anna chose to laugh.  “You don’t know yet, my dear, what one marries for.”
I think the ‘chose’ is really clever there.  A lesser novelist would elaborate about Anna’s shock and discouragement, and her decision to put a brave face on matters – but Bedford captures it all in a word.

It must be so difficult not simply to show how these characters are and interact, but how they change over the years.  We see Constanza growing from a baby to a mother, and Bedford writes her life without a false step or unbelievable move.  Often characters seem the same from cradle to grave, but Bedford is cleverer than that.  Here is Constanza as an adult, and a passage about change:

She had learnt to travel light.  In her youth she had looked at fate as the bolt from the clear sky, now she recognized it in the iron rule of time on all human affairs.  Today is not like yesterday; the second chance is not the first.  Whatever turning-points are taken or are missed, it is the length of the passage, the length of the road that counts.  She realized that she would never again entirely belong, but also that a large part of her belonged nowhere else.  Once more she basked, volatile and melancholy: the sun, the fruit, the colour of the stones were her inheritance as well as the sad pagan creed of carpe diem and stoicism for the rest.
In terms of her writing, Bedford belongs (to my mind) with the small and disparate group – as diverse as George Orwell and Elizabeth Taylor – whose style does not clamour and shout, but has a rich beauty in its consistent balance and measure.  It is difficult to point out a phrase which is exceptionally brilliant, or a piece of wit which ought to be repeated – but she is a subtle prose stylist par excellence all the same.

The best novels are the most difficult to write about, I find, especially where the novelist is not highly stylised – there are no grotesques or eccentrics in Bedford’s writing, however welcome these features may be in the hands of other novelists – so I don’t think any review could quite convey the feeling of reading A Favourite of the Gods any more than I can make you understand how it feels to hold the book.  But I hope I’ve encouraged you to seek out this book.  We’ve heard a lot this year about how Elizabeth Taylor is a Well Kept Secret and a dazzling writer.  Well, I think it’s time that Sybille Bedford stepped out onto the stage.