A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford: #Virago
The Favourite of the Gods is the first novel by Sybille Bedford that I’ve read . It will not be the last. This is a writer at ease with the nuances of European social classes and alert, even sympathetic to the oddities of human behaviour. Conscious of their propensity to make poor decisions, she is also alive to the possibilities of their struggle towards fulfilment and happiness.
This 1963 novel is a tale of three generations of women and their, often problematic, relationships: Anna, an American heiress who marries an Italian prince; their Italian born daughter Constanza upon whom the Gods appear to look favourably and her British born daughter Flavia. It’s tale of character and motivation that unfolds within the framing device of a train journey taken across continental Europe by Constanza and Flavia in late 1920s. Almost as an afterthought readers learn that Constanza is travelling to her wedding in Belgium. But the pair never make it further than France. Through their carelessness they lose a valuable ruby ring (an heirloom from Constanza’s father), miss their train connection and end up having to spend the night in a small fishing village in the South of France. Not until the last chapters of the novel do we discover the consequences of those mishaps, the life changing decision taken by Constanza and why the overnight stop become their home for the next 11 years.
In between we learn the story of Anna’s upbringing in New England, her marriage to the prince and her early married years in an Italian palazzo. Anna tries to find a purpose to her life through travel and (misdirected) ‘good works’. But all comes crashing down when she discovers her husband Rico has been unfaithful to her for most of that time (her embarrassment exacerbated because the whole community near their Italian palace knows of the affair). War is declared. Anna departs in a flurry for London, taking 16 year old Constanza with her and vowing that the girl will never see her father again. Her son Giorgio, who is already a spoiled brat by the age of 10, will continue to live with his father.
Constanza is one of life’s golden girls. Naturally intelligent and inquisitive her mother ensures these qualities are polished and honed to perfection through a succession of scholars and tutors in literature, botany, social history and economics. Constanza soaks it all up.
She was as quick as a bird, and as live, and it all came easy to her, natural as life, as breathing, talking, reading, thinking , arguing…. She enjoyed being with people who knew things, she enjoyed logic and pulling questions apart and going to the heart of a matter and looking at more than one side.
Her time in London is one of a heady social life in which she floats between authors, military men, aesthetes, academics and the hunting set. Her’s is also the London of the suffragettes, the young T.S Eliot and Henry James and of ‘rather a magic girl, Virginia Stephen’ (AKA Virgina Woolf). Constanza’ life is not without its setbacks including a rather marriage to a man who begins as a charming rebel but ends as a pompous politician, involvement in a scandalous divorce, feelings of estrangement from her father and a sense that she doesn’t know the truth of the schism between her parents. She suffers for a time, uncertain of what life holds for and conscious of her dwindling ability to engage in adventures. And yet:
She had what all mortals pray for and unfortunately few are given. She had health, she had looks, she had money for her needs. … She was equipped to appreciate, to derive entertainment, connotations, pleasure, from almost any situation she happened to find herself placed in. … And she was not unhappy, there was only a vague disquiet, a nagging question: What is it for? What have I made of it? Where is it going, where can it go?
The qualities that Constanza has in abundance are transferred to her daughter Flavia. She has her mother’s curiosity and independence, though more of a desire for a structured education. But is blessed by a greater sense of proportional and rational thinking than her somewhat mercurial grandmother.
These relationships are all played out against a background of political and social change across Europe: female emancipation, the Great War, the rise of Mussolini, the spectre of the Wall Street crash and depression, the introduction of National Insurance are among the developments mentioned in the novel. Bedford marks the passage of time too by tracing the reading habits of her protagonists. Constanza devoures Racine, Byron, Shelley, Swift and Geoge Eliot before she turns 15. She then moves on to the Sitwells, Erza Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her mother’s tastes remain more conservative – holding H. G Wells in awe and extolled the virtues of John Galsworthy . “But what she saw no loin in was formlessness, ugliness, obscurity” which is how she views Virginia Woolf’s A Voyage Out. D H Lawrence she considered incomprehensible, E. M Forster pointless and drab and Proust ‘affected’.
The richness of issues and themes plus the wonderful characterisation of these three women make this novel a fascinating read. If you don’t believe me, just try it for yourself.
Author: A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Published: 1963 by Collins. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1984
Length: 312 pages
My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016
Read further: There is a sequel to A Favourite of the Gods, called A Compass Error (published in 1968) which further develops the character of Flavia.
The Guardian gives a good insight into Bedford’s legacy with this article