Thirty years ago, waiting to take my seat at a dinner at the pen Club in Chelsea, London, I caught sight of an elderly woman quietly installing herself a place or two down on the other side of the long oak table. Though frail and diminutive, there was something rather formidable about this apparition, something steely and self-possessed, and the sense of inner fires steeply banked increased when she reached into her leather satchel, brought out a bottle of wine, decanted some of it expertly into a glass, and began lapping it up like a cat let loose on a saucer of milk. “That,” the person standing next to me murmured, in the manner of one who draws attention to some rare antique run to earth among a shelf full of low-budget curios, “is Sybille Bedford.”

At this stage in her long and eventful life, Bedford (1911–2006) was...


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