Obituary: Sybille Bedford, novelist, 94

Sybille Bedford, whose first novel won high praise among England's literary elite and earned her a place in its most celebrated and exclusive literary circles, died Feb. 17 at a hospital near her home in London. She was 94.

Her death was announced by English PEN, part of the international society of writers, of which she was vice president at her death.

Ms. Bedford, who was German by birth and whose first language was German, wrote in English. In 53 years she published at least 10 books, many of them works that are combinations of biography, memoir or fact and not easily classifiable in any particular genre.

Though her works were not always widely popular, they inspired a deeply fervent following of committed admirers, starting with her first published work, "A Sudden View," in 1953. Later retitled "A Visit to Don Otavio," it was an account of her journey through Mexico.

Ms. Bedford's first published work of fiction, "A Legacy" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1956), about aristocratic society in Germany before World War I, was heavily influenced by her own upbringing and gained attention after Evelyn Waugh's laudatory review of it in The Standard.

"Written with an air of authority which compels acceptance, a novel has just appeared by a new writer of remarkable accomplishment," he wrote at the time. He called it "a book of entirely delicious quality."

The book was also well reviewed by Nancy Mitford, Aldous Huxley and other highly respected authors of the day. Their praise immediately elevated Ms. Bedford's literary reputation and made the book a commercial success. Her prose, called elegant by even her harshest critics, was compared to that of Marcel Proust, Henry James and Thomas Mann.

"A Legacy" and her three later novels were not universally celebrated. Critics sometimes found them lacking in character development and said that her plots seemed elitist and outdated.

A novelist and critic, Richard Plant, who reviewed "A Legacy" for The New York Times Book Review in 1957, said, "If there existed an annual award for snobbery, this year's prize, in this reviewer's opinion, should go to Sybille Bedford."

Her nonfiction work was more widely acclaimed. She covered more than 100 trials for publications s like Life, Esquire, The Observer and The Saturday Evening Post, and reported on the obscenity trial involving the British publication of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," the trial of Jack L. Ruby and the Auschwitz trial at Frankfurt in 1963-64, among others.

Her book "The Trial of Dr. Adams" (Simon & Schuster, 1958), sometimes titled "The Best We Can Do: The Trial of Dr. Adams," retold one of England's most famous court cases: Dr. John Bodkin Adams, whose patients included rich, older women who often left him in their wills, was accused of murdering an elderly patient and was ultimately acquitted.

She published a two-part biography of her longtime friend, Aldous Huxley, in 1973. Ms. Bedford's last novel, "Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education" (Hamish Hamilton, 1989), was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Her final book, "Quicksands: A Memoir," was published last year.

In 1963 she was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The group elected her a Companion of Literature in 1994, a position held by only 10 writers at a time.

Sybille von Schoenebeck was born in Charlottenburg, Germany, in 1911. Her mother and father were separated, and after her father died, when she was 10, she lived with her mother in Italy. She was sent to England for an education she said never took place, and was largely self-educated. She considered England her home, and through a brief marriage to Walter Bedford in the 1930's, she officially became a British citizen. She was also a serious wine expert, traveling to France often for wine tastings. Throughout her life she lived around the world, including Italy, France, Portugal and the United States, before settling for good in London. She leaves no survivors.