A Legacy

Written by Sybille Bedford

In 1900, the German Empire is a prosperous and powerful political unit in which religious, social, cultural, and linguistic differences have largely been papered over. A Legacy addresses a question of interest to historians: whether those without common ground will stick together in a time of crisis.

When Johannes von Felden, 16, runs away from military school—a rational act (in modern terms) given the harsh Prussian-style regime—it becomes a cause célèbre, pitting the liberal press against the school and, by association, the Kaiser and German Army. Enfin, Johannes’ father makes a compromise to end the matter…

The story is told by Francesca, the daughter of Johannes’ brother, Julius Von Felden, and his English wife. The Von Feldens are Catholics, landed aristocrats from southern Germany. But they are intimately connected to the Merzes, an insular Jewish family in Berlin. Relatives of Julius first wife, they support him financially. When Johannes is killed and the father’s “compromise,” revealed, what happens within the extended family, based on Francesca’s observations, overheard conversations, gossip and vivid memories, provides a lavish feast for readers.

A Legacy is a lesson in character development and historical authenticity by an author who “wrote what she knew.” Like Francesca, Bedford was born in pre-World War Germany to an aristocratic German father and English mother. She was too subtle to assign her characters recognizable points of view, however. Many voices, including interjections from strangers, describe the worldly and the naïve, the modern and the reactionary, drawn together by marriages of opposites. Originally published in 1956, A Legacy will make you stop to think, “Yes, that’s how it must have been!”

Highly recommended for any student of pre-World War Germany.