A Legacy is the tale of two very different families, the Merzes and the Feldens. The Jewish Merzes are longstanding members of Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie who count a friend of Goethe among their distinguished ancestors. Not that this proud legacy means much of anything to them anymore. Secure in their huge town house, they devote themselves to little more than enjoying their comforts and ensuring their wealth. The Feldens are landed aristocracy, well off but not rich, from Germany’s Catholic south. After Julius von Felden marries Melanie Merz the fortunes of the two families will be strangely, indeed fatally, entwined.
Set during the run-up to World War I, a time of weirdly mingled complacency and angst, A Legacy is captivating, magnificently funny, and profound, an unforgettable image of a doomed way of life.
Bedford's historical account, in which two very different families are bound together by marriage, money, and tragedy in the time just before WWI, parallels her own early life. In a recently unified Germany on the brink of war, familial struggles reflect the country's precarious foundation. When Julius von Felden, a well-off man of Catholic descent with more cachet in his cultural pursuits than money to his name, meets and marries Melanie Merz, a young Jewish woman from an affluent family, their union produces a daughter and causes tension. Although their time together is short-lived Melanie succumbs to illness, leaving behind Julius and their daughter Julius continues to receive an allowance from the Merz family. The Feldens, French-speaking Catholic aristocrats from the south of Germany, live a rich and rural life in the country. When Johannes, one of Julius's three brothers, is shipped off to a Prussian cadet camp and runs away, causing scandal within the family, the catastrophic results are felt for years. Then a tragic accident exposes secrets and motives, causing an irreparable rift between the families. Fraught with Prussian politics and heavy-handed historical context, this is less a bildungsroman than a tale of a family adjusting to a changing country. Bedford's cool, insightful narrative style leaves her characters flat and unchanging in the face of great historical change.