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Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Georgina Howell

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Gertrude Bell was one of those rare figures for whom the expression “larger than life” is too small.


In an age when women were expected to stay close to husband and hearth, she explored uncharted deserts and ascended previously unclimbed mountains. A real-life Indiana Jones, she made important archaeological discoveries in an era when the methodology involved bribing local nabobs and packing a gun lest the natives not be friendly. A linguistic polymath, she translated the love lyrics of medieval Persian poet Hafiz.


She ran Iraq when Britain, which won World War I, cobbled together that country out of bits and pieces of the Turkish Empire, which lost the war. A daughter of the English industrial class, she fell in love with the parched landscapes of the Middle East and went native, albeit loading her caravans with fine china and formal gowns.


She so mastered the language and culture of the Bedouins that members of the Beni Sakhr, a tribe not well-disposed toward outsiders, saluted her as one of their own. “`Mashallah! Bint Arab,’ they declared—`As God has willed it: a daughter of the desert,’” Georgina Howell writes in Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.


Bell began marching to a different drummer at Oxford University, which was scarcely comfortable with women in the 1880s. A professor asked Bell and the few other female students for their reaction to his lecture. “Green eyes flashing, Gertrude retorted loudly: `I don’t think we learned anything new today. I don’t think you added anything to what you wrote in your book,’” Howell says.


The pity is that Howell’s literary skills are not always up to those of her subject. Yet such was likely to be the case no matter who her biographer might be. Here is Bell’s description of sharing a tent beside the Dead Sea with gypsies and a belly dancer:


“The fire of dry thorns flickered up—faded and flickered again. ... The men played a drum and a discordant fife and sang a monotonous song and clapped their hands and gradually she came nearer and nearer to me, twisting her slender body till she dropped down on the heap of brushwood at my feet, and kneeling, her body still danced and her arms swayed and twisted round the mask like face.”


And that was in a letter to her father. She pulled out all the stops in books such as The Desert and the Sown, which made her so famous she couldn’t cross a hotel lobby in a remote part of the world without fans besieging her.


Howell doesn’t help herself by fretting about marginal issues like why Bell wasn’t more of a feminist. Honorary secretary of the Anti-Suffrage League, Bell organized a massive petition drive, which netted 250,000 signatures, against giving women the vote. Since Bell set so many firsts for her sex, why shouldn’t she also have been the Phyllis Schlafly of the Victorian era?


Early on, Howell’s narrative gets bogged down in a recitation of Bell’s ancestors and social-set contemporaries. Many have hyphenated names bound to be lost on readers without ears trained since childhood for such aristocratic nuances. The great love of her life was Maj. Charles Hotham Montagu Doughty-Wylie of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Friends called him Dick.


When they met, he was married and she was a virgin.


“For Gertrude, intrepid as she was, sex was the final frontier,” Howell writes. In her mid-40s, Bell couldn’t bring herself to cross that border with her beloved, though furtive attempts were made. He went off to serve and die in Britain’s ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, carrying only a walking stick into battle against Turkish gunners.


When World War I ended with the Turkish Empire’s defeat, Bell lobbied tirelessly for its Arab inhabitants to be given their independence. It was probably her achievement, though credit is usually given to T.E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as Lawrence of Arabia. (Such is the benefit of being played in a movie by Peter O’Toole.) But it was certainly Bell who successfully argued for Iraq to be one part Kurdish, another Shiite, a third Sunni—a formula whose inherent problems plague us still.


She baby-sat her creation, serving as chief adviser to Iraq’s first King Faisal, until taking an overdose of sleeping pills in 1926. Perhaps she was discouraged by reverses in her family’s fortunes and fearful of being alone in old age, having never married. Yet she’ll not be forgotten while there’s a soul alive to be moved by bittersweet romance. Indeed, her translation of Hafiz rings poetically true with Bell’s name substituted for his:


Yet when sad lovers meet and tell their sighs
Not without praise shall Hafiz’ name be said,
Not without tears, in those pale companies
Where joy has been forgotten and hope has fled.


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