Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

An extraordinary life of a privileged woman, Georgina Howell has catalogued the letters, life and times of Gertrude Bell in Queen of the Desert.  In a way this is not just the biography of a historical figure, but the story of the history around them.  Bell actively built herself into history and was present at so many events I incidentally learnt about key 20th Century events as well her own life.  She is a deeply flawed woman – completely privileged and completely unaware of what her privilege has given her – but her boldness, smarts and determination gave her a great, interesting life, and ended up shaping the world as we know it.

Born to a wealthy English father with his industrial revolution wealth, Bell appears as a precocious, precious child.  Whip-smart with a voracious curiosity and capacity to learn, Bell seemed aware from a very early age the power this gave her, and she used it whenever it suited.  She tore through life, flourished in university, and then set her gaze to the rest of the world, ready for exploration.  Having experienced love and romance but remaining unmarried, Bell started journeying to the Middle East and Mesopotamia, a world so much bigger, conflicted and complex than anything she had seen before.

“The prospect for the nucleus British administration in Baghdad was dismal, the future opaque.  Roughly half of Mesopotamia was under precarious British control, but the Turks were fighting on in the north.  Arabs spoke a common language but were not a common people.  Mesopotamia was not a country but a province of a derelict empire.  Iraq was not a nation.  The very names caused confusion.  Mesopotamia, Greek for ‘between the rivers’, was the historic and archaeological term used in the West for what the Arabs called ‘Al Iraq’, ‘the Iraq’.”

Bell was so lucky to see what she did and go where she went – but she did make some of her own luck.  Through a combination of confidence, language, privilege, money and straight out bullishness, she was able to travel through parts of world previously unseen by others of her country, and interact with the leaders of ancient and sometimes dangerous tribes and cultures.  Her language, poetry studies and travels gave her an incredible respect and understanding for the worlds she travelled through, however sometimes it is jarring how she talks of her lone travels – ignoring her caravan of local assistants – simply because she has no white fellow travellers.  It seems the respect only extends to the locals she meets she deems of the same class as her.

She was a dedicated diarist and correspondent, and a beautiful writer.  When the mood struck her, when the light was right, the worlds she saw and communicated were so new, so wondrous.  And because of this extensive collection of documentation, Howell deliberately quotes at length from Bell’s own words.  To reduce the filter and interpretation on Bell’s experience is a smart move by this biographer: how can you add more to what your subject has already captured for themselves?

“The villages are not stationary, but shift as the flood falls and rises.  Many are built on a floating foundation of reed mats, with floating farmyards, on which the cows stand contentedly anchored, I must suppose, to palm trees…over each reed hut village rose the square mud tower of the shaikh’s fort, like squat church towers in a land of flooded fen.  The light and colour were beyond belief – I never saw such a landscape of such strange beauty…I am burnt to a cinder.”

But despite the coverage of the story and the scope of her life’s adventures, in the end it is quite simply hard to spend time with Gertrude Bell.  She is smug, rude and self-entitled, insufferable in her self-assuredness.  I completely appreciate that owning your own skills and experience is a great strength, however her behaviour so obviously and often indicated she believed she had nothing to learn from certain people and places, and she conducted herself accordingly.  To be so close-minded in some circumstances while completely banking on what you have learnt in others is an odd way to approach life, and is frustrating to read.  In addition, her bullishness and confidence may have taken her into experiences that no other white person has got into before, but the same bullishness makes her sometimes unforgivably rude.  Sometimes, it was simply tiring to be with Bell.

To compare her to a man is somewhat of an insult, because her experiences were so uniquely designed and shaped by her, but the best way to describe Bell is as a female Lawrence of Arabia.  What a life that is to read about, and to have a book which deliberately lengthily quotes Bell’s own words to capture the totality of experience throughout is the best way to communicate her life and how she managed to shape the world as we know it.

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