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Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of…

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

by Janet Wallach

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The author managed to convey an amazingly complex subject in a clear and engaging manner even to someone with no prior knowledge of the subject. Both the person and the early history of Iraq were fascinatingly presented ( )
  snash | Nov 1, 2018 |
It would be interesting to do parallel lives of Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. Both made their names as lone women travelers in the Middle East; both were successful authors; both were multilingual (Bell’s translation of the Persian poet Hafiz is still considered one of the best, and Persian wasn’t even her primary foreign language); both were adjuncts to the English diplomatic service; both were unlucky in love. The differences were great, though; Stark came from a “genteel impoverished” middle class family, while Bell’s family was extremely wealthy. Bell was formally educated at Oxford (at a time when that was quite rare for a woman); Stark was self-taught. When Stark travelled alone, she was really alone; while Bell’s idea of “alone” including a coterie of servants, several tents, an elaborate wardrobe, a folding canvas bathtub, a collapsible dining table, and a complete set of dinnerware with crystal – and she always dressed for dinner, even in the middle of the Arabian desert.

And Bell was a lot more influential than Stark in the diplomatic world; her travels had taken her through Syria, Arabia and Mesopotamia when they were still under Ottoman control (I had to be reminded that there was no “Iraq” in Ottoman times; instead there were separate provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basrah). Bell made the acquaintance of just about every prominent Arab in the area; she was somehow able to get herself treated as an “honorary man” and was able to get sheiks and holy men – many of whom had never seen an unveiled woman except their wives - to receive her and talk to her about politics. She was also trained as a surveyor and made maps of her travel areas; as a result when WWI started she was an invaluable resource.

Her personality was such, though, that she rubbed a number of her male colleagues the wrong way (one wrote home to his wife that the “… bitch … was a silly, chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering [sic] ass”. One assumes he toned down his language for his wife; perhaps he told his coworkers how he really felt.) Gradually, however, her genuine talents outweighed her interesting personality and her coworkers either learned to get along with her or resigned and went elsewhere. First assigned to draw maps and write reports a spare bedroom in Basrah with no official position or salary, the quality of her work gradually impressed the higher ups to the extent that she was eventually made a major in the Foreign Service (didn’t realize they had military ranks, but apparently so). In addition to her writing and maps, she hosted frequent dinner parties in Basrah and Baghdad mingling British diplomats with Arab sheiks and Jewish businessmen and picking up all sorts of useful political gossip. Her greatest triumph, though, was the 1921 Cairo conference which ended up establishing an Iraqi state; there a famous picture of her on a camel in front of the Sphinx, with Winston Churchill on her right and T.E> Lawrence on her left.

Alas, her romantic life was not a triumph. Biographer Janet Wallach speculates that she held men to an excessively high standard. Her one great love was apparently Dick Doughty-Wylie, “soldier, statesman, poet and adventurer, he was everything Gertrude dreamed of in a man”. Unfortunately, Doughty-Wylie was married. He and Bell met for four days in London in 1914 while Doughty-Wylie’s wife was in France; the letters Doughty-Wylie and Bell exchanged later suggest that there was a lot of “heavy petting” but no sex, because Bell drew back. Doughty-Wylie’s further letters suggested they could remain Platonic lovers; some of them are pretty turgid and sound like part of an indifferently written romance novel. The question became academic when Doughty-Wylie took a bullet to the head as an infantry captain at Gallipoli, and Bell never again engaged in anything serious.

And alas again, Bell’s diplomatic edifice also turned out to be built on sand. We know how Iraq ended up (this book was written in 1999). Bell had recognized the problem - nobody really thought of themselves as Iraqis, but as Sunni or Shi’ite or Kurdish or Arab or Baghdadi or Bedouin (or Jew or Christian, until they were all expelled or killed) – but she thought they would rally behind Faisal of Mecca as a King (and Faisal, in fact, was initially as least moderately popular). Didn’t last; even as Faisal was getting crowned in Baghdad his family was being expelled from the Arabian Peninsula by Ibn Saud.

And once there was an Iraq, there really wasn’t much use for Miss Bell any more. She was made the Curator of the Iraqi Museum but her diplomatic influence was over. Her family fortune evaporated and although she joked about having to go to the workhouse it obviously affected her. She had vague health problems; the fact the she chain-smoked Turkish cigarettes probably didn’t help. Her doctor prescribed sleeping pills; on July 11, 1926, three days before her 58th birthday she took an overdose. She was buried with full military honors.

As mentioned, Wallach’s writing sometimes has more of a romance novel than biography flavor. There are frequent and extensive descriptions of Bell’s clothing, right down to her lingerie. Initially I found this annoying, being used to more conventional biographies; however after a while I actually began to enjoy it; after all, Bell’s life was sort of like a romance novel. (And to be fair, in Bell’s role as a diplomatic hostess, her dress was important and a lot of her letters home ask for some piece of clothing or another to be sent from London. And sometimes her lingerie is directly relevant; Bell once smuggled a rifle and surveying equipment by packing them in with her underwear, correctly figuring that Ottoman authorities would be reluctant to rummage through a woman’s lacy underthings looking for contraband).

While Wallach’s writing about diplomacy and romance seems correct (not that I have much experience with either), she’s not very good with WWI history. She describes the war starting when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in the “Serbian capital of Sarajevo” and the Gallipoli campaign was supposedly organized to “cut off Turkish forces on their way to Baghdad”. Although this is egregiously wrong, it’s minor. Picture sections show Bell at various life stages, plus other figures in the story. Nice before and after WWI maps of the Middle East. Endnotes, but not numbered, just referenced by text.

There have been a number of Bell biographies; this is the first one I’ve read so I have no standard of comparison. I enjoyed it, though, even the mushy parts. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 6, 2017 |
Account of the life of Gertrude Bell ( )
  JackSweeney | Nov 28, 2017 |
I read this book because I was interested in the history of the Middle East prior to World War II. I knew the borders were changed by the British after WWI, and I was curious about what things were like there before that happened. My librarian recommended this book because Gertrude Bell was instrumental in the changes that were instituted. I learned what I wanted to know, but found it a slog. Yes, it was important to know her background and how she came to be on a first name basis with many of the key figures in the Arab world, and how she became a central figure in the British offices in Cairo and Baghdad. And yes, she was a remarkable woman for her time. But I was more interested in the area than I was in her and it took most of the book to get to what I wanted to know. Well written and researched. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary woman for any time, but especially for the time in which she lived....the Victorian Era of England, through WWI, to 1924.

Born into a wealthy industrialist family in northwest England in late mid 19th century, her mother died in childbirth when Gertrude was just three. As a young child she formed an unusually close bond with her father which was to last all her life. The family's wealth and social connections provided her with an unusual education for a woman of her time. It also supported her extensive travel through the Middle East, and for mountain climbing expeditions in Switzerland as a young woman.

These travels, her acquisition of Arabic languages, and knowledge of the customs and mores of the desert people made her valuable to the British Government as they tried to sort out how to deal with Iraq as a consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the close of WWI.

It's a fascinating story and proof that truth is often more engaging than fiction. ( )
  tangledthread | Feb 28, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385495757, Paperback)

A biography of the woman who, indirectly, was the catalyst for many of the troubles in the Middle East, including the Gulf War. In 1918, Gertrude Bell drew the region's proposed boundaries on a piece of tracing paper. Her qualifications for doing so were her extensive travel, her fluency in both Persian and Arabic, and her relationships with sheiks and tribal and religious leaders. She also possessed an ability to understand the subtle and indirect politeness of the culture, something many of her colonialist comrades were oblivious to. As a self-made statesman her sex was an asset, enabling her to bypass the ladder of protocol and dive into the business of building an Empire.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:26 -0400)

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Turning away from the privileged world of the "eminent Victorians," Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T. E. Lawrence's brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire. In this biography, Janet Wallach shows us the woman behind these achievements - a woman whose passion and defiant independence were at odds wit the confined and custom-bound England she left behind. Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history, and as a woman whose life was both a heartbreaking story and a grand adventure.… (more)

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