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Gertrude Bell is my hero. The books that she wrote about her extraordinary journeys through the Levant and Mesopotamia filled me with awe at her adventurous spirit, her life outside of the norms of Victorian England and her mastery of complex languages such as Farsi and Arabic. You can read my reviews of her books Syria, the Desert and the Sown and Amurath to Amurath by clicking on the links and there I explain why I admire her so much. Journalist Georgina Howell wrote a biography of Gertrude Bell called Queen of the Desert – The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. A biography was also published in 1996 by Janet Wallach and this blog post provides a useful comparison of the two biographies. She is not well enough known and hopefully biographies like these will help to increase her fame.
I admit that after watching the film of the biography and listening to an interview of Howell, on the BBC, I was not inspired to read the biography. I was concerned that not only did Howell idolise Bell (and other reviewers have accused Howell of hagiography) but also that she put too much emphasis on her gender and sex life (or lack of it).
Not that I’m packing to leave Norway and actively culling possessions for the repatriation to Australia, I decided to read the book and see whether my prejudice was justified. At 518 pages it is a big undertaking to read this book but I found that the writing style was easy and interesting enough to read that I finished it in 3 weeks. My intention here is not to give a summary of the book or her life because there are several good summaries on GoodReads already. Instead I want to record some of my reflections on the book.
Howell devotes the first 98 pages of the book to Bell’s life before her first exploration of the Levant, Mesopotamia and eventually Arabia. It is very interesting to read about Bell’s earlier life but considering that her greatest and most lasting accomplishment was her influence in the founding of Iraq, it is surprising that only one third of the book focuses on that. There is no mention of the giant mess that Iraq is in now, at least partly due to the Ottoman preference of the Sunni minority and the British continuation of that. Bell dismissed the Shia majority as being uneducated and incapable of governing Iraq. Instead the British, at the suggestion of her and T.E. Lawrence imported the son of the Sharif of Mecca (a direct descendant of the Prophet) to be the first King of Iraq. He was a Bedouin warrior who knew nothing of Mesopotamia.
Howell must have done a tremendous amount of reading through correspondence and diaries and other research to write this book. Compared with the many books that I have read about the history of the region, I think that Howell’s book is mostly accurate and she did a very good job.
It is also rather tedious to read about her love affair with the married officer Doughty-Wylie. He seems to have been a womaniser and I suspect that she was naive in believing in his affections. Interestingly, Howell makes no comment about Bell openly pursuing a married man, presumably she felt that the responsibility to consideration for his wife is solely his but I disagree. I feel that both parties in an extra-marital affair are equally at fault. Her letters and diary entries about that doomed love show a lack of maturity on her part, which is to be expected in someone who only had one boyfriend.
When I read the two books written by Bell about her adventures in the Levant and Mesopotamia I noted that she made very little mention of the hardships of the journeys. Since then I’ve read Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and Burnaby’s A Ride to Khiva. Both of those books describe almost unendurable hardships and I realised that in contrast Bell actually travelled in style and at very great expense, Howell calculated the cost of her trip to Hail in modern-day Saudi Arabia at close to $60,000 USD adjusted to today’s value. She employed a caravan to carry her goods, which included table linen, a bath, silverware and a Wedgewood dining set. I also realised that her journeys in the Levant and Mesopotamia were varied and interesting because of the relatively short distances between villages and the wealth of archaeological ruins, by contrast her one foray into the desert wastelands of the Arabian peninsula are punctuated by her understandable complaints about boredom.
For someone who was well connected to different tribal groups in Mesopotamia (modern-day) Iraq, I found it surprising that she was not more considerate to cultural norms, like purdah (the sequestration of women) and she wrote that wearing the veil was against her principles. When I am in Saudi Arabia I wear the hijab out of respect for the culture and consideration for the women and it doesn’t bother me to wear it. She is patronising towards the Arab people and she speaks indulgently of the few Arab women that she interacts with as if they are ignorant children. She did not support the women’s suffrage movement in England and I suspect that she felt that she was one of the few women worthy of the vote and of ‘sitting with the men’.
It shows in the biography that Howell was the Fashion Editor for a newspaper and worked for a fashion magazine. She frequently refers to what Bell wore. It is interesting to read about this, up to a point, but it also served to further distance Bell from the reader, the fast majority of whom will never wear couture nor have servants to prepare our clothing for us.
Howell includes many quotes from Bell’s letters, predominantly to her father and step-mother. I know that she was from a wealthy background and the Victorian era but honestly her writing style in her letters is tedious and boastful. All of that business about being a Person and the name dropping and talk of how much different people admired her was annoying but I suppose that her parents must have encouraged it. All-in-all Bell was an unlikeable person with an abrasive personality, a silver spoon firmly wedged in her mouth, she was very spoilt and failed to learn how to get along with people. Howell goes to lengths to explain that Bell was an excellent conversationalist and I suspect that in the honeymoon period when first she met someone and felt that he (or rarely she) was on her side, of elevated enough position to be useful to her, and that person respected and admired her that she would have been fascinating to talk to but as Lawrence remarked, she quickly turned on people and burnt bridges. I don’t know if I would have gotten along with her; perhaps for a short while if I was of some use to her.
My reflections sound overwhelmingly negative. That is simply because I stand by my statement that she is my hero BUT that doesn’t mean that I had to love the book nor that I have to like Bell! I am glad that I read the book and it was good to return to characters from the Druze, Kurdish and Sunni communities that I had read about in Bell’s books.
Learning languages is a hobby of mine; currently I’m learning Norwegian and before that I was learning Arabic and before that Polish. This passage struck a chord with me because despite living in Norway for 2 years I still fail to understand most jokes and idioms in Norwegian. I have enormous admiration for Bell for her dedication to learning languages. Perhaps if I was an heir to a great fortune (Bell’s family were the 6th wealthiest in Britain) and I didn’t have a husband and children, and lots of friends (Bell never married nor had children and her personality was so abrasive and she was so mean and dismissive of almost all other women that she had few friends), I would have the time to dedicate to learning languages properly like Bell but dedication like hers was rare and as she noted, very few of the English women in Arabia bothered to learn any Arabic:
Persia had been infinitely more interesting to her (Gertrude) by her knowledge of the language. But as Florence (her stepmother) wrote, ‘She had not yet reached the stage in which the learner of a language finds with rapture that a new knowledge has been acquired, the illuminating stage when no literal meaning only of words is being understood, but their values and differences can be critically appreciated. It was not long before Gertrude was reading Persian poetry by this light’.