Rising to many challenges

This is my review of Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell.

The great wealth of the steel-making Bell family gave Gertrude the means, confidence and connections to pursue a succession of interests. After becoming the first woman to be awarded a First in Modern History at Oxford, Gertrude found the conventions of upper class life in late Victorian England far too constraining. She became a linguist, translator of Persian poetry, mountaineer who achieved a number of “first” ascents of challenging peaks, archaeologist, desert traveller, writer, intelligence officer, confidante of King Faisal in the newly formed Iraq of the 1920s and Director of Antiquities who established a museum in Baghdad.

She was clearly enthralled by the romance of Arab desert culture, not least the handsome sheikhs in their striking robes, who may have accepted her because she was so unlike any other woman they had ever met: when she came to their tents bearing gifts and wearing evening dress, they called her “the Khatun” or “Desert Queen” but when she appeared in breeches riding astride she probably seemed to them more like a man.

Georgina Howell’s heavy use of lengthy extracts from letters and reports is as effective as she intended in conveying a sense of Gertrude’s ability to communicate, great energy, enthusiasm and wry wit. We gain a strong sense of a determined, opinionated woman who was often unconsciously snobbish – anticipating the need to correct the governess likely to call napkins "serviettes" – and contemptuous of “quite pleasant little wives” who meekly conformed.

At times, I was aware of repetition, or longwinded description that is hard to digest, but in the main the author’s marshalling of a mass of information is quite impressive. I find her a little too uncritical of Gertrude’s active campaigning as founding secretary of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908: the idea that do-gooding visits with her mother to the homes of the working poor had convinced her that women “at the end of their tether” managing families on a tight budget simply did not have time to gain the education to vote seems patronising, even hypocritical in someone so resolved on fulfilment in her own life.

Yet, Gertrude was in some ways quite conventional: in her early twenties, she accepted her parents’ rejection of a fiancé considered to lack the means to support her, although his death in ambiguous circumstances shortly afterwards must have haunted her. Love was the one area in which success eluded her – a prolonged affair was doomed since it was with a married man who clearly had no intention of leaving his wife, while despite her physical bravery it seems Gertrude could not find the courage to consummate their relationship.

Perhaps owing to lack of evidence, Georgina Howell glosses over Gertrude’s probable suicide on finding herself in her late fifties having run out of fresh challenges with only the bleak prospect of a painful death from decades of chain-smoking. I often had a sense of a life frenetically packed with activity which masked an inner unsatisfied longing.

I suspect that Gertrude’s role in the formation of an independent, “democratic” Iraq is slightly exaggerated, but it is a fascinating tale which inspires me to read more about Arab history. The parallels with today are very striking: the unstable union of tribes over which Faisal attempted to hold sway, the reluctance to accept British support in keeping control, the difficulty of defining a border with Turkey and accommodating the Kurds, the divisive Shia-Sunni conflicts prompting Gertrude’s “blackest hatred” for Ibn Saud’s Akhwan (now Wahabis) “with their horrible fanatical appeal to a medieval faith…. the worst example of an omnipotent religious sanction”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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