Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
By Georgiana Howell
Read June 2018
One of the book clubs to which I belong gave an assignment: choose, read, and present a biography (or memoir or autobiography) of your choice. I choose biography to learn about the person through research done by someone else vs self. I actually enjoyed working on the selection of the book to read. I had learned about Gertrude Bell, and the meeting of 40 that divided up the Middle East into countries to be controlled by Britain, France, and Russia, through a historical fiction book. Although many are familiar with the name “Lawrence of Arabia”, far fewer are familiar with Gertrude Bell, including myself. I chose this book to learn about the person of Gertrude Bell and how she influenced the course of Middle East history/conflicts.
Apparently this book differs from other biographies of Gertrude Bell by NOT focusing on the part of her life devoted to the Middle East. Rather, this book tells a rather complete history of Gertrude from her early youth through death. The chapters are arranged somewhat chronologically but also tell about discrete aspects of her life. Since during her adult life she was both climbing mountains and travelling in the Middle East and involved with two loves of her life, the chapters are helpfully focused on individual aspects. While some reviewers complained about the amount of detail provided, I rather enjoyed it
Gertrude never married. Her first love, to whom she hope to become engaged, was not deemed suitable by her family as a marriage partner. Gertrude was understandably heart broken. Her near finance died a few years later. Her second love was a married man, a military hero turned military counsel. Their acquaintance turns into friendship and then love. Gertrude hopes he will leave his wife but he won’t; she doesn’t become his mistress although they pursue their unconsummated love affair through letters for quite some time. Dick Doughty-Wylie also leaves Gertrude’s life completely through death, this time in 1915 in France in a battle.
The world may be a different place if Gertrude had married or if she had not had a substantial income by way of inheritance of family wealth. Unburdened by a home to manage and children to raise or the need to work to make her own living, Gertrude literally traveled the world and became expert in many skills. She became an expert mountaineer, gaining a reputation for both skill and courage. She studied archeology and co-authored books on ruins she helped excavate. These efforts win her election to Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society and becoming the first woman to receive a RGC award. She traveled extensively and took on a quest to understand the geography and culture of what we now call the Middle East. By means of her solo expeditions (she and her company that carried her equipment, set it up, and cooked for her) in 1900, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913 she traversed (current day) Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Her travels demonstrated once again her focus, courage, and lust for learning. Despite sometimes ferocious heat, cold, sun, and sand, she journeyed on atop her camel and successfully covered the routes she carefully planned. She learned, through trial and error, how to gain audience with tribal chiefs and, by learning their language, was able to converse deeply and knowingly with them about their art, literature, and politics.
The knowledge she gained during her adventures provided her unique capability to serve in a variety of mainly non-commissioned military counsel roles in various parts of the Middle East and India. She writes numerous papers on the governance structure her Middle East travels revealed to her. She participates directly in the Paris Peace Conference on the future of Mesopotamia as well as the Cairo Conference that defines how Britain, France, and Russia will “divide up” the Middle East. She influences and acts directly in establishing borders in the Middle East and in setting up governments in Syria and Iraq. She drives for a referendum in newly formed Iraq regarding its leader. As a result of the referendum, Faisal ibn Hussain ibn Ali, who she recruits after being deposed in Syria and recommends for the role, is crowned Faisal I of Iraq in 1920. She continues to support establishing Iraq as a nation until she dies in 1926. She is accorded a military funeral and is buried in the British Cemetery, Baghdad.
This book relies substantially on Gertrude’s correspondence as a primary source for the details provided. Gertrude wrote at least weekly to her family whether or not she could post the letters during some of her travels. Her correspondence with Dick Doughty-Wylie is also frequent and revealing of their feelings and actions. I’m not sure such correspondence exists for current political, cultural, or business leaders or that it can provide the depth of understanding of their thoughts or character as we have of Gertrude Bell. Fortunately Georgina Howell read her correspondence and used it, and other sources, to weave a fascinating look at this important, but little hyped, Shaper of Nations.