I first ran across the name Gertrude Bell when I was looking up, of all things, information on Salukis. I found quotes and accounts of a woman traveling in the Middle East early in the 20th century with a huge amount of stuff (wardrobe, fine dining service, portable bath, etc.) and not the least, the ancient dog of the desert, the Saluki. I wondered who she was and what she did and was terribly envious of her desert travels; I made a note to myself to look for a book about her, a note which I promptly forgot.
Fortunately, this summer I read a review of Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell, and was able to make good on my earlier promise to find out more about Bell. Not to mention the Salukis.
Gertrude Bell was an heiress, the daughter of the sixth wealthiest family in England. The money gave her freedom--she was well-educated, even taking a first in Modern History at Oxford (though women weren't given degrees at that time). She had the kind of extended social circle that meant a vacation was a summer in Bucharest with relatives who were diplomats. When Gertrude became involved in mountain climbing, she could afford to hire a top flight crew to take her all over the most dangerous peaks in the Alps. Her interest in the Middle East began when (of course) an uncle heading to Teheran to begin an ambassadorship invited her to come along and visit. Some time picking up a little Arabic at the School of Oriental Studies before the trip was a matter of course. In other words, Miss Bell had wide-ranging interests, but also the luxury to pursue them all.
On that trip to Teheran, Bell fell in love with the Middle East and made herself an expert on it. She learned to speak Arabic fluently, met with archaeologists to learn about the region's antiquities, and traveled amongst the Bedouin tribes to learn more about them. When Britain found itself trying to manage the crumbling Ottoman Empire into modern nations, Bell was called in to provide background about the area. The British government was impressed enough that Bell ended up staying on and helping with turning the place known as Mesopotamia into Iraq.
Her friend and colleague T.E. Lawrence became more famous, due to better publicity, but Bell was just as, if not more--okay, surely more--responsible for creating the borders, uniting the typically independent tribal chiefs under the British-chosen monarch, King Faisal, and helping act as a liaison between the new nation that didn't want to be seen as a British colonial property and the British, who were scared of what might happen if they stepped away.
(It is worth mentioning that things in Iraq in 1920 were just as difficult as they are now. History does indeed repeat, and usually in the most inglorious ways).
Bell led a fascinating life and Howell loves her subject. This is good in that a book always benefits when a writer is enthusiastic; however, Howell may have loved her subject too much. You can look far and wide without success to find even the teensiest hint of a flaw in Bell or her actions in this book. The problem with that is when you read a book, and the main person, fictional or real, never seems to do anything wrong or have any weaknesses, it's hard not to become skeptical, because you know really no one is that perfect and you wonder what is being left out. When a person's actions or attitudes are never questioned, you wonder why.
For one thing, Howell never seems to deal with the idea that Bell really was a creature of her class: when it came to women's suffrage, she dismissed the idea because she thought voting was an unnecessary luxury for the poor working women who were busy taking care of their homes and families; implicit in this is the idea that if voting had been reserved just for the monied and propertied, Bell might have been more open to the idea. And for all her efforts to build Iraq, it feels more like she was doing it for the tribal leaders and future royalty that she met; there aren't stories about her venturing out amongst the people and getting to know them in her adopted home of Baghdad.
I found the structure of the book a bit puzzling. Call me Miss Linear, but Howell moves Bell's life ahead for a while, including her first visits to the Middle East, then jumps back to cover her foray into mountaineering. She then jumps back ahead and at some points I found myself not easily tracking Bell's age. Most disturbingly (for me at least), Howell covers the entire beginning, middle, and end of one of Bell's relationships, mentioning in passing a hazardous desert journey. Then after the story of the relationship was over, she goes back and covers the journey in detail. This would be fine, I guess, except we already had learned that said person in relationship died a few years after the journey, so to jump back into reading letters from him while she was traveling is a bit offputting.
Bell died at age 58, found one morning with the cause of death written up as an overdose of sedatives. Most accounts I read about Bell (while trying to answer this question) said that she was a suicide, but Howell seems reluctant to come right out and say this. She notes that Bell had left a note the day before for a friend to take care of her dog (presumably a Saluki), but doesn't go any further than that, nor does she discuss any reasons why Bell might or might not have killed herself. Earlier on she had alluded to Bell being quite ill at the time, noting a "revelation" she had shared with her stepmother, mentioning that Bell's lifetime smoking habit was catching up with her; did she have cancer and killed herself in self-induced euthanasia? I don't know and I wished Howell had covered this more. Or if she was unsure, at least have said so. As it is, the ending feels a little incomplete, because one wonders why this woman who had so many accomplishments and seemed to have a rich, full life would suddenly commit suicide.
Finally, I was somewhat put off by Howell's tendency to try to fill in blanks with imaginary thoughts and events. She introduces scenes with words like, "it might have gone like this," and then tells what might have happened. Well, it very well might have...or it might not have. She begins one section with something like, "Gertrude could have.." and goes off to describe an incredibly detailed, dramatic scene that if true, would have been one of the turning points of Bell's life, but there seems to be only minimal, minimal backing for what Howell imagines might have happened. The event is covered with such specificity that I began to feel unsure whether it really did happen or not and combed through the notes, trying to find a source, but as far as I could see, the description in the book was just speculation. I understand that the job of a biographer can be difficult, because no matter how much source material you have, you know there are things left out, things that were never documented, that might change the entire life of a person. But I don't feel like it's very helpful for readers to go off into flights of fancy unless they are clearly defined as theories, with an explanation of what evidence this theory is based on.
All this aside, the book is a pretty good read. Howell recounts many spectacular adventures; Bell undoubtedly led a remarkable life, and the time period in which she lived (early 20th century) was just as remarkable. The excerpts from Bell's letters and diaries are wonderful indicators of the talent Bell had for making a time and place come to life (though perhaps too much--Howell notes that Bell's papers sometimes are overwhelming and disorganized in their detail). Yet despite all that, I was feeling a bit chilly towards Miss Bell, mostly suffering from the aforementioned skepticism at Bell's seeming perfection. Then Howell tells the story of Bell's one great love, and my precarious heart broke for her, or maybe for me, this being the last kind of story I need to read right now. It ended badly for Bell (he was married, died at Gallipoli) and she wrote this about it after his death:
"I wonder, if I could choose, whether I would not have the past year again, for the wonder it held, and bear the sorrow again."
I ask myself that too, Miss Bell, and get different answers on different days.