Every now and then I come across a new historical figure and I think
HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS PERSON WHAT HAS THE WORLD BEEN DOING THIS JUST SHOWS HOW MUCH STUFF GETS LOST
Usually that person is a woman, although not always. Gertrude Bell is the most recent of these people. I don’t even remember how I heard about her – it might have been in passing in a podcast or something? – at any rate the moment I heard about her I went online to see if there was a biography about her. There are two, I think, modern biogs; this seemed to be the better rated, and so I immediately bought it. Since then my mother has read it, since I always have too many books to be read, and she loved it; then we spent some time together which just happened to coincide with Nicole Kidman’s movie about Bell being at the cinema, so we went to see it and I was pushed to move my reading of this bio to the front of the reading queue.
Gertrude Bell might be described as the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’, but really it would be more accurate to say that he was the male Gertrude Bell, since I think she had more adventures and was more involved in the immediate post-WW1 decisions regarding Mesopotamia.
Bell was born into an immensely wealthy family (which seems to have been devastated, along with everyone else, in the late 20s), and appears to have had a fairly happy childhood despite the loss of her mother early on – she got a stepmother eventually who was very loving. Given she was born in 1868, Bell had an extraordinary education – she had one outside of the home – including graduating with first class Honours in History from Oxford, the first woman to do so. She was bored at home and so she took to travelling, usually to places where the family had connections, at first in Europe. She took up mountaineering and was the first to attempt, and the first to complete, several climbs in the Alps. Not the first woman, the first (with her guides).
Eventually, Bell ended up in the Middle East – Mesopotamia as the British called it – and she undertook several voyages across the desert, visiting tribes and investigating archaeological sites and going places where few, if any, European travellers had ever been – and certainly no European women. She learnt Arabic and befriended sheikhs and learned about tribal relationships and mapped areas extensively. All of this came in handy in WW1 when the British wanted to use this area to get at the Turks, who of course were on the side of Germany; Bell got an official position as an adviser. And then after WW1, amid the machinations of what to do with this area with the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, Bell was there, trying to guide the British to guide the Arabic people to self-determination and independence.
It’s clear that Bell was not always a nice person to be around. She was very dismissive of women who did not meet her standards – boring little wives – which of course was incredibly unfair given the systemic prejudices women were dealing with, and it seems that Bell sometimes ignored her remarkable privilege in that area. She was also, it seems, quite ignorant of her economic privilege; only someone who doesn’t have to worry about money doesn’t worry about money. Nonetheless the turnout for her funeral, in Baghdad, testifies to the immense respect she commanded from the British and Arabic populations with whom she had worked for so long. The principal wing of the Iraq Museum was designated the Gertrude Bell Room, because of her tireless work in setting it up and ensuring that archaeological remains would actually remain in Iraq; I can’t help but wonder whether this still exists.
I am so glad I got to know about Gertrude Bell.
Regarding the biography itself: I was a bit annoyed, early on, by the way Howell structured her book. Bell never married but came close, early on, getting engaged to a man that her family – when they learned of this – deemed unsuitable because of his debts and financial position; he died soon after in what may, or may not, have been suspicious circumstances (pneumonia after swimming in a river). She also had a non-physical affair with a married man later in life, Dick Doughty-Wylie, whose death at Gallipoli devastated her. My problem was that Howell gave the latter relationship, in particular, its own set of chapters that were quite outside of the chronology: outlining all of the torturous ins and outs, and then going back to fill in where she was – like travelling across the desert or working for the Red Cross in France during WW1 – while she was being in love. This, for me, prioritises the romantic angle above the other things in her life, and that doesn’t make sense. Even if Howell is right in suggesting that some things Bell did in order to prove herself to, or provoke, Doughty-Wylie, to separate events out artificially doesn’t do justice to Bell’s amazing life. And I do think that Howell emphasises Bell’s connection to Doughty-Wylie a bit much – to the point that the last paragraph of the entire bio reflects on one evening they had together in Bell’s childhood home, rather than on the fact that Bell was the Honorary Director of Antiquities for Iraq, say, whose death prompted a letter to her parents from the King and Queen of England and a statement from the Colonial Secretary in the House of Commons.
It is, overall, a well-written biography, and one I immensely enjoyed. Everyone should know about about Gertrude Bell.