Woman Without Fear

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Queen of the Desert,

Shaper of Nations

By Georgina Howell

Farrar Straus Giroux. 481 pp. $27.50

Late Victorian England was the best place in history to be a rich man. You had telephones and cars, lots of servants, great tailors, good food, and of course a hefty portion of the globe at your command. Your opinions carried weight. Women learned small talk and French in order to please you. You stood at the very pinnacle of the evolutionary struggle. And then, as this colorful new biography suggests, there was Gertrude.

Explorer, travel writer, translator of Sufi verse, intelligent, devoid of fear, Gertrude Bell was a scholar and a spy whose extraordinary career spanned the heyday of the British Empire and culminated in the creation of Iraq. She seems to have excelled at everything she tried -- except finding someone to fall in love with her.

From the outset she was something of a phenomenon. She came from a supremely rich industrialist family in Yorkshire; the Bells were liberal and well-connected. Her perceptive stepmother allowed Gertrude first to attend school, and then go up to Oxford, where her formidable intellect and self-confidence made her the first woman to take a first in Modern History, in 1888. She was later to be the first woman to receive a prize from the Royal Geographical Society and the first woman officer to work for British military intelligence. She was not a feminist, however; she was a leading light in the campaign to deny women the vote.

Marriage was the target at which women were locked and loaded. Not Bell. She was presented at court, like other girls of her class; but rather than pursue a husband she established her reputation as a fearless mountaineer, climbing unscaled Alpine peaks in her underwear. A visit to Tehran awakened her interest in the Middle East, and within two years she had not only mastered classical Persian but also published an acclaimed translation of the poetry of Hafiz. Arabic came next, with well-equipped expeditions into the Arabian desert, meeting with Bedouin, surveying archaeological sites. She traveled as a desert queen, with a train of servants and voluminous luggage -- parasols, pistols, evening gowns, a canvas bath, silver hairbrushes, the works. Handing out Zeiss telescopes to the sheikhs she encountered in their tents, she amassed an extraordinary knowledge of the politics and personalities of the Arab world. It was this that made her briefly indispensable to the British government, after the outbreak of World War I.

Georgina Howell recounts these stories with a wide-eyed admiration that is, for the most part, infectious, and her long book is a gripping read. Often pursuing themes in Bell's life, rather than bald chronology, she introduces her readers to the atmosphere of Oxford colleges, to the perils and excitements of the Alps, and to the dangers and decorum of desert life. If the book has a flaw, it is that Howell is too entranced by her subject to give the reader the critical distance in which to view and form a judgment on Bell's career. The more Howell admires her subject, the more we are tempted to doubt. Can she really stand beside Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great? What are we to make of a rival traveler and writer, Sir Mark Sykes, fulminating nastily in a letter to his wife: "Confound the silly, chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!"

Howell delicately avoids the ramifications of Bell's actions as the midwife of modern Iraq. We know that Iraq was a mess. Anglo-French policy in the Middle East was a double-cross. In order to divert the Turks from the Dardanelles and secure the oil fields of Iraq, the British encouraged a pan-Arab revolt against the tottering Ottoman empire, engineered by Bell's irrepressible old friend T.E. Lawrence. Bell knew, as he did, that Allied promises of a fully independent Arabia were hollow. The French were set on gaining control of Syria, and everyone wanted to bash the Turks; the British wanted their oil. Bell herself was very fond of Faisal, scion of an aristocratic family in Mecca who grew up to be a brave warrior and went out of his way to court her, and so she found him a kingdom: Iraq, which was strung together out of the most unlikely constituents. The British did their best to run it on the cheap.

For Bell herself, the outcome must have been disappointing. Rather than allow the treasures of Mesopotamia to be carted off to foreign museums, she established the National Museum in Baghdad. (It was looted, tragically, in 2003.) By the mid-'20s she was a marginalized figure in Baghdad, where she died in 1926 at the age of 57. The empty pill box by her bed suggested suicide. ยท

-- Jason Goodwin's books include "Lord of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company