Desert Queen

Desert Queen

The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell : Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

Book - 1996
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Turning her back on her privileged life in Victorian England, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), fired by her innate curiosity, journeyed the world and became fascinated with all things Arab. Traveling the length and breadth of the Arab region, armed with a love for its language and its people, she not only produced several enormously popular books based on her experiences but became instrumental to the British foreign office. When World War I erupted, and the British needed the loyalty of the Arab leaders, it was Gertrude Bell's work and connections that helped provided the brain for T. E. Lawrence's military brawn. After the war she participated in both the Paris and Cairo conferences, played a major role in creating the modern Middle East, and was generally considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire. In this incident-packed biography, Janet Wallach reveals a woman whose achievements and independent spirit were especially remarkable for her times, and who brought the same passion and intensity to her explorations as she did to her rich romantic life. Too long eclipsed by Lawrence's fame, Gertrude Bell emerges in this first major biography as a woman whose accomplishments rank as crucial to world history (especially in light of the continuing geopolitical importance of the Middle East) and whose life was a grand adventure.
Publisher: New York : Doubleday, c1996.
ISBN: 9780385474085
Characteristics: xxv, 419 p., [16] leaves of plates :,ill., maps, ports. ;,24 cm.


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Jul 22, 2017

Bell, born into a rich Victorian family, lost her mother to childbirth before she was three. In a way, she never recovered from that loss. Her father tried to make it up to her, and they were each other's best friends all her life. But she allowed him to rule her even when she was living in the Middle East, refusing to let her marry the man she chose. Bell never learned to get along with women, beginning with her stepmother. After being one of the first women to earn a degree at Oxford, but failing to snag a husband in the requisite 3 yrs, she went to stay with a diplomat uncle in the Middle East, and was hooked. Here she no longer needed a chaperone to go shopping, or travel into the desert and meet tribal leaders on the men's side of the tent. Freedom at last! During WW I her archaeological and map making skills earned her a place in the British spy corps, though not everyone could put up with her difficult personality. Lawrence, for instance, may have been her ally, but he didn't like her--but then he didn't like many women. After the war, she helped create the country of Iraq, for the good of Britain, and helped King Faisal settle in, though he'd rather have been king of Syria. Eventually, all her friends went home or died, and she became very lonely. She never married or had children, to her regret. Though Wallach doesn't say so directly, I'd guess Bell was clinically depressed much of her life. In 1926, 57 and ill, she took an overdose of sleeping pills, and died in her sleep. A fascinating look at a talented, flawed woman.

Jul 13, 2016

I recommend reading Gertrude Bell's travelogue "The Desert and the Sown" to gain an appreciation of her adventurousness, intelligence, and tenacity in exploring in Syria which laid the foundation for her stateswoman role in creating the state of Iraq described in the latter third of this biography. The events in Mesopotamia, following the Great War, are revealing for the light they shed on the roots of contemporary turmoil in Iraq.


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Jul 13, 2016

A thorough biography of the English woman who had a major role in the creation of the state of Iraq in the decade following the First World War based on her knowledge of Middle Eastern languages, and familiarity with the local tribes and geography from first-hand exploration. The biography provides endnotes, an extensive bibliography, maps, and an index.

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