Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
by Georgina Howell
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 512 pp., 16 pp. illus.
Reviewed by Julia M. Asher-Greve
The book under review is the most recent of numerous biographies of Gertrude L. Bell (1868-1926), one of the most famous (British) women of her generation. It is admittedly difficult to do justice to Bell’s many achievements, which include an excellent translation of Persian poetry, some of the best travel writing, exploration, archaeology, cartography, ethnography and, last but not least, politics. But Georgina Howell (known for her books and articles on fashion) presents a version of Bell’s life more hagiographic than biographic; the author admits that Bell is “my heroine,” extending her adulation to Bell’s step-mother, and subscribes unconditionally to Bell’s views. The book is devoid of any critical evaluation or contextual knowledge of Middle Eastern history, Iraqi politics and archaeology. Surprisingly this book was on the shortlist for Britain’s most prestigious non-fiction prize (the Samuel Johnson Prize) in 2007, but I don’t think it rises to that level. Currently, the best book on Gertrude Bell is Liora Lukitz’s A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006).
Gertrude Lowthian Bell was born into a wealthy industrial family, with relatively progressive views concerning her upbringing and education that allowed her to develop her talents and pursue diverse interests and projects. She also benefited from her family’s connections among the social, political, economic, intellectual and artistic elites. One of the first women to graduate (with highest honors) from Oxford in 1888 (she could not receive an official degree because women were ineligible to receive degrees until 1920), she continued to satisfy her hunger for knowledge with education at home and with the help of private teachers.
Since her first travel abroad to Germany in 1887, Bell knew travel could enlarge knowledge. Between her graduation and her first expedition to the “Orient,” she traveled to many parts of the world. At age 33 she embarked for the first time alone on a voyage to the Near East, residing in Jerusalem, taking intensive Arabic lessons, traveling widely in the region, and spending her time largely among Muslim men who treated her as an “honorary man.” Thus could she, for the first time, escape the constraints of her gender, as many other women travelers in the “Orient” experienced. For the following 28 years, until her death, the “Orient” became the focus of Bell’s life and work. She conducted expeditions, surveys, archaeological excavations and finally, during and after World War I, was engaged in administrative/political capacities. Howell is no exception in emphasizing Bell’s work in intelligence-gathering and the British post-war administration. But these tasks were common among archaeologists who excavated in the Near East before World War I as they were among the few familiar with Arabic, local geography, customs and people. Unusual about Bell was that she was the only woman. Using her connections, she gained influence in the political arena and in the formative process of the Iraqi state. Like many of her male colleagues, she had no prior administrative or political experience, but her knowledge of the Near East was a rare asset.
Bell was one of only two women (the other is Jane Dieulafoy1 who excavated in the Near East at the beginning of the 20th century, the only one who conducted expeditions to remote areas accompanied only by local men, and the only woman working in an official political position in the Near East during and after World War I. But after her death, Bell’s achievements soon vanished from public memory. Archaeologists were among the few who did not forget, because Bell founded the Iraq Museum and left a legacy for The British School of Archaeology in Iraq. She published her expeditions and archaeological work in the Near East in several books and articles of which The Desert and the Sown (1907) became a bestseller, reprinted several times and translated into several languages. Bell’s archaeological books and thousands of photographs are still valuable sources for archaeologists and art historians2 Her talent as a writer is also evident in her letters to her family.3
Bell is considered “unique” because she was one of the few women in her generation who succeeded in more than one area; only her contemporary Jane Dieulafoy, the French explorer, archaeologist, travel writer, novelist and war heroine compares in courage, endurance, erudition and literary ability. Bell corresponded with Jane’s husband Marcel Dieulafoy, and the two women probably met in Paris. Even if Bell had not been involved in the creation of Iraq, she would still count among the most accomplished women. Her fame, however, rests predominantly on her influence in Middle Eastern political affairs.
In the late 1970s Bell had a comeback in feminist and gender studies, and as a controversial figure in the ongoing Orientalist debate initiated by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Interest in Bell also reappeared when Iraq made headlines. During the Gulf war and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bell was mentioned in numerous articles and books, often together with Lawrence of Arabia as the two most influential British officials in Middle Eastern politics and the ill-fated creation of Iraq, an artificial state whose history is saturated with rebellions, military coups, massacres, assassinations and wars. Subsequent to the occupation of Baghdad and looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, several biographies were published, rendering Howell’s popular version of Bell’s life somewhat superfluous. A more critical biography, absent until now, would better serve Bell’s prodigious talents.
1. E. Gran-Amyrich, “Jane Dieulafoy, 1851-1916,” in G.M. Cohen and M.J. Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004; paperback edition 2006), pp. 34-67.
2. J.M. Asher-Greve, “Gertrude L. Bell (1868-1926),” in Cohen and Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground, pp. 142-197.
Julia M. Asher-Greve is a prominent figure in the field of women and gender studies. She is co-founder of the Women’s Association of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, as well as NIN: Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity.
This book review originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug 2008, 68, 70.