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Excerpt: 'Gertrude Bell'

by Georgina Howell
Jul 24, 2007

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Georgina Howell

It was summer, 1997. As contract writers for The Sunday Times Magazine, we had collected for dinner in a London restaurant at the invitation of the editor Robin Morgan, to hear his thoughts for the new winter features. Philip Norman, whose award-winning interviews have captured the magic and madness of rock 'n' roll; Vatican expert John Cornwell of Jesus College, Cambridge; Bryan Appleyard, who can explain advanced science and make it gloriously readable; and others were tucking into our duck en croûte when each of us was invited to write a feature for a series to be entitled "My Hero." I returned home excited: I knew who "My Heroine" would be, and I thought a reminder of her glorious life was overdue. The feature, published that October, provoked the biggest mailbag I'd had in thirty-six years of journalism.

At one time more famous than Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell chose to compete on male terms in a masculine world. She avoided all publicity. She would not have cared that in an opening sequence of the popular 1997 film The English Patient, her name was taken in vain by British soldiers poring over a map spread out on a folding table in a camouflage tent:

"But can we get through those mountains?"

"The Bell maps show a way."

Then: "Let's hope he was right."

He!

When I started to write about Gertrude Bell I revered her as one of those heroines of the Wilder Shores who followed their romantic notions here and there about the world. I loved the way she dressed and the way she lived—so stylishly, a pistol strapped to her calf under silk petticoats and dresses of lace and tucked muslin, her desert table laid with crisp linen and silver, her cartridges wrapped in white stockings and pushed into the toes of her Yapp canvas boots. She was not a feminist; she had no need or wish for special treatment. Like Mrs. Thatcher—admire her or despise her—she took on the world exactly as she found it. Only this was in the 1880s, when women were hardly educated or allowed to prove themselves outside the home.

The Bells were very rich: but it was not money that got Gertrude a First at Oxford, or helped her survive encounters with murderous tribes in the desert, or made her a spy or a major in the British army, or qualified her as poet, scholar, historian, mountaineer, photographer, archaeologist, gardener, cartographer, linguist, and distinguished servant of the state. In each of these fields she excelled, even pioneered. She was many-faceted—in this respect comparable with those giants among mankind, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great of Russia. T. E. Lawrence wrote that Gertrude was "born too gifted." But rigour was the real legacy that she was born with, and she was intensely proud of her family's pragmatism—their grasp of economics, the good management of their mighty steel business, and their public and private works of charity. When called upon, she dedicated herself to grinding, unglamorous office work: to the structuring and filing that transformed the wartime Wounded and Missing Office of the Red Cross from chaos to an efficiently functioning system; to the minutiae of administration and map-drawing; to the taking of hundreds of precise measurements at archaeological sites; and to the writing of reams of position papers in Basra and Baghdad.

Rising in three generations from artisan to high middle class, the Bells were beginning to marry into the aristocracy. They remained outside the great social networks of English life, those exclusive clubs that conferred inherited privilege and power and determined your prejudices, associates, and affiliations. Gertrude enjoyed a rare freedom from the traps that imprison us in the grooves of social life. She met the great and the good on equal terms, but she knew something of what it meant to be working class, and of how those families stood on a knife-edge between survival and precipitation into the street and the workhouse. Her clear, unequivocal vision cut straight through political correctness, self-importance, status, and fame. She gave no quarter to an opinionated bishop, a pompous statesman, or a self-satisfied professor. At fifteen she decided that the unprovable did not exist, and told her scripture teacher so without prevarication. She would meet people head on—whether a patronizing don, a knife-waving dervish, a corrupt Turkish official, or an effete English aristocrat. Her friends came from diverse walks of life, ranging from an Iraqi gardener to the Viceroy of India, from a Times correspondent to a battle-scarred tribal warrior, from a mutjahid to a servant from Aleppo. Once they had been admitted to her trust, she was the most loving, the most attentive and faithful of friends.

Of course she made enemies. She snubbed the modestly gifted wives of British officers—"The devil take all inane women!" she once said; she was liable to attack anyone who menaced her, confronted villains and murderers and would denounce them face-to-face over the dinner table. It seemed to me at one point during my research that she might have been murdered by one of the latter, and there are students of her work and at least one recent member of the British Council who believe this to be the case. As if aware of constant threat, she always slept with her gun under her pillow, even at her family home in Yorkshire, where she preferred to spend her nights in a summer-house in the garden rather than in her own comfortable bedroom amongst her beloved family. Was she trying to protect them? While there were undoubtedly people who wished her dead, I found no evidence of murder, though facts are hard to come by. I do believe that, just as, full of curiosity and excitement, she had always courageously ventured out into the unknown on her expeditions, so she ventured out one last time.

She yearned to be married and to have a family of her own, but time and again, tragedy intervened to put an end to those hopes. She was, however, much loved, not least by that great family to whom she finally dedicated her life and work: the people of Arabia. And they have not forgotten her. Recently, her name and her work for Iraq were reinstated in the nationwide school syllabus. Lawrence kick-started the Arab Revolt, but it was Gertrude who gave the Arabs a route to nationhood. She cajoled and intruded, guided and engineered, and finally delivered the often promised and so nearly betrayed prize of independence. While she remained dedicated to this mission through thick and thin, Lawrence agonized, faltered, and finally abandoned the Arab issue and tried to escape from his own tortured personality, to reappear in the nondescript persona of one Aircraftsman Shaw.

Gertrude Bell stuck to her ambition for the Arabs with a wonderful consistency. She showed her clever but floundering colleagues of the Cairo Intelligence Bureau how to win their bit of the Great War; she guided the fledgling British administration of Mesopotamia to a thriving future, hand in hand with the Arabs and to their mutual advantage. And she stuck to her guns when her colonialist chief tried to have her sacked, when Churchill wanted to pull the British out of Iraq altogether, when political machinations in Europe brought all her achievements to the brink of disaster, and when, playing her last card, she kept King Faisal from throwing it all away in the name of Arab supremacy.

She established the public library and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, of which the principal wing was dedicated in 1930 to her memory. The museum still guards the remaining treasures of a country whose origins were those of the first civilizations. While Iraq's future is desperately uncertain, one fact remains indisputable. Dying in 1926, Gertrude Bell left behind a benevolent and effective Iraq government, functioning without institutionalized corruption and intent on equality and peace. In days when "Empire" and "colonialism" are dirty words, Britain has little to be ashamed of in the establishment of Iraq, in which the promise of Arab independence was finally honoured. I have come to agree with her old friend from Oxford, Janet Hogarth, who wrote of her: "She was, I think, the greatest woman of our time, perhaps amongst the greatest of all time."

As long as Faisal lived, Iraq was a place where all its people could carry on their daily lives without fear and suffering. His son Prince Ghazi—the little boy for whom Gertrude had bought toys at Harrods—inherited the crown in 1933 and continued to rule the country strongly, perhaps too strongly: in suppressing an Assyrian uprising for indepen-dence, he allowed the massacre of 1933. After Gertrude's death, the dynasty she had put in place continued for thirty-two more years, while Europe plunged into war again after only thirteen, dragging the rest of the world with it. What would America and Britain not give today for the promise of a peaceful and well governed Iraq for even four years?

Her prolific letters, diaries, and intelligence position papers, no less than her eight books and her magnum opus, Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia, make Gertrude Bell one of the best-documented women of all time. Her voice as it comes through in her writing, so personal, so visionary, so humorous and crystal-clear in its purpose, has guided me as to how to write this book. Although she lacked the narrative strain needed to set all she had to say in the context of her story, her voice ought to be heard and appreciated, it seemed to me—which is why I decided to use many more of her own words than would appear in a conventional biography. In parallel with her story, they give the immediacy and the sparkle of her ardent mind, vividly revealing her wit and character.

Excerpted from Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell. Copyright © 2006 by Manoir La Roche Ltd.. Published in Aril 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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