Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
by Georgina Howell


Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006. ISBN 978-0374161620.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 02/24/2008

Nonfiction: Biography

I have come to enjoy memoir because it is full of feeling as well as information. But Georgina Howell's biography is so full of excerpts from the letters of Gertrude Bell—the subject of this excellent book—that we get a comprehensive sense of Bell's feelings. Howell makes it clear that Bell consistently understated the difficulties in her life. It is certainly a life to know about and to be celebrated.

Gertrude Bell, who died in 1926, is known as the woman behind the creation of modern Iraq. She was born into a wealthy socially conservative family and displayed her brilliance and non-conformity early on. She attended Oxford and was the first woman to attain First Class Honors in History. She traveled to Persia, began her studies of Persian language and literature in Teheran, and fell in love with a man unacceptable to her family. She returned to England, where she continued her studies, adding Arabic to the mix. Never one to live life half way, she discovered the challenge of mountain climbing and conquered several peaks in the Alps, sometimes being the first woman to do so.

Bell made three trips through the uncharted Arabian Peninsula, visiting archeological sites, carefully creating maps, and dropping in to visit sheiks in full evening wear. An important purpose of her travels was to learn about the alliances and customs of the numerous tribes. This knowledge was applied when she began working with the British government to build a unified Arabic nation after the defeat of the Germans and their allies the Turks in WWI.

The unification was a struggle. Howell writes: "The army wins the territory, and the administration takes over; but in Mesopotamia the struggle to install conditions conducive to peace and eventual prosperity would prove as daunting as the battlefront itself...Arabs spoke a common language but were not a common people..." This struggle, which took place almost 100 years ago, has many similarities with the Iraq struggle today. Bell's later life was so intertwined with the founding of Iraq that the details of the political struggle cannot be left out.

Howell does a splendid job of bringing the astonishing Gertrude Bell to life. Her descriptions of the often bleak landscape, the oases of sheikdoms, and the contrast of desert life with Bell's luxurious wardrobe, living style and traveling entourage enliven the biography. Fortunately for us, Bell's family and friends saved her detailed letters. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations illuminates the many centuries-old causes of the current struggle in the Middle East.


Georgina Howell wrote this book with the assistance of her husband Christoper Bailey. She has written several other books and writes for Vogue. She lives in London and France with her husband.

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