Blogs > Cliopatria > Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

Aug 5, 2007 9:13 pm


Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)



While British archaeologist Gertrude Bell played a momentous role in the construction of modern-day Iraq, is this enough to justify the current level of interest in her? Well, given the recent publishing activity it would certainly seem to suggest so.

Only seven years into the new millennia, and according to Amazon, we have already had (in no particular order) Janet Wallach’s Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia, HVF Winstone’s Gertrude Bell: A Biography, Laura Lukitz’s A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq, Paul Rich’s Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s the Arab of Mesopotamia and Heather Lehr Wagner and Milbry Polk’s Gertrude Bell: Explorer of the Middle East, not to mention the republication of Bell’s own works: The Desert and the Sown: The Syrian Adventures of the Female Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914. Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations is just the latest incarnation—and it is pregnant with fact.

Georgina Howell, a British journalist, has penned a worshipful—indeed hagiographical—biography. Indeed, Bell is Howell’s heroine. Yet, do not be mistaken about the book’s thesis; it relegates Bell’s work in Iraq to the last third of the book—mystifyingly, given the country’s prominence in her life and today’s analogy-driven climate. Although, this may be down to the ink already spilt on Bell’s Baghdad years (take Janet Wallach for instance). A reasonable criticism one could lay at Howell’s door is that she appears to be a slave to Bell’s voluminous diaries. This is unfair; for it becomes abundantly clear just how indispensable Bell’s chronicles are the further we delve. It is for this reason that Howell’s hardback was shortlisted for the 2007 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

Niall Ferguson in Colossus (2004) illuminates the parallel-like statements between General F.S. Maude and President George W. Bush in two epigraphs to his sixth chapter (p.200). Nevertheless, a more fitting—yet undersubscribed—analogy can be attributed to British strategic thinking in the face of World War I and World War IV (Norman Podhoretz’s lexicon) respectively (and both principally in relation to Iraq). Here, Howell catalogues Gertrude’s geist c. 1917:

Nowhere in the war-shattered universe can we begin more speedily to make good the immense losses sustained by humanity... It’s an immense opportunity, just at this time when the atmosphere is so emotional; one catches hold of people as one will never do again, and establishes relations which won’t dissolve… It’s the making of a new world (p.278).

Akin to the Wilsonian-orientalist (or what Christopher Hitchens groups as “idealistic Arabists”), former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, articulated some eight decades later that: “This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

Only history will tell if Blair (and for that matter, Bush) will reiterate Bell’s later reservations: “I sometimes wonder whether we should not have done better to leave the Arab provinces under the nominal suzerainty of Turkey, the birth of new states is attended with so much travail!” (p.363). How much do Bell’s letters read like today’s deadlines! (The letters to her father, Hugh and stepmother Florence are one of the great correspondences of the twentieth century; from orders for cotton gowns to the new-fangled British air warfare being tested on recalcitrant Iraqi Arabs and Kurds). Aside: One sincerely believes that Blair and Bush are principled enough not to join the ranks of those politically-motivated, activist-cum-apologist, post-Iraq peaceniks.

Bell’s gender colonizes each stroke of Howell’s pen (though not overtly feminist in tone) ensuring that the reader fully comprehends Bell’s feat. Most paradoxical of all was not her political prowess per se but just exactly where it operated: a misogynist landmass of all places! A giant among womankind, Gertrude Bell shared the political DNA of a repertoire of Great Britons, both past and present; Elizabeth I (multifaceted), Queen Victoria (bereaved) and Margaret Thatcher (pioneering). This is penned succinctly by Howell:

She spoke six languages, and could write a good letter or hold a discussion in any of them… Few have rivalled her in the sheer range of her abilities. As a “Person” she had come to fulfil the highest aspirations that John Stuart Mill had envisaged for women (p.73).


Howell undergirded her analysis proclaiming:

Gertrude was not using her inherited power and position in the enterprises she took on. The only help she accepted was the family money that funded her exploits. For everything else she depended on her intellect, her courage, and her thirst for learning (p.122).

Notwithstanding the latter statement’s incontrovertible exactness—the former is practicing in knowledgeable ignorance. Indeed, one must question that without such a distinguished family name would Gertrude’s “thirst” have been quenched? Indubitably not.


The Bells were the sixth-richest family in England (northern industrialists in the booming economy of empire). But Howell reminds us that money played no part in her taking a First in Modern History, nor did money fashion Bell’s escape from a menacing tribe that captured her in Arabia Deserta.

Despite such a well-to-do upbringing, Bell appeared to be rather self-effacing when climbing the orientalist ladder. It is fitting to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens here—who earlier reviewed the hardback in the Atlantic Monthly—and his memorable characterization of 2000 Presidential would-be George W. Bush. Omitting “in” and “un” along the way, Bell, we learn through Howell, is unusually curious, abnormally intelligent, amazingly articulate, fantastically cultured, extraordinarily educated, and apparently quite unassuming.

After her brilliant achievements at Oxford and before her assignment in the Middle East, Bell helped catalogue the injured, missing and dead during the First World War. Howell recounts Bell's work in detail.


The 400-pages-plus hardback is not just another book concerning an eccentric lady traveller. This passionate biography tells of a woman with an inexhaustible zeal. Unfortunately, things haven't turned out well in the nation she helped create.

Does Bell deserve the reverence attributed to the Founding Fathers? She is a Founding Mother of sorts. Well, History is still out.


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Saiful Ullah - 8/21/2007

In agreement with Besch, though Gertrude Bell was a speaker of many languages and held other academic achievements, she is not a founding mother of any sort.

By participating in European imperialism with the intention of creating an Iraq as an autocratic state as well as being critical of women's rights, she as a person has great flaws.


Randll Reese Besch - 8/6/2007

For all of Ms Bell's abilities she was no better that her male counterparts in the emperial mold. What should have been done was to have let the Sunnis,Shiia an kurds go their own way. Even under the Ottomans those groups had their own regions under nominal control of the beys.
Reverence of any human is a mistake that was exploited by the Romans of the past and the cult leaders of today. The God impulse is a disaster for humankind. Just as hero has been sold to uslessness so has worship of humans by other humans is a mistake.