Missing the benefit of an influential journalist to report on her adventures through Arabia or a glamorizing biopic starring the femme equivalent of Peter O’Toole, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) is relatively unknown to Americans, even when touted as ”the female Lawrence of Arabia.” Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations isn’t the first biography of the singular archaeologist, spy, poet, mountaineer, and Arabist who helped map the borders and choose the first king of modern, autonomous Iraq. But Georgina Howell’s warm, admiring account is a lively addition to Bell scholarship that arrives at an auspicious time. Baghdad was Bell’s beloved adopted city, and, indeed, the whole complicated country, so deep in its current chapter of misery, was her passion. To read the adventures, achievements, intimate happinesses, and disappointments of one single, childless Victorian lady who sat as a power-brokering equal with Arab rulers and explored the world on her own terms is to understand even more acutely how fragile the stability of the Middle East has always been — and how the label ”female Lawrence of Arabia” undervalues Bell’s accomplishments.
Howell, a British journalist, has a particular interest in the psychological circuitry that went into the making of such an unconventional woman. Money helped, certainly; Bell was born into a wealthy industrial family, affording her both freedom and a class status translatable to any culture. (Rich ladies tend to be shielded from the gender discrimination shown to poorer women.) But she was also innately comfortable with her own contradictions. ”An avowed atheist, [Bell] was in the forefront of the new thinking that was looking afresh at man and society,” Howell writes. Yet she had a weakness for good food and expensive European clothing, and many of her lively letters home (she was an ardent correspondent to her father and stepmother) concerned her wardrobe. A logical role model for modern feminists, she nevertheless opposed granting women the right to vote.
Howell pays woman-on-woman attention to her subject’s romantic history, the area of least success for a go-getter capable of whipping male intelligence officers or Arab sheiks into order. The love of Bell’s life was a married British army officer who died at Gallipoli and whose essential unavailability — both in life and, of course, death — threw her into bouts of depression. Did loneliness inflame Bell’s urge to journey so far from the England that reminded her of the man she didn’t have? The indefatigable traveler literally decided the boundaries of nationhood in her day — and died of an overdose of sleeping pills. The shambles of Iraq today would break her heart all over again. B+