Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert

Gertrude Bell (born 14 July 1868)

Our stereotypes about Victorian women--domestic, subordinate, restrained, the "angel in the house"--are completely smashed when it comes to Gertrude Bell. She was an adventurer, a mountaineer, explorer and traveler, a linguist and writer, an administrator, an archaeologist, and a spy who spent much of her life in the Middle East.

A "proper" Victorian lady,
Gertrude Bell, about age 26
The daughter of Sir Hugh Bell and Mary Shield Bell, Gertrude was born into a comfortable, educated, and politically progressive family. Although her mother died when Gertrude was just three, her stepmother, the writer Florence Bell, was a strong advocate of education for girls.

With her father's encouragement and support, Gertrude received an extraordinary education for a young woman in the late nineteenth century; she was sent to Queen's College, London, when she was sixteen. In 1886, she was on to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, the college for women founded in 1879. There she studied modern history, one of the subjects open to female students.

After leaving Oxford in 1892, she traveled to Tehran, where her uncle was the British minister; her book about this trip, Persian Pictures, was published in 1894.

Bell spent the next decade, until the outbreak of the first world war, traveling--Switzerland, Palestine, Syria, Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut. She learned--taught herself--Arabic, Turkish, and Persian in addition to French, Italian, and German. She climbed mountains, photographed her trips and published books about them, and worked on Babylonian and Hittite archaeological sites.

Initially denied a post with the British after the outbreak of war, she volunteered in France with the Red Cross. But by 1915, she was contacted by the British Arab Bureau and went to Cairo, first assigned to Army Intelligence Headquarters, working without a title. She eventually became the only woman political officer with the British forces, a "Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo." By 1917 she was in Baghdad, her title "Oriental Secretary,"  an "innocent-sounding title" that "drew a discreet veil over the fact that she was the most important intelligence agent in the region."

Bell in 1909, at an archaeological site,
Bell's role during the war and her continued role in the Middle East after the war, in particular the part she played in the formation of the state of Iraq and the promotion of Faisal bin Hussein, are fascinating--and not nearly as well known as the activities of her contemporary and coworker, T. E. Lawrence. There is a terrific piece on Bell by Christopher Hitchens, titled "The Woman Who Made Iraq," in The Atlantic and another, by James Buchan, "Miss Bell's Lines in the Sand," in The Guardian. Both of these contextualize their discussions of Bell in light of the current US-instigated situation in Iraq.

Bell died of an overdose of sleeping pills in Baghdad on 12 July 1926, just two days before her fifty-eighth birthday. It isn't clear whether the overdose was intentional or accidental. 

There are several excellent biographies, but may I recommend Georgina Howell's Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations? For Howell, Bell is "the most famous British traveler of her day, male or female," a "poet, scholar, historian, mountaineer, photographer, archaeologist, gardener, cartographer, linguist and distinguished servant of the state."

Bell with Winston Churchill (l) and T. E. Lawrence (r)