Hold the Incense

Gertrude Bellby Georgina Howell

Alfred A. Knopf. 481p $27.50

Here are two incontrovertible truths about Gertrude Bell (1868-1926): she was a brilliant, wise, fascinating woman; and she played a significant role in the creation of modern Iraq. But “Queen of the Des-ert”? “Shaper of Nations”? (The original British edition had a quieter title: Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell.) Geor-gina Howell, an experienced journalist, is so smitten with her wonderful, hy-peractive subject that she does not mind vaulting beyond the known facts into speculative fantasies (might Henry James have modeled Nan-da, the heroine of The Awkward Age, on Gertrude Bell?); ima-ginative reconstructions (“Every day, in her head, she heard the bombardment that was a prelude to an infantry assault....”); and embellishments of Bell’s legend (she passes on with a straight face the wild adventures that Gertrude supposedly confided to King Faisal and that he supposedly retold to a reporter from the nondescript Everybody’s Weekly, whence the blockbuster article “Secrets of Great White Woman of the Desert Which Were Not Revealed in Her Book”). Pace Ms. Howell, we may greatly doubt that Gertrude ever journeyed and fought alone in the desert, disguised herself as a camel driver or was arrested and nearly tortured by the Turks.

So much for the bad news. Despite such lapses, Howell tells a gripping story and does full justice to the woman whom the Arabs called simply Al Qatun, the Lady, and whose talents won her a unique though not defining place in the annals of the Middle East. (How could any female have led the way in such male-dominated cultures?) Born to a family of rich industrialists, she was the first woman to win first-class honors in history at Oxford (where she sped through in two years). A globe-trotting polyglot, she mastered Persian and Arabic, which she spoke far more fluently than most of the men she worked for, including T. E. Lawrence. In her late 20’s she casually took up mountain climbing, and quickly acquired world-class skills as an Alpinist, in between trips to Istanbul, Jeru-salem, Damascus, Beirut, Delhi and elsewhere. A vivid, impassioned writer (The Desert and the Sown, and 10 other books), she also became a translator of classical Iranian poetry, a Red Cross administrator, horticulturalist, archaeologist, photographer and mapper of the wilderness. Was there anything she could not do?

Bell’s personal life was marked by two tragedies: her love for Henry Cadogan, the spirited secretary to the British legation in Teheran (her parents quashed the engagement, owing to his poverty; and soon afterward he died of pneumonia after falling into an icy river) and for Dick Doughty-Wylie, an unhappily married career diplomat, who solved his emotional dilemma when Gertrude refused adultery and demanded he divorce his wife by walking unarmed into certain death at Gallipoli in 1915. This heartbreak doubtless played a role in her own suicide by barbiturate overdose 11 years later.

On the other hand, celibacy left Bell free to do all sorts of amazing things: to be elected the first woman fellow of the National Geographical Society; to serve as a civil and military officer (the first woman again) at the Arab Intelligence Bureau in Cairo; to advise the viceroy in India; to arrange the visit of Ibn Saud to Basra; to be appointed oriental secretary to the civil administration in Iraq; to be made a commander of the British Empire; and to submit a notable paper to the Paris Peace Conference on the future of Meso-potamia—the list goes on.

The jacket-photo of Bell on a camel (she was an expert equestrienne from girlhood) flanked by the similarly mounted Winston Churchill and Lawrence, with the Sphinx and the pyramids in the background, was more than just a predictable photo-op from the 1921 Cairo Conference, which dealt with Iraq and Palestine. If not a mover-and-shaker, Bell was an invaluable, deeply respected resource and, against all odds, “one of the boys.” As she had musingly written from Haifa in 1904, “I am much entertained to find that I am a Person in this country—they all think I am a Person!” Bell’s younger contemporary and passing acquaintance, Virginia Woolf, would have understood.

Bell has been receiving a great deal of attention lately (biographies by Janet Wallach in 1996, H. V. F. Winstone in 2004, and Liora Lukitz in 2006). Given the Anglo-American-sponsored catastrophe in Iraq, it is hard not to be jolted by the acuteness of her judgments, made long before the end of colonialism. She acknowledged that Western-style democracy meant next to nothing in the disjecta membra of the Ottoman Empire. She supported the better-educated, more secular Sunni minority over the majority tribal Shiites (“Otherwise you will have a...theocratic state, which is the very devil”). She worried about the Kurds (still the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country), who could neither be given nor denied autonomy. And she continually predicted that the Balfour Declaration would wreak havoc among the Arabs. If she could see the situation today, she could only shake her head—and tear her hair.

One final paradoxical feature of Bell’s career: she fought vigorously against woman suffrage (thinking that poor women would never find the time to learn about political issues). But then she was in a number of ways bourgeois-conventional: an obedient daughter, a fearless explorer surrounded by servants and gigantic piles of luggage and a fashion plate who insisted on modest dress whether scrambling up glaciers or trekking across sun-blasted sands. And she frequently voiced her contempt for the idle, decorative wives of her male colleagues. It is not easy to change the world with nary a role model in sight.

If she had written about a less dynamic woman, Howell might have been accused of puffery. Not here: Bell stands out in Howell’s lively account as both a pioneer from the heroic past and a haunting figure for the present: imagine if she were guiding our foreign policy through these parlous times. Hold the incense—a sigh will do.


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