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Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

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A marvelous tale of an adventurous life of great historical import
She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Born in 1868 into a world of privilege, Bell turned her back on Victorian society, choosing to read history at Oxford and going on to become an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author (of Persian Pictures, The Desert and the Sown, and many other collections), poet, photographer, and legendary mountaineer (she took off her skirt and climbed the Alps in her underclothes).

She traveled the globe several times, but her passion was the desert, where she traveled with only her guns and her servants. Her vast knowledge of the region made her indispensable to the Cairo Intelligence Office of the British government during World War I. She advised the Viceroy of India; then, as an army major, she traveled to the front lines in Mesopotamia. There, she supported the creation of an autonomous Arab nation for Iraq, promoting and manipulating the election of King Faisal to the throne and helping to draw the borders of the fledgling state. Gertrude Bell, vividly told and impeccably researched by Georgina Howell, is a richly compelling portrait of a woman who transcended the restrictions of her class and times, and in so doing, created a remarkable and enduring legacy.

481 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2006

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Georgina Howell

12 books13 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 487 reviews
Profile Image for Madeline.
781 reviews47.2k followers
January 14, 2014
It's official: Gertrude Bell is now my favorite historical figure (don't worry, Nell Gywnn - you're still first in my heart) and it has become my personal mission to make sure that everyone knows who she is. My apologies to everyone who has a conversation with me in the next six months, because I will find a way to mention Gertrude Bell and then get mad at you for not knowing who she is.

Gertrude Bell is commonly referred to as "the female Lawrence of Arabia" and that really explains in a nutshell how she's been screwed over by history. If we lived in a world of gender equality, T.E. Lawrence would be called "the male Gertrude Bell" and Gertrude would have the four-hour award-winning biopic that everyone's dad loves. But we don't live in that world, dear readers, and because of this, T.E. Lawrence is a household name and Gertrude Bell is a footnote in his story (guess how many times Bell is featured in Lawrence of Arabia? Fuckin' ZERO, and I'm still mad about it).

This is the second Bell biography I've read - the first was Janet Wallach's Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, and readers should refer to that review for a more complete summary of Bell's life and influence, because I'm going to spend the majority of this review comparing the two biographies.

I think that, ultimately, I prefer Howell's take on Gertrude's life. This book has more primary sources - Bell was constantly writing letters about her adventures, and Howell quotes them extensively throughout the book - which makes Bell much more dynamic. The scope of Howell's book is also wider - while Wallach's book focused mainly on Bell's work in the Middle East later in her life, Howell seems to be trying to give equal attention to all the phases of Bell's life. She spends more time on Bell's childhood than Wallach did, taking time to establish the close relationship between Bell and her parents (she would continue to write letters to her father and stepmother throughout her life, and those letters are quoted most frequently in the book). Howell also devotes considerable space to Bell's pre-Middle Eastern adventures - I don't remember Wallach's book addressing Bell's mountain-climbing phase in her early thirties, except in passing, while Howell spends several chapters on it. Wallach's biography was concerned primarily with Bell's work in the Middle East, but Howell seems to be trying to create a more straightforward biography. Bell's later life still takes up at least half the book, because that's still when her most important work was done, but it was nice to have all the background information establishing who Bell was before then.

Where the two biographies really differ is in their portrayal of Bell as a person. In Howell's biography, she comes off as significantly less sad and lonely as she did in Wallach's - so much so, in fact, that her suicide sort of comes out of nowhere, and Howell doesn't really address why Bell would want to take her own life. Also missing from the Howell biography is Bell's early disdainful attitude for the Middle Eastern locals she encounters. Wallach addressed Bell's changing attitudes towards the Arabs, but from Howell's portrayal, Bell was nothing but respectful from Day One (she does not include the quote where Bell once referred to Arabs as being "like very old children"). Bell also comes off as much less prickly than she was in Wallach's book, and Howell's version of her had lots of friends and was liked by almost everyone. In fact, Bell doesn't seem lonely at all in Howell's version, although it is telling that Gertrude's primary correspondents, even into her fifties, were her parents. She does, at least, address Bell's anti-suffrage views, and she does so in more detail than Wallach, explaining the circumstances of the time that make this view understandable. I appreciated this, because Wallach kind of tosses Bell's anti-suffrage opinions out as an afterthought, without going into why Bell might have held those views.

Gertrude Bell was a complicated figure, and it's not surprising that two different biographers would portray her in two different ways. I didn't even mind the disconnect between the two Bells that I've read about - it just means that I need to find even more of her biographies.
Profile Image for John.
1,201 reviews95 followers
December 4, 2022
I found this book beside a rubbish bin and was intrigued by the cover so decided to read it. I had never heard or read of her. This was a lucky find.

Gertrude Bell was an amazing woman. She was an English writer, mountaineer, explorer, traveller, spy. political officer, administrator, and archaeologist. At one time she was more famous than Lawerence of Arabia who was a friend and colleague. Perhaps it was because of her anti suffragette views she is not more famous.

She spoke several languages and was fearless. She came from one of the wealthiest families in England and had an extraordinary life. I was amazed that I had never heard of her. Yet she was instrumental in creating Iraq and the first monarchy with King Faisal.

Daughter of the Desert with its photos, excerpts of her letters to her father Hugh and friend Chirol were fascinating. Her energy, passion and single mindedness is inspirational. The book was at times repetitive but never dull. Well worth a read. I later found that a film starring Nicole Kidman was made of her that flopped. Still I would like to see it.
Profile Image for Kelly.
889 reviews4,127 followers
November 29, 2015
Look dudes, I read 380 pages of this. I am done with it. I get it, I know where it's going, yes, I can still review it and I don't need to finish it and I'm marking it as read. While there is a lot to love about this, and the title character is still fascinating, this writing about her just got too too much.

Review to come.
* * *

Original: I acquired this recently after reading about her role at the Paris Peace Conference. She seemed pretty badass. Want to read it even more due to this: http://www.npr.org/2015/08/12/4312434...
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
July 4, 2015


Description: The story of Gertrude Bell and her crucial role in the foundation of the state of Iraq. A ferociously independent-minded young woman, leaves Oxford and experiences the desert for the first time. A few years later oil is discovered in Mesopotamia.

First published in 1997, Queen of the Desert Georgina Howell has been reissued - partly to coincide with the Werner Herzog film of the same title, but also to provide the long view on the troubled history of a remarkable country.

Using letters written by Gertrude Bell throughout the period, the book tells the story of an extraordinarily talented and determined woman who has often been overshadowed by her more famous friend, T.E. Lawrence.

Read by Sylvestra le Touzel and Deborah Findlay (the letters)

Profile Image for Kay.
1,306 reviews
March 15, 2013
Not done yet--reading Howell simultaneously with Janet Wallach's Desert Queen. So happy to have found the two biographies of Gertrude Bell, done ten years apart, one illuminating the other so well, and different pictures to look at. I read a chunk of the Wallach and get the skeleton, then go read the same scenes in Howell and get the meat. For example, turning to a new chapter in Gertrude's life, the Wallach chapter is "Escape to the East" and the Howell "Cairo, Delhi, Basra." Looking on to Gertrude's desert life, I imagine the ostentatious colonialism with which a lone woman in an immense desert dines in her small tent on linen tablecloths, silver place settings, crystal stemware and Wedgewood china. Perhaps as in all Asia, Middle and Far, the sheikhs judge one by possessions and gifts and treat one accordingly. And that could be a motivation for the linens, and china and silver. That and being the foreigner. Not being more desert than the desert people. Being the expat, the one who does not fit. And yet her real secret is that while being herself with luxurious baggage, because after all the tents of the sheikhs were luxury itself, she showed great respect to the local people and exquisite manners toward the sheikhs and other powerful figures and spoke and read their language. How she marks her identity with her clothes, and who washes and irons them? How badly do the trunks and boxes stink? What does she do for sanitary supplies? I would like to see photos of her baggage being carried by the camels! The Howell book is so much more detailed than Wallach's "just the facts, ma'm," and I loved that Howell gives us telling details like, "She didn't know it, but Hayyil was to be her last desert expedition." And I am so struck by her realization as a young woman in the midst of plenty and able to indulge her extraordinary drive to the East, that the question was "how her time and resources should properly be used. She fluctuated between pursuing personal fulfillment and devoting her energies to serving the community for no reward." And then, the solitude of the desert that brings a long meditation and path to wisdom and a sort of satori, and the moment when "I have known loneliness in solitude now for the first time. . . ." So as a woman and an expat and a loner, one who does not fit and is only at home in places where obviously not fitting is a benefit, I have to wonder if she wrote more in her letters and diaries than endlessly about her own states of soul, and that a male biographer would have given us a different Gertrude altogether. No matter how it is recounted, Gertrude's life covered what would ordinarily be several people's lifetimes: climbing the highest peaks of the Alps as the first to conquer them, crossing deserts as the single non-Arab in thousands of miles, European War Office work organizing data of the wounded and dead and compassionately informing families, through all her life having men who were deep friends and the few who were deep loves, and being a force in the all-male world of international government. I cannot agree with those who dismiss these bios as hagiographic, for, if anything, they are lower-keyed than the reality must have been. Gertrude captivated me because she had no use for position or corridors of paperwork power in central places, but wanted to be out in the country, for "here the material was all raw, fresh, firsthand." And for all Howell's wealth of detail and setting of full scenes, Wallach scores with the bon mot: Gertrude visits all the native homes on her own fluttering about "like a young bird in spring"; or listens to the gossip buzzing "like worker bees in a rose garden." And people gather around the sheikh's "coffee hearth." And how I hope the movie is the one with Angelina Jolie and not Naomi Watts.
Now finished the two bios and sit here wishing I could have been at one of Gertrude Bell's dinner parties, had tea with her, or ridden across a desert on a camel with her--and, [in Howell] as the Times of India said of her after her death in 1926, highlighting how little we Anglos learned from her lifetime among the people of Iraq and all the countries around it--"While the British appreciated her as author, traveller and archaeologist, they remained to the end ignorant of the 'astounding position she had built up for herself in Iraq, a position which has made her responsible, more than any other single individual, for the shape and appearance of modern Iraq as it stands today.'" Yes, bloggers among us say she, like TE Lawrence, was one of those “sand-mad Britons”--and we see the blinders of prejudice that have brought round after round of hot-headed horror to the area that could have been a good place to live. Now we are looking over the 10 years since our last Iraqi War, fought with lessons unlearned..... ah Gertrude--finished your bio on International Women's Day....
How Gertrude ended, she said, at one point, "You understand, I was Someone once." Earlier in life she delightedly announced, "I am a Person." And, yes, indeed, she was.
Profile Image for Debbie Zapata.
1,833 reviews44 followers
July 21, 2022
July 21, midnight plus thirty ~~ Marking this one a DNF after a little over 100 pages. Lost interest. Will do a proper review asap.

July 21 145pm ~~ An impulse buy while browsing at Thriftbooks, this book introduced me to Gertrude Bell and her life. I like biographies, even if sometimes I end up not liking the person who is the subject. When I read a bio about someone who turns out to be a bit of a stinker, I usually keep going to the end, but here I quickly developed a major dislike for Miss Gertrude and could not manage to get myself past the first 100 pages of the book.

Alarm bells went off when I read the author's statement about Bell's money not being the reason she was able to do what she did in her life. The idea, of course, was that Bell's incredible intellect and talent and daring were the keys to her success over the years.

But without her family's money to support her and allow her to do anything in the world she wanted to do, she never would have been the subject of a biography at all, even one written by someone like the author with a very strong bias in her favor. She would have been just another of the women of her time who might have had dreams but had no way to make them come true.

I thought GB was a little hellion as a child. Pampered and indulged, daring and somewhat mean. I did not like her at all. I kept thinking what would have happened to me if I had ever behaved the way she did. Hurts my sitting bones just to think about! lol

Must admit the woman was incredibly intelligent, was fascinated by many topics, and had peachy keen hobbies (for a woman of her day) like mountain climbing.

But the further we went along and aged, the further I began to wonder when this society girl was going to finish collecting mountain peaks, traveling around the world, writing her travel books, and basically just doing whatever it came into her mind to do. When was she going to start shaping those nations the subtitle of the book mentioned? She was in her thirties when I gave up on her and she had barely arrived in the desert. Over thirty years of life as a privileged, wealthy, famous whirlwind. This is not always as admirable a trait as the author seemed to think it was. At least not in my opinion.

The author's approach to the book also began to annoy me. Each chapter covered a small slice of GB's life, from the one portraying her as that mean little kid to the one that talked exclusively of her mountaineering exploits. But it was very easy to get confused about just where in life GB was when the chapters changed. At least for me, anyway. I began to have trouble keeping track of just how old GB was during each chapter. I would start a chapter where GB was in her early 30's but would think, wait, didn't we get way past age 31 in the other chapter? Maybe this came from my poor math skills, but even so, it was annoying. I don't like to have to stop and backtrack to check information in a book like this. I prefer a smoother presentation.

But the main reason I am marking this one DNF was that I simply could not bear to be in GB's company another minute. She may have been queen of the desert, but she was not royalty for me.

Profile Image for Sandie.
446 reviews
November 20, 2008
Gertrude Bell was a very, very interesting woman. This book could have been good, but bordered on hagiography. The author felt compelled to add every single detail of her research and the result is nearly 450 very crowded pages. The writing was not that good, the author's background is as a writer for fashion magazines. Since I had earlier read the Janet Wallach bio, I skipped around in this and only read chapters or parts of chapters that were of interest to me.

GB was a fearless woman, who traveled the middle Eastern desert alone at the early part of the last century. She was fluent in Arabic, and self taught in the archaeology of the area. She met and made friends with many of the local sheiks and tribes in the deserts. She wrote at least one book on the ara.
Miss Bell was instrumental in setting up the modern state of Iraq after WWI. She tended to be pro-British.
Gertrude would have been sick at the trashing and looting of the Iraqi National Museum when we invaded that country, since she was mainly responsible for its existence.
Profile Image for Laura.
6,910 reviews565 followers
July 3, 2015
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
The story of Gertrude Bell and her crucial role in the foundation of the state of Iraq. A ferociously independent-minded young woman leaves Oxford and experiences the desert for the first time. A few years later oil is discovered in Mesopotamia.

First published in 2006, Queen of the Desert by Georgina Howell has been reissued - partly to coincide with the Werner Herzog film of the same title, but also to provide the long view on the troubled history of a remarkable country.

Using letters written by Gertrude Bell throughout the period, the book tells the story of an extraordinarily talented and determined woman who has often been overshadowed by her more famous friend T.E. Lawrence.

Read by Sylvestra le Touzel and Deborah Findlay (the letters)

Abridged and produced by Jill Waters
A Waters Company production for BBC Radio 4.
Profile Image for Kathlyn.
187 reviews6 followers
July 1, 2012

I had a number of issues with this book. Firstly, as others have said, it borders on hagiography. The writing is mediocre and the structure of the book is awkward - the way it is is sectioned makes for repetitious reading. The only section of the book that is written chronologically is the one that deals with the creation of Iraq. This leaves the reader constantly second guessing time frames or rereading the same information in multiple contexts. The book is factually inaccurate in places, omits relevant historical data and paints Britain in an overtly positive light. Finally, clothes!! I appreciate that the author comes from a fashion background but the emphasis on Gertrude's wardrobe was tedious. I felt that if I had to read about Getrude's split trousers one more time I could have cheerfully thrown the book against the wall.

Disappointing. Such an historically significant character as Bell (albeit whose achievements were very much a consequence of her personal wealth) warranted a better biography.
Profile Image for Florence.
835 reviews11 followers
December 8, 2013
Born to wealth and social position in the mid nineteenth century, Gertrude Bell shunned all that. She was an adventuress at heart, a courageous and visionary woman for her time. She climbed mountains, then she explored the Arab world; activities that put her life in peril many times. After numerous trips on camel back through the desert, greeting Arab sheiks with gifts, she became an expert in the culture and helped to shape the modern day Iraq. . Her life is filled with striking contradictions. For one, she was quite a bit less adventurous in her love life, which the author dwells on at some length. She was against granting women the right to vote, though she struggled all her life to free herself from traditional gender roles. She had compassion for the Arab people but the plight of European Jews desperately in need of refuge didn't engage her. Gertrude Bell was in many ways an inscrutable character. This book offers a clear view of the Arab world under the Ottoman Turks and after the First World War, a history that filled in some huge gaps in my knowledge of the period.
Profile Image for Laura.
1,237 reviews119 followers
November 23, 2014
This book lost my affections at page 69, when the author criticized London’s National Portrait Gallery. In 2004, the “Gallery mounted an exhibition of portraits of pioneering women travellers called “Off the Beaten Track’” which included several pieces devoted to Bell. “The short four-line caption – all that was devoted to her – stated: ‘Despite her own achievements she actively opposed British women being given the right to vote.’ Technically correct, the statement is nonetheless a crude assessment of her ultimate intentions and one that takes no account of the complex politics of the times, or her position as a daughter of the Industrial Revolution.” Maybe. But the woman actually joined the freaking Anti-Suffrage League. (72). She was on the wrong side of history in a real, demonstrable way. The book gives it a fig leaf – (woman’s lives were hard and having to decide how to vote would make them harder!) That does not in any way persuade me. Plus the author favorably compares her to Margaret Thatcher.

The book is well written; the pages mostly flew by (though I could have done with less time in the mountains; I get it, she had indomitable will and no patience with obstacles). The author clearly had great affection for this woman, who clearly was remarkable. Bell materially helped her country win a world war and helped draw the maps in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. She was given a hero’s funeral in Iraq and her dog shipped back to England, even though she had made more local provision for his care. I liked the subtle metaphor there. But I can’t say the book made me like her.
412 reviews9 followers
January 1, 2016
The great wealth of the steel-making Bell family gave Gertrude the means, confidence and connections to pursue a succession of interests. After becoming the first woman to be awarded a First in Modern History at Oxford, Gertrude found the conventions of upper class life in late Victorian England far too constraining. She became a linguist, translator of Persian poetry, mountaineer who achieved a number of “first” ascents of challenging peaks, archaeologist, desert traveller, writer, intelligence officer, confidante of King Faisal in the newly formed Iraq of the 1920s and Director of Antiquities who established a museum in Baghdad.

She was clearly enthralled by the romance of Arab desert culture, not least the handsome sheikhs in their striking robes, who may have accepted her because she was so unlike any other woman they had ever met: when she came to their tents bearing gifts and wearing evening dress, they called her “the Khatun” or “Desert Queen” but when she appeared in breeches riding astride she probably seemed to them more like a man.

Georgina Howell’s heavy use of lengthy extracts from letters and reports is as effective as she intended in conveying a sense of Gertrude’s ability to communicate, great energy, enthusiasm and wry wit. We gain a strong sense of a determined, opinionated woman who was often unconsciously snobbish – anticipating the need to correct the governess likely to call napkins "serviettes" – and contemptuous of “quite pleasant little wives” who meekly conformed.

At times, I was aware of repetition, or longwinded description that is hard to digest, but in the main the author’s marshalling of a mass of information is quite impressive. I find her a little too uncritical of Gertrude’s active campaigning as founding secretary of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908: the idea that do-gooding visits with her mother to the homes of the working poor had convinced her that women “at the end of their tether” managing families on a tight budget simply did not have time to gain the education to vote seems patronising, even hypocritical in someone so resolved on fulfilment in her own life.

Yet, Gertrude was in some ways quite conventional: in her early twenties, she accepted her parents’ rejection of a fiancé considered to lack the means to support her, although his death in ambiguous circumstances shortly afterwards must have haunted her. Love was the one area in which success eluded her – a prolonged affair was doomed since it was with a married man who clearly had no intention of leaving his wife, while despite her physical bravery it seems Gertrude could not find the courage to consummate their relationship.

Perhaps owing to lack of evidence, Georgina Howell glosses over Gertrude’s probable suicide on finding herself in her late fifties having run out of fresh challenges with only the bleak prospect of a painful death from decades of chain-smoking. I often had a sense of a life frenetically packed with activity which masked an inner unsatisfied longing.

I suspect that Gertrude’s role in the formation of an independent, “democratic” Iraq is slightly exaggerated, but it is a fascinating tale which inspires me to read more about Arab history. The parallels with today are very striking: the unstable union of tribes over which Faisal attempted to hold sway, the reluctance to accept British support in keeping control, the difficulty of defining a border with Turkey and accommodating the Kurds, the divisive Shia-Sunni conflicts prompting Gertrude’s “blackest hatred” for Ibn Saud’s Akhwan (now Wahabis) “with their horrible fanatical appeal to a medieval faith…. the worst example of an omnipotent religious sanction”.
Profile Image for Marci carol.
98 reviews
August 1, 2020
A true story ! What an amazing woman! Gertrude Bell was truly the Queen of the desert and shaped Iraq into a country that is cultivated and free. She suffered greatly and gave 100 % of herself to have Iraq be an independent country. I was just amazed by her ability to immerse herself into the culture. She made it a point to learn the language,which was rare in those days ,for women of her stature to do. She met people on their terms, in their environment, and worked with them, respecting their culture. I was saddened by the end of her life, after a life full of such energy and passion. We all can be broken. She was a writer, an archeologist, a travelor, a mountaineer, a woman! What a legacy she left behind! My favorite quote is: “so challenging a personality could hardly escape enemies”.
Profile Image for Lesia.
145 reviews5 followers
May 9, 2017
Ось і я завершила цю неймовірну подорож життям великої, невідомої для мене раніше, жінки. ���

Новий для мене жанр біографії і тепер зрозуміла, що хочеться ще ознайомитися з чимось подібним. 🤔

Відкрила для себе багато незнаних історичних фактів про Близький Схід, а історія в мене - улюблена пожива для мозку. 👳🏻

Велике спасибі Видавництву #НашФормат за таку гарну книгу. 📖
Признаюся, так зачитувалася, що пролила на неї чай, але, на щастя, після дня відпочинку на підвіконню з нею все гаразд, хоч і прийшлося понервувати. 😅
Profile Image for Iryna Khomchuk.
454 reviews65 followers
May 15, 2018
Джоржджина Говелл "Королева пустелі"/Georgina Howell - Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Ця книга справила на мене враження монументальності. Чомусь. Читалася довго й подекуди важко, що я пояснювала своєю нелюбов’ю, точніше сказати, незахопленням біографічною літературою. Не знаю, чому, але глибоко в мені живе переконання, що як не старалися б автори подібних книг змалювати особу такою, якою вона була насправді — це неможливо. Бо навіть негативного героя автор так чи інакше починає любити: якщо не дорослого гада, то маленьке і ще невинне дитятко. Ну чи жаліти, що часом призводить до того самого — прикрашання особистості.

Ні, я жодним чином не заперечую того, що Ґертруда Белл була видатною жінкою! Якщо й нині, через сто років, її життя викликає таке захоплення, то важко навіть уявити, що відчували сучасники цієї британки — розумної, освіченої, самостійної, впертої, цілеспрямованої. І незалежної від чоловіків (ну, батько з його мільйонами не рахується)))
До речі, про мільйони. Отут я мимохіть, але по-справжньому заздрила героїні книги. Бо вона займалася тим, про що в дитинстві мріяла я: мандрувати далекими екзотичними країнами і досліджувати археологічні пам’ятки та знахідки. Це насправді було аж таким заповітним бажанням школярки, котра начиталася книг, що далі відгук можете не читати, врахувавши ступінь заздрості, а значить — і необ’єктивності у судженнях)))

Образ Ґертруди Белл, змальований Джорджиною Говелл, не викликав у мене довіри. Ну не могла бути людина з таким сильним характером такою майже ідеальною: чемною зі слугами та підлеглими, люблячою родичів, дбаючою про інтереси всіх і кожного тощо. Подекуди авторка згадує, що Ґертруда то там повелася жорстко з кимось, то тому щось таке сказала. Але потім швиденько-швиденько загладжує негативне враження, яке могло з’явитися у читача, черговою порцією захоплення своєю героїнею.

Проте не Ґертрудою єдиною цінна книга. У ній змальовується значний історичний відтинок часу, який був дуже знаковим для подальшого розвитку світу: остаточний розпад Османської імперії та надання колишнім колоніям можливості для самоідентифікації як держав. Вклад Британії у цей процес описаний дуже докладно, згадані всі ключові особи, котрі брали участь у формуванні державних інституцій та меж країн Близького Сходу, аналізуються їхні кроки й обґрунтовуються рішення. Це все я читала із захопленням захопленої (це зумисна тавтологія)))) історією людини, була вражена колосальною роботою, проведеною авторкою, доки не натрапила на інформацію про наші краї, котру дозволю собі тут процитувати: "Половина всіх євреїв жила в принизливих злиднях на території, яку називали смугою осілості, теперішня Білорусія, Україна та східна частина Польщі". Влітку там була задушлива спека, а взимку — лютий холод, і надзвичайно убо��ий ґрунт у будь-яку пору року". От, знаєте, видалося, що авторка постійно писала про несприятливі умови життя у пустелях і так перейнялася ними, що бачила подібні труднощі скрізь. Про те, як може змінитися властивість ґрунту в залежності від пори року, я не скажу — не фахівець. Однак як сільська дитина стверджую: якщо картопля на вашому городі росте цього літа, то після зими вона там теж ростиме. Ну, або бурячки...

Ні-ні, почекайте, далі теж цікаво: "Російський уряд не забезпечував охороною своїх сім мільйонів єврейських мешканців, які неодноразово потерпали від погромів і кривавих боєнь під час анти-єврейських заворушень. Деякі з євреїв піднімали повстання, як, наприклад, Троцький, а сотні тисяч з них поїхали шукати нового життя в Америці та Західній Європі". Так отож, усе оте, що пов’язане з Троцьким та іншими, то єврейське повстання, бо ж були "криваві бойні", а не те, що ми з вами думали...

Власне, якби це потрапило мені на очі десь на початку книги, я її не дочитала б. А так — подужала. Мало того — я ще й фільм подивилася, збоченка така))) Так, звабили мене кінообкладинка і Ніколь Кідман)) Однак більше за все хотіла побачити пустелю і ті прекрасні міста. Їх там трошки, але є. А фільм... Що ж, це ще більша казочка про Ґертруду Белл, аніж книга)))
323 reviews3 followers
August 11, 2017
There's a photo of the British prominents who were basically deciding the future of the Middle East after the first world war - a youngish Churchill. Lawrence of Arabia. And they're sitting on camels either side of some lady. History has not been kind to Gertude Bell, which frankly is a poor deal for someone, who in her own words became "a Person".

In fact Gertrude Bell had what must have been one of the most remarkable lives. Born into great wealth, she was genuinely exceptional - first woman to get a first at Oxford, discovered a love of climbing and became the first woman to climb quite a few of the Alps - there is a (lengthy) chapter about her mountaineering exploits. Then she went to visit a (typically rich and well connected uncle who was Ambassador to Persia. And then went travelling - pretty much unheard of at the time for most, let alone a woman. So she went traipsing through Persia, Constantinople, but mainly around Syria, Arabia and Iraq. And got to know more about the tribes and politics than pretty much any other Brit (or foreigner) at the time. This kept going and she effectively had to push to become part of the British diplomatic/intelligence presence - the only woman to do so. Oh and she apparently near revolutionised the Red Cross information gathering in France in WW1. Then amongst other things, she worked with (mentored? at times) Lawrence, and probably did more with the creation of Iraq and establishment of the Hasemite kingdoms in Iraq (didn't work out) and Jordan (still there), as well as providing the early outlook on Arabia, and dealing with Ibn Saud amongst others.

So it's a little bit strange that someone who led one of the most influential lives of the past century is less well recognised. Probably because she's clearly a she, and had massive sexism at the time. And this book which borders on the hagiography too often won't solve that. Bell was inspirational, but not always to modern tastes. She was no feminist - opposing the suffrage movement, and this isn't quite explored. I had the impression she cared little for 'movements' but just barged through the blockages caring little if anyone else followed. As Howell (a fashion writer previous) provides plenty of detail about what she wore, (little interest in high fashion, but always feminine - never to be asexual, she never hid - but never promoted other women. Possibly because there were few who were like her - she despised the 'trailing spouse' and preferred intellectual equals dealing with the high end politics. And good on her. So she ended up winning the trust of most of the Middle East, including dealilng with the founder of Saudi Arabia....competence being accepted over gender.

I'm heading in to my own version of hagiography here - she was genuinely remarkable. Not always right, but who did seem to have her heart in the right place - self determination over colonial principles for those promised, and while history may have exposed ultimately some flaws in her judgements, it's difficult to argue that these were obvious at the time - or that there were many (near any?) others with remotely near the same levels of understanding to make the calls around state creation after the first world war.

So a remarkable life. Well - but not remarkably written and as above, a little too close to just hero-worship at times - but in using numerous excerpts from Bell's voluminious correspondence, providing considerable back up, for what, by any standards must be one of the most remarkable lives of the last 150 years.
Profile Image for Smiley .
774 reviews18 followers
August 22, 2016
A 3.5-star book
In November, 2009 I had this hardcover by means of trade-in from a now-defunct secondhand bookshop (Elite Used Books) and had little motive in having a go on reading it. A reason is that I have never heard her name or fame before, in fact, she was a contemporary of T.E. Lawrence (aka. Lawrence of Arabia) till I had a glimpse by coming across a two-line assertion under the title, that is, THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF GERTRUDE BELL from which I thought she must have accomplished something extraordinarily remarkable and thus worth reading.

From her preface, I was surprised and wondered why she ‘revered’ this heroine instead of ‘respected,’ ‘admired,’ ‘esteemed’ and so on. Therefore, I have since decided to keep reading off and on this 16-chapter wonderful biography of a great lady who worked and traveled in the formidable Arab regions and helped shape a nation before, amidst and after World War I. Anyone interested to know her more may visit this website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrud...
Profile Image for Marc Weitz.
Author 3 books5 followers
June 25, 2010
How can such an interesting life result in such a boring book? This was a real slog, reminding me of a reading assignment I was forced to do when I was in school. I finished the book only because she was such an important figure in an era that I'm very interested in. Having zoned out through much of it, I will now read Wikipedia's article on Gertrude Bell to round out my knowledge of her life.

Unfortunately, this is the second boring book I've read about Gertrude Bell. Should any good writers out there be looking for an interesting subject, may I suggest that there is a strong need for a well-written biography of this amazing person.
Profile Image for Chris.
1,505 reviews31 followers
June 24, 2009
A remarkable woman and an unremarkable book- very detailed-perhaps too much. Book ends with her death without too much commentary on a suicide or an accidental overdose. This was one of those books that I was going to finish if it killed me. And so I did. It's too bad there isn't a modern day GB to help Iraq.
Profile Image for Fiona.
844 reviews448 followers
September 27, 2012
Written in the style of a Sunday supplement article. Very disappointing biography of a fascinating woman. Well researched but I struggled to read it because it is so poorly written. In fact, it just irritated me.
Profile Image for Marguerite Kaye.
Author 232 books334 followers
March 2, 2016
Gertrude Bell was a phenomenon. When she died in 1926 she was deemed to have been one of the most important and famous women of her time - yet now, very few have heard of her (including me, until I came across her in Lady Anne Blount's biography). Nicole Kidman plays her in a film, Queen of the Desert, about to be released in March 2016, so maybe that will change.

Why was Gertrude so famous then? Well, most importantly she played a hugely significant role, along with TE Lawrence, in the Arab uprising and subsequent independence. She helped establish the country of Iraq, and was an enormous to Faisal, its first king, in the early years. She was an acknowledge expert in all things Arabian, having travelled more extensively than any other westerner at the time, male or female. She was treated by the many sheikhs of the many tribes as a queen, dealt with as an equal, feared and respected in equal measures. She was fluent in Arabic and a great many other languages. She was a skilled archaeologist, photographer, cartographer. She was a spy. According to Faisal, she even led some Arab tribes into battle dressed as a warrior. She was certainly fearless, having earlier in her life taken up mountaineering. And she had a strong sense of civic duty, playing a key role during the Great War in tracking down missing soldiers for bereft families, aside from her many, many diplomatic ventures. Oddly, for all her frontier-breaking, she was staunchly anti-women's suffrage, and perhaps this is one reason that Gertrude has been ignored, as an example to women for women in the 20th and21st Centuries.

I admire her beyond words. I am in awe of her courage and her intellect. But I fear I wouldn't have taken to her. She was far too sure of herself, far too confident, far too strident. She didn't really like women, and actually there weren't very many men she liked either. She was a woman to be put on a pedestal, but not a woman you'd necessarily have wanted as your friend. But despite all that, I'm glad to have encountered her. I hope that the film, if not this biography, brings her the recognition she deserves.

Why then 3 stars? I felt the book could have been shorter. The descriptions of some of her earlier life felt drawn out to the extent of padding - in particular, the very long and detailed descriptions of her mountaineering exploits. Perhaps to over-compensate for Gertude's relative obscurity, I felt that Ms Howell's biography was not quite hagiographic, but it could certainly have been more critical. There were hints at scandal or dubious actions that could have been more fully explored. The circumstances of her death, and many other personal circumstances which I felt would have made Gertude more real, were glossed over. I don't mean that I wanted a tell all biography, most certainly not. This was brilliantly researched, a work of love and a work of art. But it left me feeling that despite the 500 and odd pages, I simply didn't know Gertrude. She, an intensely private woman who loathed the press, would have been very happy with that. So perhaps Ms Howell is right after all.
Profile Image for Maryana.
69 reviews6 followers
March 16, 2017
3.5 Ідея - 5, стиль -2(надто буденно, одноманітно)
Надто прозаїчно про непересічну особистість. Ґертруда Белл - письменниця, мандрівниця, поліглот, картограф, ..... і навіть альпіністка), з безцінними, для того часу, знаннями про Схід, його культуру, звичаї. А Ірак як держава став її пам'ятником.
Так, книга документальна, але в передмові авторка сказала, що "повернулася додому в радісному збудженні. Адже знала, хто буде "Моєю героїнею" і, напевно тому я чекала чуттєвості, пристрасті, ну хоч б якихось емоцій, бодай між рядків, щоб зрозуміти, що Говелл нею захоплена по-справжньому (таки "Шарлота" Давіда Фенкіноса справила незабутнє враження, і я мимоволі усі книги порівнюю з нею, точніше шукаю такої ж пристрасті, такої ж сили почуття до героїні роману, такого ж бажання донести світові, що хтось жив, творив, кохав, любив і заслуговує на те, щоб про неї пам'ятали)
Уривки з щоденників Ґертруди, спогади її близьких говорять набагато більше чим Джорджина Говелл, хоча кількісно у книзі перемагає остання.
Мачуха Ґертруди про неї:
"Насправді, основою Ґертрудиної сутності була її схильність до глибокого переживання.У житті у неї була як велика радість, так і велика скорбота. Та хіба ж могло бути якось інакше в жінки, темперамент якої був настільки жадібним до пізнання? Її палка та магнетична особистість втягувала у своє життя долі інших людей, повз яких вона проходила"

Profile Image for Alicia.
498 reviews136 followers
September 10, 2007
I am reading currently reading Gertrude Bell: Queen Of The Desert, Shaper Of Nations by Georgina Howell. I want to be Gertrude when I grow up, except I don't really want to move to another country and lead an Islamic nation to become an independent and democratic nation. Known as the female "Lawrence of Arabia", Gertrude Bell was instrumental in the creation of Iraq. One of the most dynamic, accomplished women of her times (first woman to ever earn a first at Oxford) she was a true renaissance woman. She was in turn, a spy, archaeologist, poet, photographer, mountain climber and advisor to kings. It was due to her influence that Iraq enjoyed many years as a democratic state, an amazing accomplishment during a time when women were looked at as an decorative accessory instead of capable and intelligent people.

Outstanding and compelling biography. I highly recommended picking up a copy if you get a chance.
Profile Image for Batu.
227 reviews1 follower
August 5, 2017
There is no doubt that Gertrude Bell was an extraordinarly brilliant, gifted, intrepid, compassionate woman. Where was the editor for this book? I determined to read it in full, but put it down in disgust 3/4 of the way through. Of the author, I can only paraphrase John Ford and say, "Tis pity she's a bore." Gertrude deserves so much better. I wanted to learn more about her thoughts, interests, and actions. I did not want or need to know the minutae of every mountain she climbed, or of every trip across the desert, or of every day she spent working for the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Board. Look elsewhere for a good read on Miss Bell.
226 reviews4 followers
June 11, 2012
This is a fascinating story that would have been better written as a story not a detailed accounting of almost every possible historical note regarding the time, the place, the people and finally this person. I think Gertrude Bell is a fascinating character whose story I'd like to know more. I kept getting lost in the minutia of the history. I found myself skipping several pages all together just looking for more about this character. Too much information! I wonder if there's more about Gertrude Bell in a more readable version.
Profile Image for Denita.
346 reviews4 followers
May 14, 2016
This book, extensively researched, has made a fascinating biography. Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary woman who wore many caps ie writer, explorer, spy, archaeologist, mountain climber, linguist, poet and Arabist to name but a few. What a marvellous and Herculean read!
Profile Image for selfhiker.
38 reviews
August 21, 2019
Цікава інформативно книжка, дає уявлення про те, як британці напартачили з Близьким Сходом і пояснює багато причин сьогоденних конфліктів. Пригоди альпіністичні та пустельні теж вражають, як на той час.
Profile Image for Caroline.
244 reviews15 followers
January 28, 2009
this is the report I wrote on this book for school, I think it is rather good :)
Photographer, archaeologist, mountaineer, historian, cartographer, linguist, author, traveler, spy, poet, gardener, scholar and dedicated diplomat- Gertrude Bell’s extensive endeavors were exceptional and defining. Born in 1868 to a family whose enormous wealth came from the profitable, but certainly not glamorous coal trade, a mischievous, young Gertrude Bell learned the importance of hard work and traditional family values. Her mother, Mary Shield, died when Gertrude was still a toddler and her father, Hugh Bell, soon married Florence Olliffe. While Gertrude’s relationship with her step mother never equaled the deep bond she shared with her father, she grew to admire and love Florence . As a poised young lady, Gertrude attended Oxford, taking her first small steps into a predominantly male world where she would later make great strides. At Oxford, she was the first woman to graduate with the highest honor, “a first,” shocking her fellow male classmates and warranting a mention in The Times.
In the years that followed, Gertrude came out in the London society season, traveled throughout Europe, hiked the Alps and journeyed to the Middle East leading to a lifelong love affair with the region. During her subsequent visits to the area she mastered Arabic, allowing her to delve deeper into the local culture. While traversing the desert, she formed acquaintances with Bedouin and Druze tribes and sheiks, gathering knowledge which would prove invaluable when she later switched from traveler and archaeologist to stateswoman.
At the outbreak of World War I, Gertrude, like scores of other women, took up war work. She completely reorganized the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department based in Paris, turning it from a sea of papers into an efficient and admirable system. In 1916, she was given the title of Major Miss Bell and moved to Cairo to work in the Arab Bureau with Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence. There, she contributed her thorough knowledge of the area, controlled Arab revolts and helped to facilitate the formation of stable governments and countries in the region. Her factual yet entertaining writings on the region, including essays, eight books, and articles for the Arab Bulletin, increased her fame and credibility.
The following year, Gertrude moved to Baghdad, acquired a permanent residence there and worked furiously towards her goal of Arab self-determination through the establishment of stable Arab led states. Her dream almost slipped through her fingers at the end of World War I with the divisions and complications caused by the European mandates and the revolts and confusion that followed. However, Arab independence was achieved through the work of a very capable young sheikh named Faisal. He was able to unite the forever warring tribes and, in 1921, was finally crowned Faisal I, the first king of the new country, Iraq. The country held its first election three years later. As the government became more stable, Gertrude worked to improve the education system and founded both a women’s hospital and the Iraq Museum. In 1926, she died unexpectedly at her home in Baghdad, a few days short of her fifty-eight birthday. She was buried in Iraq and mourned by many, from kings to fruit sellers, across the many continents. A colleague’s condolences stated, “At last her body, always frail, was broken by the energy of her soul.”
II. Gertrude Bell lived during the final years of the Victorian Age. At this time, England represented the pinnacle of culture, science, art and industry. Government, education, class structure and the role of women were all in the process of being rethought and reformed. It was during these times that Charles Dickens, a family friend of the Bells, published his controversial and renowned works, giving identities to the poor factory workers who were looked down upon by higher society. Women did not yet have the right to vote; the suffrage movement had just started to make headway and would not succeed until 1918. Society and values were still very conservative and, “even piano legs were draped, lest they should seem too provocative.” Girls were formally presented to the Queen in the London season before beginning to attend social events. Modest long dresses and skirts, worn with high collared blouses, were the fashion. Prominent scholars and doctors wrote papers explaining that women did not have the intellect to receive an education equal to their male peers and that too much study would have lasting detrimental effects on their minds and bodies.
Obviously, living under these social moirés effected Gertrude’s life and accomplishments. Time and time again, she had to overcome the gender barriers placed before her. Whether in the classroom at Oxford, or throughout her unaccompanied travels, she had to strike a balance between strong, capable and independent and proper, elegant and feminine. When travelling during the day, Gertrude rode wearing a split skirt that she designed herself which allowed her to ride in a man’s saddle while still looking like a lady. She dressed for dinner every evening in elegant Parisian gowns. Sometimes, she dined at a table set with crystal and linen, and often, she sat on low cushions and elaborate rugs in the tent of a prominent sheik. In this exotic setting, she would impress them with her knowledge of tribal politics and Arabic poetry. At British events, while the politicians and statesmen she dined with smoked cigars, Gertrude daintily held her signature cigarette holder. It is said that a women must do twice as much as a man to be seen as an equal; Gertrude arguably did quadruple that of most her peers.
III. Gertrude Bell was a daunting character. As a woman who pushed the envelope and excelled in a wide range of areas, studying her can easily be overwhelming. At the same time, she was a very real person whose life contained all the triumphs and disappointments of an ordinary person. The disappointments in love and the loneliness that she faced living in the desert affected her character and colored her letters and writings. Each of her numerous projects, such as her many “first ascents” in mountaineering, her extensive photography of the Middle East and ancient ruins, and her war work, alone would have warranted mention in history books. Primary sources provided by Gertrude about the lives of women and the time honored tribal customs of the Far East are some of, it not the most, detailed and extensive works on the region during that time period. However, Gertrude’s greatest lasting impact is clear when looking at any current day map of the Middle East. The borders of Iraq are drawn where they are due to her ability to identify and unite the tribes in that area. Gertrude truly was a “shaper of nations.” Howell writes, “The struggle to install conditions conducive to peace and eventual prosperity would prove as daunting as the battlefront itself.” Gertrude’s passion for the Arab cause fueled her in accomplishing this difficult task. Her work in Iraq proved that when the native Arabs’ views, needs and cultural backgrounds were taken into account, stable Arab run governments could be established.
IV. The author, Georgina Howell’s background is in magazine journalism and she has she written extensively for Vogue. Her experience in this field is evident throughout the book. Many of her sentences are direct and to the point and she includes some gossipy details other biographers may have chosen to omit. The book’s fashion, format and focus are aimed towards women in their late twenties and older. Due to Gertrude’s eight books, many papers and thousands of letters, Howell’s knack for picking and choosing pertinent attributes and events to paint a detailed, if slightly romanticized, portrait of Gertrude Bell is key to the success of the book. The chapters are divided into the many stages and interests of Gertrude’s life resulting in a format that is not strictly chronological. However, this method is effective in describing a multifaceted character as it allows for the development of each particular aspect of Gertrude’s persona without the distraction of other unrelated events. The description of Gertrude’s early childhood is particularly enjoyable because of her incredibly privileged upbringing and her many mischievous games and activities. On the other hand, following the complex political and military process of the founding of Iraq proved most tedious. The section is frustrating to read as there are many stops and starts in the negotiations, conferences, and strings of intricate, interwoven minor events. However, Howell’s exposition of the many details reveals her knowledge of the topic and reflects Bell’s own frustration with the process.
V. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell is a worthwhile book, not only because of its uniquely intimate portrait of Gertrude Bell, but also because of its ability to illustrate the highly complex political situation in the Middle East which is still pertinent today. Howell’s book gives depth and character to a situation often explained with one dimensional graphs and maps. In addition, important British female figures in history typically come from the royal family. For those wishing to explore outside this bloodline, Gertrude Bell is a wonderful alternative. She has all the poise and regality that is the signature of British royalty without living under the constraints of the crown. Gertrude Bell’s astonishing adventures and accomplishments are beautifully conveyed through Howell’s engaging writing. The book envelops the reader, just like Gertrude, whose mother said that “Her ardent and magnetic personality drew the lives of others into hers as she passed along.”
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