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Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  2,838 ratings  ·  448 reviews
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 tur
Hardcover, 481 pages
Published April 17th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1988)
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Average rating 3.97  · 
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Jan 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 nutshe
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.
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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.
Jun 22, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: BBC Radio Listeners

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
Feb 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 Gert ...more
Nov 20, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Sandie by: Dinner book group
Shelves: book-group
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 tra
Jun 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
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 remark
Nov 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more

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, o
Jan 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Feb 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommended to Laura by: Reading Group
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 assess ...more
Aug 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 26, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, arab
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
Sep 27, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: biography
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.
Marguerite Kaye
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 upr
The day I found out that Robert Pattinson is going to portray T.E. Lawrence in the Herzog movie 'Queen of the Desert' that will be filmed in the spring of 2012, I decided to order this book and read it as background information. As a good fan you have to be prepared, right?

I was a kind of pleasantly surprised, because I didn't know anything about Gertrude Bell and she turned out to be a very interesting, daring, adventurous and amazingly strong woman. She grew up in Victorian England in a time t
Sep 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: dik
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 w ...more
Marc Weitz
Jun 25, 2010 rated it did not like it
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
Apr 18, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: biography-memoir
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. ...more
Aug 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
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!
Oct 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 famil
Heather Babinsky
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
My favorite biography of a woman I have ever read. Written incredibly, and her life was incredible. I could start reading it again right now. Loved it
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An impeccably researched and extremely well-written book about a woman who was good at everything she chose to do. From poetry translation to archaeologist to Arab independence and extremely complicated political maneuvering.
Donna LaValley
Feb 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
One of the best things about this book is the many quotes from Gertrude Bell’s letters. This woman could write! She’s a better writer by far than the author, no doubt acknowledged by Georgina Howell herself.

Gertrude’s was a life fully lived, an amazing blaze through the challenges of her times. While women of her class were expected to be docile homemakers, grateful wives, or community leaders for nice causes, she climbed the Alps (in her underwear until she invented women’s climbing clothes),
Wow, what a woman! Gertrude Bell is the female equivalent of TE Lawrence (as in Lawrence of Arabia). They knew each other and she was famous before he was. As quoted in the book: "Lawrence kick-started the Arab Revolt, but it was Gertrude who gave the Arabs a route to nationhood".

Gertrude was from a well-to-do English family. Her family owned iron mills in Yorkshire. She traveled often and by herself (but usually with a few servants, local or native). She was a translator as she knew 6 foreign l
Aug 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating history about an amazing person I had never heard of until a favorite professor dropped her name in passing during a conversation a few years ago. Gertrude Bell lived the kind of life few people can dream of, and accomplished things that still seem rather legendary in spite of the evidence of photographs, newspaper clippings, diaries, and letters. I had a hard time tearing myself away when I had chores to do.

My quibbles with Howell's book are relatively minor. Her use of ce
Jul 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
“When Aunt Mary invited her to join the Lascelleses again, this time in Persia, she was ecstatic. It would be her first encounter with the East.”

Biographies aren't my thing *shrugs* but I'm so glad I took a chance on this one!

Never heard of Gertrude Bell? Don't worry, neither had I, until I saw the movie trailer. After reading this book, it's a real shame we don't know more about this gal but I'm hoping the film will bring much needed attention to who she is and the impact she made on the 20th
Jan 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A thorough and remarkably readable biography of an extraordinary life. Until I began wondering why someone would make a film about this woman, friend to Lawrence of Arabia, I had never heard of Gertrude Bell ("Queen of the Desert", dir. by Werner Herzog, slated for filming in 2013). By the time I finished the first chapter of this book, I was upset that I had not kown of her earlier! Ahead of her time, a strong-willed, educated, intelligent woman, Ms. Bell seems to have met every prominent perso ...more
Katherine Kreuter
While Bell is a great subject for a biography, I thought this particular biographer was a bit too partial and also prone to speculative conclusions. Some of her conjectures were clearly marked as such, but you wonder where else she has stitched remnants into whole fabric. The one place that conjecture was notably absent was regarding Bell's suicide, which the writer almost glosses over. I could have done with her view of why Bell committed this act - was it physical weariness, a fear of being us ...more
Jul 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
And that then is my reason for connecting this review with that of Gertrude Bell’s biography. For indeed, how do you begin a biography? Especially with a woman who has lived such a life? A woman who once used to be more famous than T.E. Lawrence (who was a good friend actually), who travelled the Middle East, at a time when women rode side saddle (she had an apron sort of garment made to cover her pants), who climbed mountains (taking off her skirt to do so!), who was daring and brave and advent ...more
Dec 01, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs
Shelves: history, mid-east
Fascinating account of a pretty amazing woman. Growing up in Victorian England, Bell received a First at Oxford, became an accomplished mountaineer, and traveled extensively through the desert in Syria and Iraq. Her most noted accomplishment was her involvement in the Arab Revolt during World War I and helping to create an Iraqi nation under the British mandate.

Well-written, well researched - Howell integrates lots of primary sources into her text, but it's not detracting and adds a lot to the
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