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A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  330 ratings  ·  58 reviews
The writings of one of the great woman adventurers of the twentieth century - the 'female Lawrence of Arabia' - and the subject of a new film starring Nicole Kidman.

In the last century, few people lived more astounding - or influential - lives than Gertrude Bell. During World War I, she worked her way up from spy to army major to become one of the most powerful woman in th
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 24th 2015 by Penguin Classics (first published March 31st 2015)
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Jul 03, 2015 marked it as to-read
Recommends it for: Bettie, Broken
Gertrude Bell Archive

Having most relevance for research in Archaeology, History, Politics and Travel, the books and papers of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) were given to Newcastle University Library by Gertrude's half-sister, Lady Richmond, although part of the Doughty-Wylie correspondence came from St. Anthony's College, Oxford.

Her diaries are available online here

Her letters are available online here
Aug 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating story about a woman ahead of her time. Her contributions to the world have gone unsung for too long, and it is good to see that she is finally getting her due. It is uncanny how her observations of the British mishandling of post-WWI Middle East accurately describe the next century's slide into the chaos we see there today. another reason why women worldwide should have an equal role in any political process. ...more
Jemima Ravenclaw
My preface about Gertrude Bell when reviewing 'Bell of the Desert' by Alan Gold. I don't believe I can improve on my comprehensive introduction to the woman:

'Gertrude Bell was born into a life of privilege in upper class English society, formerly presented to Queen Victoria as a debutante. Fortunately for us, she was a woman born out of her time, with brains, courage and ability; qualities that were not admired in the person of a women during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Seeking adventur
Mandy E
Dec 12, 2015 rated it liked it
-orientalism & the imperial project; the extent to which the "orientals" she meets are othered & western identity & intellectuality always the standard against which

-the annoying tendency of biographers/editors to justify/rationalize any character failings of their subjects; both come off looking shoddy and compromised.

-annoyed by the continual references to her "love of beautiful clothing". Why is this of any importance?

"I sat in my tent & read Hamlet from beginning to end & as I read, the worl
Oct 09, 2016 marked it as dnf-or-set-aside-for-now
Recommends it for: people who enjoy reading biographies
This book combines commentary with letters written by Ms. Bell to portray a true Renaissance woman of her age.

interesting quotes:

"While the franchise was denied to so many men, Parliament could not have contemplated giving the vote to women. In discussions about giving the vote only to women of property, Parliament came up against an insuperable difficulty: the property laws. The possessions of wives automatically became their husband's property on marriage. This was the law that led Gertrude's
Sep 17, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: classics, nonfiction
There is too much justification on the part of the editor about anything that Bell was doing which might be deemed ‘controversial’ (like the fact that Bell didn’t want women to get the right to vote). And I think this causes what Bell actually thought and what the editor wants you to believe to become blur together too easily.

Honestly, I don’t think the book is all that unpleasant or anything, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. A lot of parts were actually quite interesting to read ab
Olga Vannucci
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Not too many English ladies
On the banks of the Euphrates.
Elena T
Sep 17, 2018 rated it liked it
Very interesting and informative, especially in its second half where we get to follow Gertrude through her long advocacy in favour of Arab self-determination. Eventually, the nation of Iraq, which used to be made up of three separate regions of the Ottoman Empire, is established with King Faisal I on its throne and we, as readers, get to experience it all through the words of one who was there when these events took place, one without whom things would, perhaps, not have turned out as they did. ...more
Kathy Duffy
Feb 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
I had read Gertrude Bell's Biography Desert Queen and then found this book with her letters in it. What a truly fascinating and exciting woman. Wish I had known about her when I was younger - a marvelous role model. She was brilliant spoke 11 plus languages and multiple dialects of several of them, she graduated from Oxford with honors, she was a mountain climber, an archaeologist, an explorer, a politically savvy individual with extensive knowledge of the Middle East that the British Government ...more
Nov 20, 2016 added it
Readers who are interested in learning about Bell should not read this book first. It is a compilation of her letters but the timeline is all out of order and all over the place. I'd recommend reading a traditional biography of her first. ...more
Gertrude Bell should be as well known as Laurence of Arabia. She actually had a more interesting and wide-ranging series of adventures, in my opinion. This book is a good introduction to her amazing life...
Jan 17, 2021 rated it really liked it
An amazing and inspiring woman whom I knew nothing about. Loved reading about her life in her own words.

Some of my favorite quotes:
[On expat society]: "..The devil take all inane women." and "A collection of more tiresome women I never encountered" (23).

[On her expedition being attacked/shot at while camping in the desert]: "I got up too, and came out to see the fun" (51).

"I'm planning a two days' jaunt by myself in the desert. I want to feel savage and independent again" (53).

the Druze chief,
Alyxandra Cox
Jun 16, 2020 rated it liked it
Not a thought on the book really but I love when you've cultivated enough time reading about different people during certain time periods. When certain names pop up in different books they are like familiar guest characters. It just makes me smile when someone pops up who's biography I read, doing something I hadnt read about them doing, in a book I didn't expect to see them in. ...more
Mar 11, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really loved the story but the structure of the book wasn't my favorite. However, seriously this lady is a bad ass and my new personal hero. ...more
Susie Chocolate
Aug 15, 2015 rated it liked it
I was looking forward to reading this book since I had heard about Gertrude Bell and her vast accomplishments; adventurer, writer, traveller, political officer, archaeologist, explorer and cartographer.

She was an English woman and after finishing her studies at Oxford, she went around the world traveling and for a decade, she was a Mountaineer, climbing some of the most difficult peaks and setting records first as a climber and second as a female climber. You have to remember that this was the
Nov 18, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Very interesting. And what a cool fucking lady! Not at all what I usually read. I'm having a difficult time figuring out what to call this book - a biography? Miss Bell's letters are indeed the primary reference, but this is hardly a compendium. The editor, clearly a dedicated fan, shows her handiwork a little strongly for my tastes, but she has obviously done her homework and should be proud of that. (Anyway, there is hardly any such thing in the world as an objective biography.) Moreover, the ...more
Mar 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant book. I never knew anything about this remarkable women until I saw the movie Queen of the Desert. I immediately went in search of her books. What a woman, truly inspirational story and achievements. I wonder what she would think of the events now in these areas that she loved so deeply. There are comments to suggest she was against the right for women to vote. After reading her book I don't believe this at all. Her life was certainly different than most women, she was given ...more
Rachel Rogers
Dec 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Didn't quite finish this one but what I read was fascinating. Nothing like reading about someone like Bell (or Ben Franklin) to make you feel as though you have accomplished nothing in your life. I'm intrigued by the idea of a film about Bell coming out in a few months; could be excellent, could be horrible. Fascinating person. I wish the American government had paid a bit more attention (e.g. Any) to Bell's observations and learning about Iraq, seeing as she was the unofficial queen of the coun ...more
Feb 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Gertrude Bell was an incredibly interesting lady. I'm glad she was such a prolific letter writer so we have a glimpse into her world. The book is broken up into chapters about her different roles throughout her life--archaeologist, kingmaker, desert traveler, etc. This is a bit confusing at first because you don't know the scope of her life yet, but it evens out by being roughly chronological overall. ...more
Oct 19, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: audio
Gertrude Bell was a woman ahead of her time although she was rich so she could pretty much do as she liked! But she was interested in languages and archaeology and politics and travel. It is always interesting to me how much easier it was to travel in Iraq at the beginning of the twentieth century than it is now, especially for women. I always find books of letters to be sort of weird to read but this is annotated and organized by theme rather than by chronology.
Jul 08, 2017 rated it liked it
entertaining & well edited review of a life that began in romantic wanderlust & adventure seeking before devolving into nation creation & colonialism.

Far from being a pioneering feminist, she was against women's suffrage. also, her & TE Lawrence love of Arabs & championing of their rights was in fact the championing of the rights of a few blue blooded -or green blooded to coin a term- tribal leaders who could be counted on to be staunch British clients.
Abdullah Başaran
Jun 13, 2016 rated it liked it
The worst thing that can happen to someone's diary or writings is an editor who adores the figure, who is blind in being critical. The editor, by rationalizing every step Bell took, ruins everything since the historical figure is constituted superficially. Also, the book needs lots of explanatory footnotes for the details we find in Bell's writings. ...more
Jun 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bios
Can this single woman have done these amazing journeys through the Middle East? Her descriptions are mind boggling. The adventures, the sheiks, the physical endurance and cultural insights tumble out faster than I can absorb. But her vivid language and sheer velocity propelled me through the book. Now I am reading her biography by G. Howell. Amazing.
Feb 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Although the grouping of writings into areas such as 'The Archaeologist' seems logical I found this disjointed. Perhaps better to read the biography by the same author, Georgina Howell, or another?
Seems the movie mentioned on my edition's cover is Werner Herzog's 'Queen of the Desert' with Nicole Kidman (2015)
Oct 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting fragments from an interesting and influential woman are too short to give a strong impression, but they should lead one to read the editor's highly detailed biography of Bell. They'll lead me there, anyway. My wife recomends the book. ...more
Jun 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was simply a delight to be able to learn about Gertrude Bell and her contributions to the Arab world by reading her diary entries, her letters and travel writings! She is truly a woman beyond her times.
Its unfortunate that the recent move about Gertrude Bell was such a dud. The woman was incredible. They just don't make people like this anymore. What a life she had! And what an ending...this should be on every school curriculum, instead of the YA drivel they read these days. ...more
David Oskutis
Feb 22, 2021 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting concept for a way to put a book together. I can see how the editors organized things, but the bouncing back and forth in timeline (they organized by "event"/topic) made it harder for me to get a larger, more firm grasp, on Gertrude's extraordinary life.

While trying to find this book, I have found several others, and I know now that Nicole Kidman made a movie about her life, which I may watch should I see that it's on, so maybe that will help chronologically spell thi
Jul 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
A good introduction to the life of a very interesting woman, combining short biographical vignettes with excepts from Bell's own letters and writings. ...more
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Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist.

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