Desert Queen; The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

Desert Queen; The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

by Janet Wallach
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Desert Queen; The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach

Turning her back on her privileged life in Victorian England, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), fired by her innate curiosity, journeyed the world and became fascinated with all things Arab. Traveling the length and breadth of the Arab region, armed with a love for its language and its people, she not only produced several enormously popular books based on her experiences but became instrumental to the British foreign office. When World War I erupted, and the British needed the loyalty of the Arab leaders, it was Gertrude Bell's work and connections that helped provided the brain for T. E. Lawrence's military brawn. After the war she participated in both the Paris and Cairo conferences, played a major role in creating the modern Middle East, and was generally considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.

In this incident-packed biography, Janet Wallach reveals a woman whose achievements and independent spirit were especially remarkable for her times, and who brought the same passion and intensity to her explorations as she did to her rich romantic life. Too long eclipsed by Lawrence's fame, Gertrude Bell emerges in this first major biography as a woman whose accomplishments rank as crucial to world history (especially in light of the continuing geopolitical importance of the Middle East) and whose life was a grand adventure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385495752
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/01/1999
Edition description: Older Edition
Pages: 417
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.22(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Desert Queen

By Janet Wallach

Anchor Books/Doubleday

Copyright © 1999 Janet Wallach
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385495757


Of Great and Honored Stock

    Great persons, like great empires, leave their mark on history. The greatest empire of all time, the one that stretched over a greater amount of ocean, covered a greater amount of land, contained a greater number of people than any before it, was the British Empire of Queen Victoria. Her superpower left its mark on continents and subcontinents, from Europe to Australia to India to America to Africa to Asia, from Adelaide to Wellington, Bombay to Rangoon, Ottawa to the Virgin Islands, Alexandria to Zanzibar, Aden to Singapore. The British navy ruled the seas, British coal fueled the ships and industries, British bankers financed the businesses, British merchants ran the trade, British food fed the stomachs and British factories clothed the bodies of one fourth of all human beings who lived and worked and played in every corner of the world.

    Nothing better exemplified Britain's place at the center of the universe than the very first world's fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London. Along with Queen Victoria (who visited it forty times), half a million people--entrepreneurs, industrialists, landed aristocrats, diplomats,professionals, tradesmen and workers--came on opening day to see the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations" at the new Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Six million more people followed, most of them arriving by railway, to walk under the domed glass and along the carpeted hallways, to see goods from countries as nearby as France, Germany, Italy and Spain and from as far away as Russia, Persia, Turkey and China. They saw every imaginable product and some that were unimaginable: fabrics, raw hides, machine looms, jewelry, china, chocolates, coffee, tea, carpets, automatic revolvers, hydraulic presses, mechanical wood saws, wheat-grinding machines, gold quartz mills, high-pressure steam engines, a twenty-four-ton chunk of coal and a machine that sent messages by telegraph. The point of the exhibition, said Prince Albert, who had conceived it, was to show how far mankind had come and to give a direction for future development. No nation had come farther than Britain, the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, "the workshop of the world." Its citizens had the highest per capita income and its workers contributed more than half of the fourteen thousand exhibitions at the Crystal Palace. In addition to the products of its colonies, the British booths displayed English cottons from Lancashire, sturdy woolens from Yorkshire, linens from Scotland, edged tools and fancy silver from Birmingham, glass and cutlery from Sheffield and huge machinery from Northumbria.

    Nowhere did Britain's workshops toil harder than in Northumbria. In this remote region of northeast England, gray clouds still hover like withering ghosts, reminders of the black smoke of the furnaces that once choked its air and filled its skies. Northumbria. Its very name rumbles with the grimness of murky towns, desolate moors and dark seas. From its plants and factories came ships and railroads and enough iron and steel to help Britain fill forty percent of the world's supply. From beneath its surface came vast amounts of salt, lead, alum and iron ore and enough coal to help Britain provide two thirds of the world's needs. To and from its coastline came and went massive steamships carrying goods and keeping Northumbrians in touch with every outpost of the Empire.

    If Northumbria was England's industrial country, Middlesbrough was its model town. Built out of bleak salt marshes, it began in 1801 with twenty-five people, but after railway lines were laid and ironworks started, it exploded into a booming town with a population of 7,431 in 1851, 19,416 in 1861 and more than 90,000 at the end of the nineteenth century. Its collieries that mined coal and converted it into coke (by 1840 Middlesbrough was mining one and a half million tons of coal annually), its blast factories that smelted iron ore into iron (by 1873 it was producing five and a half million tons of iron ore), its foundries that combined the silvery iron with the refined coke to manufacture steel (by 1879 it was producing over 85,000 tons of steel), its railroad lines, its factories, its potteries, its mills, its ships, its docks and its warehouses drew workers from all over Britain. Young men and women eager for jobs in the miserable pits or the hellish foundries came from the West Midlands, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the East Indies, even the United States, and stared in awe at the night sky lit up with the brilliant flames of the steel furnaces or watched in amazement as locomotives steamed out of town hauling railroad cars filled with coal, iron, steel and pottery for every major city in England. The people who came for jobs crammed into the sooty rows of brown brick houses and breathed in the smutty air, cheering their mayor when he told the Prince of Wales that Middlesbrough took pride in its smoke. "The smoke is an indication of plenty of work ... an indication of prosperous times, an indication that all classes of workpeople are being employed.... Therefore we are proud of our smoke."

    The men and women who prospered most--industrialists, merchants, barristers, physicians, and their wives--would sometimes celebrate a special birthday or an anniversary by traveling the thirty miles north to Newcastle. The big city on the River Tyne was the capital of northern England, a commercial center, a bustling port, the place to go for an evening of theater, a day of shopping, a fine meal at a fancy inn.

    If Middlesbrough was a booming town without a past, Newcastle was an ancient city rich with history. Residents of Newcastle who yearned for a bit of fresh country air could ride out to Wallsend and examine remnants of the Emperor Hadrian's Wall, built to defend Roman soldiers against Celtic warriors; or they could explore the moors and coastline where Englishmen once battled Scotsmen from the north, Anglo-Saxons from Germany, Vikings from Denmark and Normans from France. Back in town, a nineteenth-century man could still climb the castle keep built by William the Conqueror's son in 1080 or wander through the Guildhall, where craftsmen once met to set the wages of young apprentices. Men who disagreed over land or debts no longer argued at the Moot Hall, but they still held meetings at the County Hall, celebrated special occasions in the Merchant Adventurers' Court and prayed together at the five-hundred-year-old Saint Nicholas's Church.

    Their work, too, was part of Newcastle's long history. As far back as the sixteenth century, its collieries had supplied 163,000 tons of coal to London, and its shipbuilding industry had built seafaring vessels--first, sailboats of wood, then, after 1838, steamships of iron and, later, massive ships of steel. Its old dock had been turned into a bustling

    In 1842 Lowthian Bell had married Margaret Pattinson, daughter of a chemical manufacturer, and a few years later, in partnership with his father-in-law, opened a chemical works at Washington, a few miles from Newcastle. Down the road from the medieval ancestral home of George Washington, the young couple built an imposing Gothic house, complete with stained glass windows, terra cotta gargoyles and a large square tower. The red brick structure had enough rooms to accommodate an endless stream of guests and enough domestic servants to care for the five babies who soon arrived. Margaret gave birth to three girls and two boys; their elder son, born on February 10, 1844, was a handsome, carrot-haired, blue-eyed lad. Thomas Hugh Bell would be Hugh to all who knew him and father to Gertrude Bell.

    The Bell household bubbled with activity. Visitors constantly came and went, and young Hugh was allowed into the drawing room to meet his father's friends. The boy listened as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley expounded their ideas on evolution, and John Ruskin, the art critic and social reformer, and William Morris, the aesthetic socialist, discussed their revolutionary ideas of how man should not just improve industry but how industry should improve the life of man. It was radical talk in the home of an industrial magnate, but Lowthian Bell was no ordinary man. He was an adventurer who believed in a solid foundation of learning and a dedication to society.

    The year of the Great Exhibition, when Hugh Bell was eleven, he was sent to school in Edinburgh. Four years later he traveled to France to study chemistry at the Sorbonne and then to Germany to study organic chemistry and mathematics. Reluctantly, at the age of eighteen he returned to England to join his father's business. As energetic as his father, and equally curious, he would someday be considered by The Times "a great authority on all questions connected with the coal and iron trades." But Hugh had a broader intellect. First assigned to the head office of Bell Brothers Ironworks at Newcastle, he was soon made director of the company branch at Middlesbrough and would go on to run the entire business. But he spent much of his time promoting secondary education. He founded the Middlesbrough High School, was chairman of the Free Library Committee and chairman of the School Board. An effective speaker, he delivered speeches around the country on public education, public health and military reform and proudly pushed through a bill protecting children from dangerous work.

    Vivacious and good-humored, Hugh delighted his friends with amusing stories in English, French and German and tickled his guests with his latest pun. He would sometimes come down to breakfast with a piece of paper in his hand; from the conversation the evening before, he had elaborated on an irony or sharpened a satirical story. He loved to read, enjoyed engaging in any area of conversation and could quote contemporary thinkers as easily as he could tell an original joke. A boisterous man with a generous heart, he had the charming ways and courteous manner of a true Victorian gentleman. But he was, he admitted, a "bitter free-trader," and almost as bitterly opposed to Home Rule for the Irish; if pushed too hard, he could be mercilessly blunt. He had no fear of physical challenges, loved to ride to the hounds and climb to precipitous heights, and said frequently, "obstacles are made to be overcome." Brilliant and incisive, he gave the impression of polished steel.

    But the tall, handsome bachelor, who had an eye for the ladies, met Miss Mary Shield. A fragile-looking young woman with a gentle face, large, sensitive, wide-set eyes and a finely shaped mouth, the daughter of an important Newcastle food merchant, she married Hugh in 1867. After their wedding at the parish church near her family's summer house in the Scottish isles, they returned to Washington, where the Lowthian Bells had added on several new rooms, including a fashionable Turkish bath, and by Christmas Mary was pregnant.

    Arrived, on July 14, 1868, the London Times announced: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell. The first-born of Hugh Bell and Mary Shield Bell had reddish hair and piercing blue-green eyes, her mother's bow-shaped lips and rounded chin, her father's oval face and pointed nose. Of honored stock and Northumbrian heartiness, she had inherited too, from her paternal side, the energy and intellect, the drive and determination that made the Bell males so outstanding.

    Under the watchful eye of her nanny, Miss Ogle, Gertrude was soon dressed in bloomers, petticoats and cotton frocks, fed her porridge, made to eat her vegetables and encouraged to play outdoors. She was reminded to obey her parents (and Miss Ogle), sit up straight, hold her knife and fork properly and speak to adults only when spoken to. The country's greatest role model, Queen Victoria, she was taught, was "a good wife, a good mother, and a good woman ... due, under God, to the training she had in childhood and girlhood." The Queen was dedicated to her princely husband, her children and her Empire, and she set the highest example of morality, self-discipline and hard work.

    It was appropriate that the Bells' family fortune was earned through industry and toil. Britain's great strength, after all, came from its navy, its trade, its coal and iron. Few men contributed more than the' Bells. They worked not only to enhance their own communities, but to maintain Britain's place in the sun. They took pride in the British Empire and in its role as custodian of the universe. Whether in their huge and all-important colony of India or on some tiny island in the Caribbean, the British believed it was their duty to protect the natives, uphold the trade, spread morality and defend the territory. If the British did not do it, they assumed, someone else would, and no one--not the Germans, not the French, certainly not the Russians (who lusted after India)--could ever do it as well. Theirs was a world run by men of initiative, courage and conviction. It was a world graced by women who, in their domesticity, were no less than the guardians of the English race.

    Like other young women of her class, as she grew older Gertrude would be expected to stay at home (unlike her brother, who would be sent off to Eton), be taught by governesses and have accomplishments. In the prevailing belief that a healthy body was as important as a healthy mind, she would learn to ride, to swim and to play tennis; to be fluent in at least two foreign languages, preferably German and French; to be well versed in literature and knowledgeable in music and art; to be good at fancy needlework, dabble in painting and know how to play a musical instrument. Most of all, it was thought, she would aspire to be a good wife and mother. But unlike other young women of her class, Gertrude had ambitions that would go far beyond the home. Like her father and grandfather, she would be driven to reach for intellectual challenges. She would attend university, travel widely and take up more than one successful career. Like her father and grandfather, she would help the Empire sustain its greatness and even expand its rule. Like her father and grandfather, she would penetrate the unknown and explore the frontier. But unlike Hugh and Lowthian Bell, she would have no desire to make her world in Northumbria. Her world would be in the East, in Arabia, in Egypt, in Syria and, most of all, in Iraq, where she would make her mark on history.

    At the age of two Gertrude was brought to Red Barns, her parents' huge new mansion near Middlesbrough. From the tall casement windows in the children's wing of the house, she kept track of her favorite gardens, her little one next to Papa's, blooming with buttercups, hyacinths and roses. On most days she ran across the fields, climbed trees or raced to the family stables for riding lessons. Beyond the great expanse of green lawn lay the racquet court, the bicycle house and the pond, and beyond even that lay a more rugged landscape. Red Barns, in the seaside town of Redcar, was close to the rough North Sea, which crashed against the English coastline. With her crisply dressed nanny beside her, Gertrude stood at the edge of the sea and wriggled her toes in the briny waves, watching the great steamships sailing off to faraway ports. Like Kipling, she could ask:

"Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England's own coal up and down the salt seas?"
"We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork and mutton, eggs, apples and cheese."

    Indoors, from the nursery Gertrude wandered through the house's fourteen bedrooms, paid calls to the kitchen to chat with the cook or peeked into the conservatories, but the best activity was visiting with her mother. Snuggled on Mary's lap, she nestled in the rustling layers of her taffeta dress, enfolding herself in her mother's special scent. Secure and protected, Gertrude's life seemed to be as smooth as her cashmere blanket. But sorrow would soon snag its pretty design.

     Nearly three weeks had gone by since her mother took to bed in the winter of 1871. At first, great excitement filled the house with the announcement of the arrival of a baby boy. But the bleak March skies of northern England darkened over Red Barns as the little girl waited in the nursery, eager to return to her mother's loving arms, curious to see the infant, Maurice. Her brother's cries were not the only strange new sounds in the house; hushed whispers blew like an evil wind outside her mother's door. The frail Mary Bell was too ill to leave her bed, and the physician who attended arrived more often now; the clomp of the doctor's steps came faster and heavier, but instead of improving, the patient was growing weaker. It was not long before pneumonia set in, and then, as quickly as they had come, the doctor's footsteps disappeared. The little girl, watching anxiously for her mother's return, saw her hopes snatched as suddenly as a raven seizes its prey.

    Gertrude was not yet three when her family dressed her in black to mourn her mother's death. Mary was buried in the fields at Rounton Grange, a new estate being built by Lowthian Bell, and for several years after, young Gertrude re-enacted the funeral. Each time a favorite cat or other animal died, she grieved with a heavy heart, and with much fanfare led an imposing procession to bury her pet in a cemetery in the garden.

    In a photograph taken the year her mother died, the curly-haired child shows a furrowed brow that forms an arch over her troubled soul. Her haunted eyes peer restlessly for answers, and the distant expression, seen in every photograph of her from childhood to womanhood, foreshadows a life spent searching. But, as she leans her foot on a stool, defiantly looking as if she were about to jump on it or kick it over, her firm expression gives hint of her strong will and resolution.

    Anger, betrayal, a sense of abandonment; these are the feelings that surge in a child who has lost a parent. But Gertrude was also fortunate to be enveloped by her father's love. Few can deny the powerful affection of a three-year-old girl for her father; even more, he became her role model. He would be the person she most patterned herself after, the one whose stamp of approval she always sought. From him she gained enormous confidence and the attitude for overcoming obstacles.

    Distraught over his wife's death, Hugh was able to take solace in his daughter's love and to share with her the pleasures of long walks and rock-climbing, riding horses, raising rabbits and cultivating flower gardens. For her birthday he gave Gertrude a watering can; she reported to him that wild roses bloomed abundantly in the garden. On another occasion she announced that she had gathered a nosegay, proudly noting that the roses had come from her garden. As an adolescent she sent him descriptions of a neighbor's garden: bright scarlet dahlias, yellow-brown acacia, tall, thin chrysanthemums grew there, she wrote, but "I like the way we grow ours better." Even as an adult living in Baghdad she shared with him the progress of her garden, wishing sometimes he would come and help. Flowers were but a small part of the powerful bond she nurtured with her father; all her life she rejoiced in his admiration and regarded him as an unending source of wisdom, understanding and love.

    Her brother, Maurice, became her closest playmate and perfect foil. Fearful of her sharp tongue and her reprimands, he followed her like an awkward puppy. When she led him to the top of a nine-foot wall and ordered him to jump, the little boy heeded and fell flat on his face, but she landed gracefully on her feet. Climbing treacherously to the roof of the greenhouse, Maurice went crashing through the glass, but Gertrude scampered safely across the panes. At the beach, when their nurse wasn't looking, the children slipped from her side and Gertrude dashed with her brother from one cove to another or hid in the boats moored on the shore. In bad weather they played inside, pasting pictures in their scrapbooks, watching magic lantern slides, playing with their trains and dolls.

    Until Gertrude was eight, the distraught widower Hugh, when not at work, spent most of his time at home. Despite the urging of his sisters, Hugh refused to think of marrying again. But on a vacation in Scotland in the summer of 1874 he was introduced to a friend of his sisters named Florence Olliffe. The twenty-four-year-old playwright had lived in France, where her father, a prominent physician and socialite, had created the seaside resort of Deauville. In Paris she had known diplomats and literary figures and counted among her family friends the writers Charles Dickens and Henry James. After her father's death she and her mother had moved to England, where she impressed those she met with her sophisticated style; Hugh was struck by her elegant manners and her intense blue eyes. Florence noticed not only Hugh's courtly ways, but when she saw him for the first time, standing at the end of a rose-covered path, she recognized how beautiful he was and how very sad.

    For two years their relationship continued, and in the spring of 1876, when it turned more serious, Florence wrote a note to Gertrude. "My Dear Miss Olliffe," Gertrude carefully penned in response, answering questions about her flowers and a pair of ominous ravens, "Thank you very much for your letter. The ravens are tamer and very nice. I think you will like the garden very much, the flowers are all coming out." She signed the letter, "Your aff'ate Gertrude."

    That June in London, at the Harley Street home of Lady Stanley, a staging was held of an opera that Florence had written. The enlightened Lady Stanley, grandmother of Bertrand Russell and mother-in-law of Hugh's sister, made the event a sparkling occasion. At the end of the evening, when Hugh escorted Florence back to her mother's flat at 95 Sloane Street, he asked for her hand in marriage. "Lady Olliffe," he announced, "I have brought your daughter home, and I have come to ask if I may take her away again." They were married two months later, on August 10, 1876, at a small church on Sloane Street. It seems so odd now, and even somewhat cruel, but the children were not included in the wedding. Instead, Gertrude sent a note: "My dear Miss Olliffe. I write this letter for you to have on your wedding day to send you and Papa our best love and many kisses. Thank you for the doll's frock which fits beautifully ... From your loving Gertrude." For their honeymoon the couple went off to America, where Florence's sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Frank Lascelles, were posted at the British Embassy in Washington, and the next time Gertrude wrote to Florence, thanking her for a locket, she addressed her with a new title: "My Dear Mother."

    Even before the wedding, Florence had tried to win the little girl's heart, sending her clothes for her dolls and gifts for herself. Eager for the attention, Gertrude was troubled, nevertheless, by this new woman who took so much of her father's time. While her parents were on their honeymoon, she wrote to them with some concern about their safety, told them she dreamed of dead ravens and wished that her parents were with her. By autumn, Florence and Hugh were back at Red Barns, and life returned to some of its old rhythm. A portrait done by Edward Poynter shows eight-year-old Gertrude seated on her father's lap, his arm around her, their fingers entwined, their faces glowing with love and affection. In its essence, it was a picture that could have been drawn at almost any point in their lives.

    When Hugh and his new wife went off to London the following April, Gertrude was almost in despair. "Dear dear Mamy," she wrote to Florence, "I am very very sorry you cannot come home.... I send love to Papa and all. I am dear dear dear Mamy your loving Gertrude." A short while later, she received news that her parents were returning: "Dear Mamy, I am so very very very very very very glad you are coming home.... Do get me a doll. I have got none.... Dear dear dear dear dear dear Mamy, you don't know how glad I am you are coming home. From your very very very loving Gertrude."

    Eager for Florence's love, the little girl struggled to please. Florence opened up an exciting world of books, theater, art and interesting people. As a child Gertrude liked nothing so much as to sit at her side, listening to her read from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland or the tales of Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp from the Arabian Nights. As Gertrude grew older, she found much in Florence to admire: her talent as a writer, her efforts at social justice, her accomplishments as a hostess, her literary friends, her stylishness and fashion sense. Even more, she was grateful for the friendship and family life that Florence provided.

    But her stepmother's impatience with anything less than perfection prickled Gertrude like a spiky thorn. A photograph, taken when Gertrude was nine, reveals some of the tension between them. Florence, resplendent in a rich velvet dress trimmed with fur, is seated in front of a leaded glass window, her expression forbidding as she looks down at a large book in her hands. On one site stands Maurice, in his buttoned-up suit, on the other, Gertrude, in a plain wool dress, but as close as they are placed to her, the children seem miles away. There is no contact: no physical touching, no emotional bond. While little Maurice seems to be biting his lip to stop himself from crying, Gertrude looks soulful, her eyes off somewhere in the distance. If tears could fill the chasm between them, there would be enough to plug an ocean.

    Gertrude's willfulness had caused a string of nannies to quit their job. Florence, too, hat little tolerance for Gertrude's "highly spirited" ways. As soon as she began having her own children (there would be three in all: Elsa, Molly and Hugo), Gertrude, aged ten, was sent on long visits to her cousins (her favorite was Horace Marshall) or to her grandparents' new house at Rounton Grange. More than once reports came back to Florence about Gertrude's naughtiness, her dangerous climbs on steep rocks, the risky adventures that often scared the relatives.

    Wherever Gertrude was, she escaped through her books. They were her magic carpet, but anything she read had to be approved by Florence. At the age of eleven she glided through John Richard Green's long History of the English People. At fourteen, she asked her cousin Horace if he had read Browning's new book of poetry. "I suppose not," she answered with resignation. But, she boasted to him, in one week she had galloped through volumes of letters and biographies of Mozart, Macaulay and Mrs. Carlyle. At sixteen, she dashed through George Eliot's Silas Marner, and then asked meekly, "What other book of hers may I read now?" Even at the age of twenty-three, after ordering a bestselling novel about the seduction of a maid, she wrote apologetically to Florence, telling her to return it: "Naturally I should have asked you about it before I read it."

    No matter how bright they were, girls of Gertrude's class rarely were sent away to school; instead, they were tutored at home and, at the age of seventeen, were presented at court and introduced to society. Within three seasons of coming out, each was expected to find a husband. But Gertrude had shown an exceptional mind, too keen to be kept at home. Florence and Hugh, progressive thinkers both, took the radical step of sending her to a girls' school in London. It would calm the energy level in the household and, at the same time, feed Gertrude's hungry intellect. Queen's College, a girls' school on Harley Street, was started in 1848 as a series of Lectures for Ladies.

    It was a total change from the protected world of Red Barns and Rounton Grange. For one thing, her classmates were all girls. For another, the rules were stricter in London than they had been at home. Intellectually, she had little concern. Her first-term grades marked her as an outstanding student first in her class in English History; second in English Grammar, third in Geography, fourth in French and Ancient History. When a subject was too easy, she asked to be transferred to a more advanced class and welcomed the extra load of work. But eager as she was to learn, and as good a scholar as she was, the sixteen-year-old found the experience at Queen's College lonely and painful. "I was horribly miserable yesterday," she wrote after she returned for a new semester; "the first few days are the worst." Torn from the comforts of home, she missed her male companions--her brother Maurice, her cousin Horace and her father--and disliked the company of other young women. She found them "uninteresting," affected and not up to her speed. Nevertheless, the privileged young lady, whose grandfather had just been made a baronet, discovered that she did not always stand above the crowd: "It's a very disagreeable process, finding out that one is no better than the common run of people. I've gone through rather a hard course of it since I came to College and I don't like it at all." She dreaded the "great flat stretch of weeks with nothing to look forward to," and filled her days with extra school assignments. History was her favorite subject, and as she studied the English monarchy she began to comprehend Britain's powerful role in the world.

    City life did not please her; London was a quick flirtation, an evening of laughter followed by a lonely night of tears. For Gertrude, the countryside was constant love; it embraced her with arms full of roses and caressed her with blossoms and trees. "I wish I were at home," she wrote wistfully in the fall. "There must be such a delicious autumn smell in the country, and then crackly yellow and red leaves, oh it makes me quite discontented to think of it." Knowing how much she loved the outdoors, Florence made sure there were always fresh flowers in her room at school. When she slipped up once, Gertrude chided, "You didn't send me any flowers this week! Did you forget?"

    In the loneliness of her schooldays, she sought company through her letters. Her wooden pen with steel-tipped nib, a bottle of ink and paper became her constant companions. Throughout her life she would keep them by her side, and sometimes, when there was no one else, she used them to talk for hours to her family. Over the years, she wrote to her stepmother partly as duty, partly in friendship, partly as a journal of her experiences. Often her parents were apart and she wrote to them both. Her arm never tired, the words seemed to push the pen onto the paper without her body's exerting any effort. She told everything there was to know; and later, when the British needed to know the terrain of the desert, she could tell them almost every grain of sand she had traversed, and when they asked about any man she had met, she could describe the birthmarks on his face and the warts on his character.

    In spite of the separation at school, Florence kept a firm watch, scrutinizing Gertrude's manners and supervising her social life. Gertrude was required to ask permission before visiting anyone outside Florence's circle, and like all young, unmarried women from proper families, she was not allowed on the street without a chaperone. She found the rules for her gender terribly frustrating. Even a visit to a museum required an escort "I wish I could go to the National, but you see there is no one to take me. If I were a boy, I should go to that incomparable place every week, but being a girl to see lovely things is denied me!"

    At times she seemed perfectly willing to accept her mother's control, and, indeed, all her life she acted with obedience toward her parents. She wished that Florence would come to London and visit and was delighted when Florence arranged for friends to invite her to tea. At their homes she met, among others, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, the well-known novelist; Mrs. Green, widow of the historian; Anne Ritchie, the daughter of William Thackeray; Richmond Ritchie, her husband and an influential diplomat; Jenny Lind, the Swedish soprano; Fanny Kemble, the actress and, later, Henry James and the poet Robert Browning.

    At other times, when Florence was very critical, Gertrude dipped her pen in anger. After receiving three excoriating pages, she wrote back to tell Florence they were "quite horrid," and announced gleefully that she had avenged herself by promptly burning them. Her mother constantly reprimanded her for spelling errors and grammatical shortcuts, and after one particularly critical letter, Gertrude complained about Florence's "priggish" style. "Would you have me say when talking of the sovereign, 'The Queen of England, Scotland, Ireland, Empress of India, Defender of the Faith'?" the sixteen-year-old asked. "My life is not long enough to give everything its full title." Another time she complained, "You've told me all those things so often that I know them by heart.... I don't think it's any use your telling me over again. Generally, I think I could write out your letters before I open them and come pretty close to the original withal!" How different were her comments to her father. "You don't scold me nearly enough," she told him, "but I'm much sorrier when you don't scold me than when you do."

    In her letters to Hugh, Gertrude solicited his help on freeing her from the dreaded piano lessons Florence insisted she have; she asked his advice on schoolwork, offered her views on history and sought her father's opinions on free trade, Home Rule for the Irish, the fate of Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Liberal Party. She divided her writing between Florence's interests in literature, fashion and the arts and Hugh's interests in politics and world affairs. But slowly her own interests were developing in all of these areas. She wrote to Hugh that history might become her career (at least, although she did not say so, until she married), and in her last semester, at the suggestion of her teacher, she approached her father gingerly and asked permission to continue her studies at Oxford. If Hugh agreed to send her to university, it would be another radical step. Instead of a world of domesticity, she would be entering the realm of the elite and the powerful, a world ruled and peopled almost completely by men. "My only fear," she wrote to her father, "is if I once go there you will never be able to get me away!"


Excerpted from Desert Queen by Janet Wallach Copyright © 1999 by Janet Wallach. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide

This Reading Group Guide--consisting of an introduction, discussion questions*, suggestions for further reading, and author biography--is intended to enhance your group's discussion of Janet Wallach's Desert Queen, the remarkable biography of the woman who, because of her love of Arab culture, came to wield significant power in the British Empire.

1. Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 at the height of the British Empire, when the British navy ruled the seas and British merchants supplied food and clothing to half the world's population. The Bell family lived in northern England and employed 40,000 workers in their coal and iron works. In addition to running their prosperous business, Gertrude's father Hugh Bell and her grandfather Lowthian Bell were well-educated, intellectually curious, adventurous, and politically engaged. Hugh Bell's motto was "obstacles are made to be overcome." How did Gertrude Bell's upbringing shape her? How did she apply her father's philosophy to her life?

2. Gertrude Bell was a difficult child: precocious, stubborn, and naughty enough to discourage her nannies from staying on the job. She prided herself on being better than the others around her, and as she grew up, her best friends were her brother Maurice and her cousin Billy Lascelles. In her adolescent years, she always seemed at odds with her stepmother; the one woman she seemed to care for was her aunt Florence, whose husband was the British ambassador to Bucharest and Tehran. What were Gertrude Bell's relationships like with other females? Why did she have such disdain for the British wives in Baghdad? Were there any women she admired? Did her attitude toward women change over the years? Ifso, how did it manifest itself?

3. Like most young women of her time, Gertrude Bell was expected to marry by the age of twenty. Although she was intellectually outstanding, from a marital point of view she was a failure, having found neither husband nor a fiancé. She was sent abroad to give her some sophistication and to prevent her from becoming a bluestocking. Yet when she fell in love with Henry Cadogan, her father told her he would not give her permission to marry. Why did her father object to the match? Why did she obey his wishes? Gertrude seemed unusually close to her father and continued to ask for his advice even after she became an important official. How would you characterize their relationship? How did it influence her relationships with other men?

4. Although women were often treated as second-class citizens, Gertrude Bell received the finest education and was given many of the privileges of a man. She was sent to college in London, and then was able to attend Oxford University. She was given freedom to travel around the world, was a published writer while still in her twenties, and often discussed politics with members of Parliament and British diplomats. In light of this, how did she respond to the women's suffrage movement? Why did she feel this way?

5. The bedouins gave Gertrude Bell the complimentary title of "an honorary male." When she was in the desert, she was able to march into the tents of the sheikhs. The tribal leaders often hosted her for one or two nights, sharing their best food and enjoying conversations with her that ranged from local gossip to world politics. Yet in their own world, the Arabs kept their women in separate quarters, did not allow them to take their meals with the men, and had little regard for the women's opinions. Why did the sheikhs accept Gertrude Bell as an equal and even treat her as a dignitary? How similar were the attitudes of the Arab notables and the British male officers and officials?

6. During World War I there were three different agreements that the British made concerning the future of the Arab lands after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. When they were revealed, these agreements created anger and confusion among all three groups. What were the promises and to whom were they made? What impact did they have on the Middle East?

7. When the British decided on the emir Faisal to lead the new state of Iraq, they knew they would have problems. Faisal came from an important Sunni family yet he had never set foot in Mesopotamia. Why were they determined to put him on the throne? What were the political reasons? What sort of person was he? Why did the British believe he would be accepted by the Shiites? What was his role in the Arab revolt against the Turks? Gertrude Bell knew that the Arabs in Mesopotamia had a long, rich history. How did she teach Faisal this history? Faisal had to be approved by a referendum, yet he knew no one when he arrived in Iraq. What did Gertrude Bell do to make sure Faisal would be approved in a referendum?

8. When the British entered Baghdad after the defeat of the Turks, they declared themselves liberators and received a warm welcome from the Arabs. Shortly afterwards, attitudes changed, and the British were considered the enemy. What happened to change opinions? How did the British treat the Arab unrest? What was British opinion at home concerning Mesopotamia? Why did England turn to the League of Nations? What was Winston Churchill's role?

9. Today, it is often questioned why Iraq looks the way it does geographically and demographically. How were its borders decided? What was Gertrude Bell's role? Did the British know there was oil, and if so, was it the only consideration? Why are the Kurds included in the population? Why were the Sunnis given control?

10. The Baghdad Museum has recently been in the news because of the destruction and theft of many of its antiquities. What was Gertrude Bell's connection to this museum? Why was she interested in it? How did she become interested in archaeology? What discoveries did she make in her earlier travels? What did she do to prevent foreign archaeologists from removing antiquities from the country?

11. In some ways, Gertrude Bell's experiences paralleled that of Victorian England. In what ways did they reflect the fortunes of the British Empire? At the end of her life, she took an overdose of sleeping pills. How did the end of her life reflect the decline of the empire?

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Desert Queen; The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gertrude Bell was certainly no whimp! I really enjoyed reading about her adventures in the East. I remember reading about the Bagdad Museum being looted during the last war, and I could not help but think that if she were alive, she would have been guarding the museum door in her silk dress and straw hat. She really was an incredible woman, and I enjoyed the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a well researched book which is a must-read for those who wish to really understand the current pitfalls for the U.S. in it's prewsent Iraq situation. Little has changed and a 80 year cycle has just completed from 1919 to 2003. Ms Wallach is careful to report, as opposed to analyse, leaving the reader to form (with a liberal dose of 80 rears of hindsight) their own conclusions and she gives them a lot with which to do this. One or two issues: The use of more maps would have made this book far better. Ms Wallach has a problem with the socio-economic demographic structure in England, then very different than the U.S. In economic terms Bell was the superior of Lawrence but not necessarily in social standing. Bell came from commerce but Lawrence was the son of a Peer, albeit 'out of wedlock' (The P.C. police at B and N don't allow the real term! So silly) because his father ran away with a commoner. She is slightly hard on Arnold Wilson. Wilson was die-hard Indian Army and while brilliant was a product of that special class. It would have been heresy to admit non Indian control. However Bell was correct and was more flexible due to her inate understanding of Arab tribes and customs. She does Wilson damage in her parting shot as to his Hitler sympathy's and does not mention that in 1940, Sir Arnold Wilson, ex Colonel, joined the RAF volunterr reserve as an air gunner and was shot down and killed in his bomber in France in 1940. A more just epitaph! Lastly I have always found that Gertrude Bell's suicide rather perplexing. While secular, she was very Victorian in attitude which would rule out suicide. Also it seems astonishing that she would do such a thing knowing how much it would hurt her family and specifically her father.. a letter was unfinished.. totally out of character. Hastily, I do not suggest murder but a mistake, by her, was possibly made. Who knows. An excellent book.