Daughter of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
By Georgina Howell
Macmillan | 2006 | ISBN-10: 1405045876 | 356 pages | £20

As with Margaret Thatcher, hard-line feminists have a problem with Gertrude Bell. Not only is her life quite at variance with their “oppression” narrative; it is clear that the only glass ceilings she encountered were the conservatories of her well-connected friends, whom she fascinated and enthralled with her gifts and adventures. Born in 1868 into a family of industrial tycoons, she was given three special blessings: a fierce intelligence, great wealth and a father who actively encouraged her in all her highly unconventional pursuits. Given the power of the Victorian paterfamilias, this last factor was probably the most important; even two generations later, Lord Redesdale, father of the clever, wilful Mitford girls, refused to give them a proper education, leaving them to latch onto dominating men.

Georgina Howell’s biography began improbably as a Sunday Times feature in a series called “My Heroine”. This estimate inevitably lets a certain hagiographic element creep in, but it does not stop the reader from forming his own view of the strengths and weaknesses of this formidable woman. Allowed to study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Gertrude took a First in History –the first woman to do so – within two years. Where her peers turned to teaching or marriage – even her college principal believed women were “Adam’s helpmate” – she travelled, aged 24, to Persia to stay with her aunt and uncle at the British embassy.

With this, the trajectory of her future life was determined. There she felt “reborn”: “I never knew what desert was till I came here”. In addition to her fluency in European languages, Gertrude now studied Persian, publishing in 1897 a spirited translation of the poems of Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi master, which is still considered the best introduction to him.

By the age of 32, after working off a little excess energy in several Swiss mountaineering feats, considered unusual even by the standards of intrepid Englishwomen abroad, Gertrude began her desert travels proper. These were planned like military campaigns. She would stay in assorted Middle Eastern hostelries while sorting out supplies, camels and servants and then set off for months on end, travelling in style, accompanied by a Wedgwood dinner service, crystal glasses, silver candlesticks and silk evening gowns. Such luxury was not so much to cosset herself — though she did enjoy dressing up — as to impress the local bandit sheiks. They called her “Khatun” – “Desert Queen”. She became fluent in Turkish and Arabic (which she spoke better than T.E. Lawrence, (ie, Lawrence of Arabia) whom she first met at an archaeological dig in 1911), added cartography, archaeology and photography to her list of accomplishments and roamed across most of Syria, Turkey and Mesopotamia.

Lawrence, who referred to her as “Gertie”, thought she was “born too gifted”. If it had not been for the Great War, she might have remained an eccentric English bluestocking abroad. Events and her obvious expertise propelled her into the Arab Bureau in Cairo in 1915 where, as “Major Miss Bell” she became the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence. In 1917, with the Ottoman Empire collapsing and the British and French agreeing, in historian Niall Ferguson’s words, to “carve up large tracts of the Ottoman territory”, she was posted to Baghdad in Mesopotamia. Here, in the post-war reconstruction of what was to become Iraq, accompanied by her canvas bed and bath, she found her life’s purpose. She transformed three run-down summerhouses into a permanent home, worked herself to death (there is some ambiguity surrounding the actual circumstances; having been ill for some time, she died during the night with an empty bottle of pills by her bed) in the attempt to bring orderly government to an inherently unstable region, and was buried there in 1926.

After her death, Gertrude’s stepmother paid tribute to her “ardent and magnetic personality”. Her biographer, with the exception of a few fevered passages describing her love-life (doomed and largely non-existent), has done her justice, well conveying her many-sided, fearless and feisty character. If only Augustus John had painted her in Arab costume, as he did for Lawrence – thus helping to create “Lawrence of Arabia” — she might have achieved the legendary status she surely deserves.

Gertrude Bell has subsequently been criticised for her legacy in Iraq: helping to erect a fragile monarchical system, with a Sunni king (the temperamental Faisal) governing a largely Shia population. In her defence it must be remembered that at the Cairo Conference of 1921 Sir Percy Cox, the British administrator in Baghdad, and Lawrence supported this plan. Winston Churchill, who made the final decision, cabled home to the Cabinet that it was “the best and cheapest solution”. As the later history of Iraq has shown, the cheapest solution is not always the best.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.