Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

by Janet Wallach

Paperback, 2005




Anchor (2005), Edition: 6.12.2005, 425 pages


Biography & Autobiography. History. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML: 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..… (more)


½ (152 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member setnahkt
It would be interesting to do parallel lives of Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. Both made their names as lone women travelers in the Middle East; both were successful authors; both were multilingual (Bell’s translation of the Persian poet Hafiz is still considered one of the best, and Persian
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wasn’t even her primary foreign language); both were adjuncts to the English diplomatic service; both were unlucky in love. The differences were great, though; Stark came from a “genteel impoverished” middle class family, while Bell’s family was extremely wealthy. Bell was formally educated at Oxford (at a time when that was quite rare for a woman); Stark was self-taught. When Stark travelled alone, she was really alone; while Bell’s idea of “alone” including a coterie of servants, several tents, an elaborate wardrobe, a folding canvas bathtub, a collapsible dining table, and a complete set of dinnerware with crystal – and she always dressed for dinner, even in the middle of the Arabian desert.

And Bell was a lot more influential than Stark in the diplomatic world; her travels had taken her through Syria, Arabia and Mesopotamia when they were still under Ottoman control (I had to be reminded that there was no “Iraq” in Ottoman times; instead there were separate provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basrah). Bell made the acquaintance of just about every prominent Arab in the area; she was somehow able to get herself treated as an “honorary man” and was able to get sheiks and holy men – many of whom had never seen an unveiled woman except their wives - to receive her and talk to her about politics. She was also trained as a surveyor and made maps of her travel areas; as a result when WWI started she was an invaluable resource.

Her personality was such, though, that she rubbed a number of her male colleagues the wrong way (one wrote home to his wife that the “… bitch … was a silly, chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering [sic] ass”. One assumes he toned down his language for his wife; perhaps he told his coworkers how he really felt.) Gradually, however, her genuine talents outweighed her interesting personality and her coworkers either learned to get along with her or resigned and went elsewhere. First assigned to draw maps and write reports a spare bedroom in Basrah with no official position or salary, the quality of her work gradually impressed the higher ups to the extent that she was eventually made a major in the Foreign Service (didn’t realize they had military ranks, but apparently so). In addition to her writing and maps, she hosted frequent dinner parties in Basrah and Baghdad mingling British diplomats with Arab sheiks and Jewish businessmen and picking up all sorts of useful political gossip. Her greatest triumph, though, was the 1921 Cairo conference which ended up establishing an Iraqi state; there a famous picture of her on a camel in front of the Sphinx, with Winston Churchill on her right and T.E> Lawrence on her left.

Alas, her romantic life was not a triumph. Biographer Janet Wallach speculates that she held men to an excessively high standard. Her one great love was apparently Dick Doughty-Wylie, “soldier, statesman, poet and adventurer, he was everything Gertrude dreamed of in a man”. Unfortunately, Doughty-Wylie was married. He and Bell met for four days in London in 1914 while Doughty-Wylie’s wife was in France; the letters Doughty-Wylie and Bell exchanged later suggest that there was a lot of “heavy petting” but no sex, because Bell drew back. Doughty-Wylie’s further letters suggested they could remain Platonic lovers; some of them are pretty turgid and sound like part of an indifferently written romance novel. The question became academic when Doughty-Wylie took a bullet to the head as an infantry captain at Gallipoli, and Bell never again engaged in anything serious.

And alas again, Bell’s diplomatic edifice also turned out to be built on sand. We know how Iraq ended up (this book was written in 1999). Bell had recognized the problem - nobody really thought of themselves as Iraqis, but as Sunni or Shi’ite or Kurdish or Arab or Baghdadi or Bedouin (or Jew or Christian, until they were all expelled or killed) – but she thought they would rally behind Faisal of Mecca as a King (and Faisal, in fact, was initially as least moderately popular). Didn’t last; even as Faisal was getting crowned in Baghdad his family was being expelled from the Arabian Peninsula by Ibn Saud.

And once there was an Iraq, there really wasn’t much use for Miss Bell any more. She was made the Curator of the Iraqi Museum but her diplomatic influence was over. Her family fortune evaporated and although she joked about having to go to the workhouse it obviously affected her. She had vague health problems; the fact the she chain-smoked Turkish cigarettes probably didn’t help. Her doctor prescribed sleeping pills; on July 11, 1926, three days before her 58th birthday she took an overdose. She was buried with full military honors.

As mentioned, Wallach’s writing sometimes has more of a romance novel than biography flavor. There are frequent and extensive descriptions of Bell’s clothing, right down to her lingerie. Initially I found this annoying, being used to more conventional biographies; however after a while I actually began to enjoy it; after all, Bell’s life was sort of like a romance novel. (And to be fair, in Bell’s role as a diplomatic hostess, her dress was important and a lot of her letters home ask for some piece of clothing or another to be sent from London. And sometimes her lingerie is directly relevant; Bell once smuggled a rifle and surveying equipment by packing them in with her underwear, correctly figuring that Ottoman authorities would be reluctant to rummage through a woman’s lacy underthings looking for contraband).

While Wallach’s writing about diplomacy and romance seems correct (not that I have much experience with either), she’s not very good with WWI history. She describes the war starting when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in the “Serbian capital of Sarajevo” and the Gallipoli campaign was supposedly organized to “cut off Turkish forces on their way to Baghdad”. Although this is egregiously wrong, it’s minor. Picture sections show Bell at various life stages, plus other figures in the story. Nice before and after WWI maps of the Middle East. Endnotes, but not numbered, just referenced by text.

There have been a number of Bell biographies; this is the first one I’ve read so I have no standard of comparison. I enjoyed it, though, even the mushy parts.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Gertrude Bell was an explorer, fluent in Arabic, and a self-taught expert in Arabian culture and history. Following World War I, she designed the Constitution of Iraq, drew its borders, founded its national museum and advised King Faisal, who she also helped bring to power.

She led an extraordinary
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life and this biography is a delight to read. The last 1/3 of the book is the most interesting as it details the establishment of Iraq. It provides much insight into the present political situation in the middle east, allowing for a deeper understanding of the region.

Ms. Bell was also a fascinating personality, and Janet Wallach's treatement of her seems very balanced and honest.
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LibraryThing member neringros
I am still not sure whether I loved this book. It was very interesting -I loved the character, but at the same time it didn't have much action and took me forever to read. The writing felt a bit like old school history book style to me. It didn't even have that many pictures, and I so love the old
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portraits...But then again - I couldn't just abandon it. Kept thinking about the life of this amazing woman and the fact that the issues in the region are still the same, which makes the story timeless, I guess.Recommend it to anyone interested in historical biographies in general and history of Arabian people in particular.
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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
an engaging book about a truly outstanding woman. if her feelings are correctly portrayed is unknown but it made it an excellent book to read while learning so much about the middle east during wolrd war 1. it also helps me understand today's situation of that area so much better. gertrude's life
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left me in awe.
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LibraryThing member varielle
Gertrude Bell really was extraordinary. Because of the strictures on class of the day, and her intellect, which wouldn't allow her to brook any fools, her spinster's life took off in the middle east. Her voracious mind and adventurous spirit led her all over the waning Ottoman Empire. As the
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British Oriental Secretary she guided the creation of several newly created states and their rulers, especially Iraq. Giants of the twentieth century such as T. E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill routinely moved through her life. This biography gives a basic understanding of the tribal and cultural dynamics of the Middle East and why the troubles that were apparent in Bell's day plague the world still.
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LibraryThing member svetlanagrobman
If you’ve never heard of Gertrude Bell, do yourself a favor and check out Janet Wallach’s “Desert Queen” (Anchor Books, 2005). This book depicts the life and journeys of a woman who was the best-known traveler of the Middle East and Arabia in the years before World War I. Gertrude Bell was
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born into a wealthy and respectable English family, yet, despite her “proper” upbringing, she thought nothing of roving throughout the Middle East surrounded by Arab men. Never a suffragist, she nevertheless became the first female officer for British military intelligence, and, after World War I, she was considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary woman for any time, but especially for the time in which she lived....the Victorian Era of England, through WWI, to 1924.

Born into a wealthy industrialist family in northwest England in late mid 19th century, her mother died in childbirth when Gertrude was just
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three. As a young child she formed an unusually close bond with her father which was to last all her life. The family's wealth and social connections provided her with an unusual education for a woman of her time. It also supported her extensive travel through the Middle East, and for mountain climbing expeditions in Switzerland as a young woman.

These travels, her acquisition of Arabic languages, and knowledge of the customs and mores of the desert people made her valuable to the British Government as they tried to sort out how to deal with Iraq as a consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the close of WWI.

It's a fascinating story and proof that truth is often more engaging than fiction.
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LibraryThing member snash
The author managed to convey an amazingly complex subject in a clear and engaging manner even to someone with no prior knowledge of the subject. Both the person and the early history of Iraq were fascinatingly presented
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was born to a privileged English family, educated at Oxford, and given the opportunity to travel to the Middle East as a young woman. The journey sparked a passion that led to her becoming the foremost expert on Middle Eastern affairs, and a key figure in establishing the
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state of Iraq in the early 1920s. Bell was an intrepid traveler, undaunted by harsh desert conditions or warnings of hostile tribes. She had a unique ability to establish trust with Arab leaders; throughout her career she was the only woman “at the table” and yet managed to command respect from most of the men she encountered, British and Arab alike. Bell would return from her travels with insights that shaped development of British policy and negotiation strategies in the Middle East. And yet, because of her gender, she was consistently placed behind the scenes and had to settle for others taking credit for her work.

Gertrude Bell found most of traditional feminine society distasteful, and suppressed her femininity and sexuality to operate in a man’s world. Bell had many colleagues and hosted elaborate parties at her Baghdad home, but had few close friends. Her closest relationships were with her father, her mentor Percy Cox, who served as British Resident, and T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). Although she had a couple of significant romantic relationships with men, she never married. Her intellect and intensity would undoubtedly have intimidated many people she came in contact with.

While Desert Queen is a biography, it reads like a novel, especially when describing Gertrude’s travels. Excerpts from letters to her father and others take the reader beyond the chronological facts and provide a sense of Gertrude as a human being who, despite her outward success, also experienced many disappointments. I couldn’t help but admire her tenacity. I’m grateful to author Janet Wallach for bringing Bell’s contributions out into the open and ensuring she gets credit for her profound and long-lasting impact in the Middle East.
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LibraryThing member Eye_Gee
I read this book because I was interested in the history of the Middle East prior to World War II. I knew the borders were changed by the British after WWI, and I was curious about what things were like there before that happened. My librarian recommended this book because Gertrude Bell was
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instrumental in the changes that were instituted. I learned what I wanted to know, but found it a slog. Yes, it was important to know her background and how she came to be on a first name basis with many of the key figures in the Arab world, and how she became a central figure in the British offices in Cairo and Baghdad. And yes, she was a remarkable woman for her time. But I was more interested in the area than I was in her and it took most of the book to get to what I wanted to know. Well written and researched.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
A fascinating look at a very unique woman in the Middle East before, during and after the first world war. It is hard to keep all the characters straight in your head, but learning about the events that occurred during her time gives one a better understanding why the ME is the way it is today.
LibraryThing member Olivermagnus
This detailed biography of Gertrude Bell shows what an amazing person she was. In an era when women didn't even travel alone to lunch, she blazed trails where few Europeans and no Victorian-era women had ever been. She was brilliant, fluent in multiple languages, and extraordinarily self-confident.
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She became the first woman to get a first-class degree in modern history at Oxford, the first woman ever to travel alone in the Syrian desert, and the first female officer in British military intelligence.

She became fascinated by the Middle East as a young girl and as soon as she was able, she began visiting, mapping and writing about several important ancient sites. She ventured out among the Arabs, intent on making friends among them. Originally sent to the East to “find” a husband she decided she would rather advance British interests in the Arabian peninsula. She became the power broker in post WW1 Iraq and was named oriental secretary to the British High Commission.

The author has meticulously detailed Gertrude's travels, and some details get a little repetitive. That did not take away even one moment of my intense interest in her story. If the purpose of “Expanding our Cultural Horizons' is to learn more about a country, it's people and the culture, Desert Queen definitely fits the bill. I've owned this book for several years but never really paid that much attention to it. I'm so glad this challenge pointed me in Gertrude's direction.
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LibraryThing member briandrewz
This was an excellent look at the life of the uncrowned queen of the desert, Gertrude Bell. Bell lived her life as a love letter to Mesopotamia and the peoples found therein. In this book, we follow Gertrude as she embarks on her first visit to the Middle East and discovers something inside herself
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that she never knew existed. Letters written by Bell enhance the overall feel of the book. One of the things I especially enjoyed about the book was the story of the beginnings of the Iraqi monarchy and a few of the characters within its royal family. Gertrude's savvy and acumen concerning the various Bedouin tribes helped determine the borders of nations and set kings upon thrones.

Very engaging and very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Library_Lin
Gertrude Bell was amazing. In a day when women were expected to be “politely educated,” married, and subservient, Bell was single, Oxford-educated, a mountain climber, and a desert explorer.

After teaching herself Arabic, she braved the deserts of pre-World War I Mesopotamia and Arabia with a
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few servants and her guns. She dined with sheiks and caliphs who normally would not discourse with a woman. She even earned their respect.

During and after the Great War, she was a champion of self-government by Arab people. She worked with her friend, Lawrence of Arabia, to further the Arab voice in the region. Ultimately, their efforts led to a newly formed country of Iraq with an Arab, Faisal I, on the throne.

While her story is amazing, Wallach doesn’t present her as Wonder Woman. Rather, Bell is described as a human with flaws who wants to be a Person, to be someone of consequence. She succeeds in some areas, like politics, more than others, like romance.

I found the book fascinating and truly difficult to put down. Learning from the books I read is important to me. Here I learned a lot about Arab culture and the history of Western interference in the modern Middle East. While I doubt I would have been friends with Bell if I had known her, I found much to admire and astonish. The end of Bell's life was disappointing and surprising.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
This book was barely OK, almost, "I hated it." The author seemed to believe she was writing a romance, and a biography slithered in. She writes a tremendous amount about the clothing the protagonist/subject wore; she makes amazing leaps to conclusions about what she felt. I could not get through
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the book, although I understand that the subject was a fascinating and extraordinary person.
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Original language


Physical description

425 p.; 5.2 inches


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