Lately I’ve been longing for another Ferrante or Knausgaard experience, that long abandonment of present to the narrative world. A hefty and engrossing biography, Georgina Howell’s “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” satisfied.
Born in 1868 into a wealthy family from the north of England and one of the first women educated at Oxford, Bell – mountain climber, explorer, historian, archaeologist, writer, linguist – became one of those redoubtable English women of the 19th Century who broke with convention. The Victorian era began to crumble in her lifetime, spurred in part by women who, in spite of still wearing long, tiny-waisted dresses and big hats, began to agitate for education and freedom from male supervision.
Bell’s greatest renown comes from her journeys in Arabia, adventurous by any measure as she crossed empty deserts, explored ancient historical sites, and got to know chieftains of nomadic tribes. Her travels ring with names now sadly familiar in a modern context.
Because of her deep knowledge of the Middle East, Bell took part in the historic negotiations after World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which imposed borders on ancient peoples and lands (a contribution not without controversy). Part of the fascination of the book is to read now about a time before these nation states.
To people back in England Bell probably seemed just a spinster, but Howell uses Bell’s rich letters to weave into her story the two, ultimately sad, but passionate romances of Bell’s life.
We travel so lightly nowadays with our easy outfits, roller bags, and airplanes – the two-page listing of what Bell took on one of her expeditions boggles the mind. Howell writes of a 1913 expedition: “She would take plenty of luggage this time and be ready for anything. First, there were her two English-made tents, one for bathing and sleeping in, one for eating and writing, both with a loose flap that could be tied back, laced shut, or used as a shady canopy. She ordered more of the skirts that she had designed with her tailor for riding horses in the Middle East: neither side-saddle habit nor breeches, but an ankle-length divided skirt with an apron panel. In the saddle, she would sweep this backward and gather the surplus material behind her and to one side, where it looked in profile like a bustle. When she dismounted, the panel fell around her like an apron and concealed the division. She bought lace and tucked-lawn evening gowns for dinners with consuls and sheikhs, for sitting at a dining-table at an embassy or cross-legged on a carpet in a tent.”
There’s more, lots more on her list, from a caseful of shoes and boots, candlesticks and linen sheets to a crate of revolvers.
What a life she lived – and what a great pleasure to read Howell’s book about it.