I first heard of Gertrude Bell in an off-hand comment in one of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody novels. The titular character mentioned that she didn’t really approve of Gertrude Bell because she fancied herself a king-maker. The Amelia Peabody books are set in late-Victorian Egypt and are written by a woman with a Ph.D. in Egyptology – she knows her history, and the world her characters inhabit is pretty historically accurate. So, off I went to that old standby Wikipedia to see who the heck Gertrude Bell was.
She was the Man, that’s who she was.
Her family was British and extremely wealthy and influential, so her family was able to procure an excellent education for Gertrude, who was highly intelligent and had a talent for languages. (This is worth mentioning because education for women was still controvertial. People were still getting over the idea that education was dangerous to girls’ health – that the effort of learning would overtax girls to the point that they’d up and die. Seriously. People thought that. Educated people.) She was out-spoken, opinionated, and aggressive in an age when women were supposed to be quiet, ignorant, and demure. She was also into one of the extreme sports of the day – mountaineering – and she was amazing at it. She was the first on one or two mountains – beat out the guys! In fact, she was so good that they named a peak after her. Keep in mind that this in before the advent of Gortex, nylon ropes, carabiners, and pretty much all the safety equipment climbers use to keep from, you know, dying. She and her guides pretty much put on a coat and boots and tossed a rope (as in a regular old, incredibly heavy rope that soaks up water like crazy) over their shoulders and headed on up. Wow. Why’d she do it? Because she could. Because she was bored and was looking for a challenge.
Then she discovered Arabic poetry. In a big way. Like some people discover Tivo and are never seen again. It took her nine years, but she mastered the language and became something of an authority on the subject when she published a translation of some classic Arabic poetry. During one of her round-the-world trips (yes, she went around the globe several times) she stopped in the area then called Arabia and fell in love with it. She would spend most of the rest of her life living in, traveling back to, and thinking about that particular portion of the world.
Gertrude became an expert in desert travel. Ever heard of Lawrence of Arabia? He was a buddy of hers – taught him just about everything he knew. As it turns out, desert travel was EXTREMELY dangerous. It wasn’t just the lack of water and dangerous flora and fauna. The people living in the desert were constantly warring with each other, and didn’t hesitate to mess you up (or kill you) if you invaded their territory. Fortunately for Gertrude, she could speak the language perfectly and understood the culture. Women weren’t exactly held in high regard in the culture she was dealing with, so she had that prejudice to deal with, too. You know how she dealt with it? She behaved like royalty. Waltzed right into the sheik’s tent, showed off her talent with Arabic poetry, and expensive presents, and it worked. She had some close calls, of course, but more often than not, she got by on presents, presence, and pure balls. (This is a bit of a simplification, of course.)
Then World War I broke out. She had recently completed an epic trip into the desert and made contact with a huge number of tribes, so she had information that the British military needed. It was the beginning of her political career in the area. Very long story short, she helped identify and crown the first king of Iraq.
The book was pretty good. I get the distinct impression that the author is much more interested in Gertude’s life before her political career in Iraq. Once the book reaches that point in her life, it becomes drier and somewhat less gripping. Up to the point, though, I found myself saying “Wow” every couple of pages. The era in which Gertrude lived, the late 1800s to the early 1920s is a period of interest to me, and I found it interesting to see how one extraordinary woman made a difference during that time. It’s also an interesting look into the history of Iraq – particularly important today. It really never sunk in for me that Iraq is so young a country. Less than 100 years old today. And the mess we’re in about the oil in the region? According to a couple lines in the book, the British got that ball rolling. That conflict is older than the country – people fought over pipelines 100 years ago. Wild.
Wondering why you’ve never heard of Gertrude Bell? One of the reasons is that she was a member of the Anti-Suffrage League. As in, she believed that women should NOT get to vote. I had to read that a couple times for it to sink in – she was so progressive otherwise…why would she take that stance? Turns out she had a pretty good set of reasons. As mentioned before, in Britain at the time women were not educated. They also couldn’t own land – and the current system only gave the vote to people who were landowners. So, for one, she believed that it wasn’t a great idea to give the vote to people who were too ignorant to properly consider and analyze issues. She wanted education for women first. Also, she thought that it’d probably cause a problem if women were all allowed to vote, but men who didn’t own land were not allowed to vote. That…actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. Makes me want to dig up some material on the Suffrage movement in England and the US. So, anyhow, the prevailing theory in the book about why Gertrude isn’t well known is that she was lambasted for her views on Suffrage and generally put on the back shelf because of them.
Anyway, I would recommend this one to anyone with a strong interest in the time period, the woman, or a short history of the creation of Iraq.