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on 11 August 2008
I have just had the pleasure of reading Georgina Howell's and then Janet Wallach's biography, in quick succession. I am turning into something of a Gertrude fan! If you're looking for an accessible, entertaining insight into Gertrude as a person; then this is the book for you. Howell's heavy use of extracts from her letters and diaries allows Bell's wit and lyricism to shine through. This, interwoven with attractive prose combines to convey the incredible romance of her story; from her doomed love affairs, mountaineering exploits, desert adventures, translations of Sufi poetry, to her moving relationship with her Father. Howell's unashamedly partisan approach makes it all the more enjoyable for the reader!

She makes a point of including a detailed account of Bell's considerable mountaineering achievements which I found quite gripping. She was after all considered by many to be one the best, if not the best female climber of her time. I was glad to have been given insight into this part of her life. It makes you realise the level of frustration she must have experienced later on, when confined to a desk job during the early part of the first world war.

Howell runs into difficulty when tackling the politics that led to the birth of Iraq, in which of course Bell plays an integral role. I found her explanation a little confused. Maybe it suffered from having been condensed a little too much. She certainly doesn't attempt to place the events in some historical context, despite the obvious relevance to the current problems in the Middle East. Janet Wallach's account fared better at a clear explanation of the politics, but neither adequately weighed up her contribution to the success or failure of her newly created Iraq.

(It seemed to me this region was just not ready for national government, and that Bell made many pragmatic decisions within the confines of an extremely complex and vacillating Foreign policy and without her close relationship with the peoples, landscape and history of Iraq, the constitutional monarchy would not have lasted as long as it did.)

So, Howell offers us a moving and personal story of this wonderfully multi-faceted woman. The irony is that it's taken an anti-suffragist woman for me to appreciate a culture that previously, for me, was only synonymous with misogyny.
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on 30 December 2010
"I need a wife!"

How many busy working wives and mothers have uttered this lament since the era of Women's Lib started in the early 1980s? Yet we find that the same problem was encountered long ago by a woman of great wealth who was constantly surrounded by domestic employees and was even served by her own slaves. Howell's study of GB reveals that any person truly committed to lifelong pursuit of complex career goals needs lots of practical support to just keep their own daily life going.

This is the first biography that I have read, not being a fan of "history" as such. I knew nothing about the subject, GB, so I read the book with an open mind right from the start. It is therefore with surprise that I find myself comfortably awarding Howell's work a 5-star rating.

This rating recognizes the enormous scholarship and research conducted by Georgina Howell and Christopher Bailey (according to the dedication). This rating also recognizes the consistently even-handed analysis and tone throughout the biography.

At first I was uncomfortably aware of Howell's rather breathless admiration for her subject, but this was toned down fairly quickly into a more restrained attitude of analysis. Towards the end of the work, the pace seems to quicken, almost as though Howell wants to be done with the whole "opus." This is a pity because the closing section deals with the very complex period of post World War One history, featuring multiple actors with multiple agendas, much of which seems to be glossed over at times.

Regarding GB herself, like other commentators I admire her many natural gifts of intellect, energy, courage, and simple "stick-to-it-ness" (a typical characteristic of Yorkshire people).

However --- one must step back a little and reflect on GB's typical attitudes and behaviors which in many ways were quite objectionable. Do we have to allow yet again that great people also often have great failings?

For example, one cannot condone GB's high-handed way of dismissing other women, simply because they had not enjoyed similar opportunities for self-actualization to her own. Being a "little wife" at that time was not a simple row to hoe, and GB would probably have failed miserably!

How could GB reconcile her lofty goals in life with her own ownership of slaves?

Isn't there more than just a hint of narcissism in enjoying being addressed by so many people as "queen," including her almost-lover Dicky? Being named a daughter of the desert (as the Arab sheikh called her) is NOT synonymous with being hailed as a queen and having one's hand kissed by a King whom one has helped to appoint.

Finally along the same lines, one can speculate that GB would have been hard pushed to rise to prominence without the support of such loving and open-minded parents who spared absolutely no expense to finance all her exploits and whims, even though these brought them no reward and later became a drain on their own income.

While GB accomplished a great deal of good, it is worth noting that Howell quietly draws attention to the public titles of recognition granted by the British Government both to GB's stepmother and the much-maligned wife of Dicky. Both women, in their much less assuming ways, dedicated their lives and energy to good works and providing direct help to people in need right at home in England.

Two final questions:
(i) Doesn't Howell allow Dicky to emerge as a terrible cad? The whole GB-Dicky story reminded me over and over again of "Gone With the Wind" and Scarlet O'Hara and her beloved Ashley, who was happy to be adored but refused absolutely to give up his wife, in case people should talk....
(ii) Doesn't Karin Blixen's life in "Out of Africa" remind us of GB, as both foreign women rely on a local personal valet-butler for support, and both desire to help shape the lives of a community ("my Iraq" vs. "my Kikuyu") ?
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on 9 April 2007
I had heard bits and pieces of Miss Bells life story, but until you read it in full you dont realise how before her time she was. From her early (VERY english) encounters with the bedouin of Arabia, to her sterling war work, her ardent love of mountaineering and attempts to prop up the newly instituted independant kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq she comes across as an indomitable and unstoppable force of nature. Given the current lamentable state of the middle east you cant help wishing she had been born a century later. What makes this even more poignant are her sad little attempts at romance with men that allow you to see the person beneath the matriach. Beautiful.
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on 1 September 2012
I enjoyed this book a lot as it informed me about the origins of the state of Iraq and about an interesting woman, Gertrude Bell. There are many other interesting characters such as TE Lawrence, the father of spy KIM philby, AT Johnson , Faisal, Ibn Saud etc. It has encouraged me to read more - next is Treason in the Blood on the Philby father and son.

Gertrude Bell was one of many wealthy western desert wanderers looking to discover or uncover something, possibly to claim fame. She never married and had difficulty in relationships with men. I don't think she was particularly well qualified to determine the fate of various populaces which became Iraq. I don't think speaking the language or travelling as a wealthy independent person in remote regions and on archeological ruins was sufficient experience. Likewise, I don't think Lawrence, Philby , Knox, Cox etc were particularly well qualified either.

However she wanted to barge in and participate and she did. I doubt she knew her motivation.

We the British, at the time made very poor short sighted choices. We did not trust other nations to deal with us on the basis of free choice. we did not believe the democracy we espoused should apply to other peoples. We would not share. We were too short term.

The author celebrates a woman in an era when women had little political influence. fair enough

There were some things lacking , i felt, when i reached the end of the book:-

- Unbelievably, there is no review of Bell's legacy in Iraq in context of the later events in the country. The final part of the book rather skirted over the "election" to approve Faisal as King.
- It was not clear whether Bell was terminally ill from smoking before she died.
- I would have liked more about the downfall of the family steel business, Dorman Bell as that is also part of the story of the era.
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on 20 November 2008
I don't normally read biographies, but I was handed this on holiday and was completely captivated. Gertrude Bell is the most extraordinary woman and Georgina Howell writes simply but beautifully, making it impossible to put down. It's also a fantastic way to learn about the history of the British involvement in the Arab world and to understand many of the complexities which are still incredibly current today. I recommend it to everyone!
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on 5 April 2014
I think I've been spoilt by reading biographies by authors like Jenny Uglow who weave a rich, compelling, insightful tapestry of their subjects life and age. I can see the author was trying to do this but it didn't work for me. Too much time was spent telling me things rather than showing me, giving me the facts and context that would let me make judgements, especially in Gertrude's love for her father, which though often stressed, was presented very one-dimensionally. 'Famous' characters like T.E.Lawrence also seemed to undermine the narrative: I had a sense that the author was trying to prove that Gertrude deserved to be ranked just as high in some popular list of Top Ten Edwardians, rather than just letting Gertrude Bell shine as a complicated, driven, wonderful character on her own terms.
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on 14 July 2015
Our friends, Andy and Barbara, bought Dave a copy of Daughter Of The Desert way back in September and I am a little embarrassed that it has taken me ten months to get around to reading this biography of the amazing woman who was Gertrude Bell. Especially as Dave was singing its praises months ago.

Gertrude Bell lived several lives within one! In her mountain climbing 'phase', she outclimbed practically every one else in the Alps and there is still a peak named after her. Once she set her sights on Arabia, she completed months of nomadic journeys at the head of an effectively royal train of horses, camels and men, publishing several books of her journeys. (The most famous of these, The Desert And The Sown, is now on my Goodreads TBR list!) She dabbled, to a professional standard, in archaeology, taught herself cartography, created a national museum in Baghdad, and was one of the main driving forces pushing for Arabic self-rule in what became Iraq, Jordan and Syria. It sounds breathtaking in brief and Georgina Howell manages to keep the excitement simmering through most of the many pages of her biography. Howell understands Bell completely and has obviously spent a huge amount of time immersed in her published writing and private letters in order to produce such a well-rounded portrait. I loved the inclusion of sections of Bell's own words in a distinctive font. This device was effective and helped to maintain pace in a way that paraphrasing would have thwarted. I admit I did begin to flag during the intense politics of the post-Great War years, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading this biography.
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on 17 July 2009
Undoubtedly the best biography I have ever read about a women I knew nothing about. When other wealthy Victorian women were sitting embroidering in their salons Gertrude risked her life many times scaling mountains in the Alps and riding camels across the remote and dangerous deserts of Syria and Iraq. Speaking fluent Arabic she befriended Bedouin tribesmen, politicians and Kings, and developed a deep understanding of the Arab people. Thoughout her expeditions she endured terrible hardships and never complained. She devoted the latter part of her life to the setting up of the Archeological Museum of Iraq which was ravaged in 2003 and just now desperately trying to recover stolen artifacts,many of which Gertrude Bell had discovered and archived. This marvellous biography gleans much from her letters which she wrote almost daily to her devoted father Sir Hugh Bell and her stepmother Francis and which are now held,along with thousands of her photographs, in the University of Newcastle and also published online. This book has been an inspiration to me and I thank Georgina Howell enormously.
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on 15 March 2011
Perhaps one of the lesser known champions of women's independence (she did have suffragette connections) Gertrude Bell made an impact in the Arab world unexpected for her gender. It was stated that she was "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection".
This volume 'opens the book' on an extraordinary woman living in very different times.
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on 3 August 2009
This book is long and the print is small, and I approached it with trepidation (it was a Book Club title) but I was soon totally engrossed - what an amazing life for a woman of those times. It treats her as a whole person, not only detailing her exploits as a fearless explorer of the Arabian desert but as an archaeologist and mountaineer, and reveals the sadness of her personal life. It filled in for me many details of the impact of the First World War in that area, the role of Turkey and the setting up of the independent Arab nations by the Western world, and her key role in all of this. A superlative biography, and one which I found more absorbing than most novels.
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