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Epic saga of an Astonishing Woman!
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.