Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert by Georgina Howell.


This is a great story about an amazing character.  Born in the 1860s in Yorkshire to a wealthy family, she was ambitious, brilliant and fearless from the beginning.  At the turn of the century she made her first trek in the desert; these treks alternated for some years with mountain climbing expeditions in the Alps.  She climbed up some faces of peaks that had never been climbed and was renowned for her exploits.  One illuminating event was the time she and her two guides (brothers) were stuck at some point in a climb.  She stood on the shoulders of one brother and the other brother stood on hers; the brother standing on her asked her to stretch a bit so he could reach a bit further.  And all this in a raging storm.

But of course her real love was the desert.  Before her first trip to the Middle East, she began learning Arabic.  She eventually could recite great quantities of Arabic poetry, which stood her in good stead with the sheiks in the desert.  She would travel from one sheik to the next, visiting in their tents for long hours, hearing all the stories of disputes and grievances between the tribes.  When World War I broke out, the British government realized what valuable information she had and she began what turned out to be a life-long association with the British government.

Eventually she was moved to Baghdad, where she had lots of friends and good connections, and worked for the rest of her life to create an independent country.  The story of that effort on the part of the British is heart-breaking in light of our own situation.

She died in 1926, almost certainly a suicide, in very bad health.  She was a heavy smoker and the toll of the extremely hot summers and cold winters in Baghdad, as well as her frenetic pace, weakened her.  She was much loved as a friend by many people and had many friends she corresponded with, but her strongest connection that lasted her whole life was her father, with her stepmother coming in a close second.  She never had a successful love; she once spent four days and nights with the love of her life, Dick Doughty-Wylie, during the war without consumating the relationship.   He was married and her scruples were too strong.  He died not long after that.

The great thing about having all these distant friends and loved ones is that she left a legacy of of letters that is amazing.  What a great subject for a biography — not only is she superhuman and an important figure of her time, she left a full record for us.

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