This biography of Gertrude Bell begins slowly, rockets up to high speed, but goes a bit flumph at the end. As the Guardian’s review back in 2006 noted, Howell seems to regard Bell’s thwarted love affair with a married man as the central moment of her subject’s life, and is not interested enough in the amazing impact this one woman had at this period in history in the political shaping of modern Iraq. But Howell is properly interested in recording the astonishing achievements of this remarkable woman in literature, exploration, archaeology and mountaineering. When she tackles the politics she is also wrestling with explaining the First World War and T E Lawrence as well, so it’s no wonder that things go a little soggy for her record of this section of Gertrude Bell’s life. Daughter of the Desert was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction writing in 2007.
Where to start? Gertrude Bell was born in 1868, the much-loved eldest daughter of a Yorkshire industrialist, and was close to her stepmother and siblings. One of the most gifted scholars of her generation she was the first woman to gain a first-class degree in history at Oxford (though the university did not award such things until shortly before her death). She travelled the world with her brothers, attended the Delhi Durbar as a guest of the Viceroy, and tried some climbing in the USA. Then she did some utterly terrifying climbing in the Alps with Swiss guides, and (in her mid-thirties) climbed several important and technically challenging routes: the Gertrudspitze peak in the Engelhörner in the Bernese Alps was named after her, as she was the first to climb it.
Next, she mastered desert travel. Gertrude moved from managing icy conditions at scary heights to managing her team of camels in winter desert conditions, as she made some major expeditions to explore remote archaeological sites and visit desert citadels that every authority she consulted told her not to go near. She was by this time already fluent in Arabic, having a natural facility for languages and having taken her first lessons when visiting Baghdad in the late 1890s. There she had fallen in love with a young diplomat, Henry Cadogan, became joyfully engaged to be married, and then sorrowfully agreed to end the engagement when her father broke it to her that Cadogan was a gambler, and that he could not undertake to support her household as well as his own, since Cadogan would not be able to. Cadogan died from pneumonia shortly afterwards, but he had taught Gertrude to appreciate Persian poetry and gave her a passion for Arabic and the Arabs. Her later translations of pre-Mohammedan Arabic poems were highly regarded, as were her books on her desert travels.
When the First World War arrived, Gertrude had already met Dick Doughty-Wylie, a married man and fellow enthusiast for Arab politics and culture. He wrote incessantly to her when she was far away on her greatest expedition, to Hayyil in the Nefud Desert, where she had gone to get away from the impossibility of their being together. When she returned to Britain her incisive reports and maps on Middle Eastern politics, geography and tribal affiliations were well received by a War Office wondering what to do about defeating Turkey. Her good connections in British government circles, and from her family and social background, made her the ideal choice for a demanding piece of war work which she carried out to perfection, the efficient and professional organisation of the Red Cross office for the Missing and Wounded. Initially run by well-meaning volunteers who were quickly engulfed by letters from the families of the missing and wounded, and given hopelessly inadequate information by the military, this office became under Gertrude’s direction the sole reliable source of information on wounded and missing British servicemen of all ranks (quite an innovation to provide information on non-officers). The work was exhausting and all-consuming and even with a much enlarged staff Gertrude needed to be there all day, every day. But one day a letter came from Dick Doughty-Wylie, back in London for three days’ leave before embarking for Gallipoli. To the amazement of her colleagues Gertrude packed a bag and was on the boat train to England that day. In Howell’s pregnant phrase, for four nights and three days they were together alone in his house in Half-Moon Street.
In 1915 Gertrude was sent to Cairo to join Military Intelligence there, and met T E Lawrence, whom she described (he reported) in alternate letters as an angel and a devil. Her work was valuable enough for her to become the Assistant Political Officer with the rank of Major, and later the Oriental Secretary. Her personality and achievements, and her immense knowledge of Arabic and the Arabs, helped her overcome the more conservative officers, and she made her first and last home in Baghdad. The story of her midwifery of the Arab Revolt and the bloody retreat of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks from present-day Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Arabic states carved out of Mesopotamia gets inextricably involved with the stories of other personalities, all with far more political or military power than she had.
Howell sadly died a few years ago, after a long and fruitful career as a writer and editor. In Daughter of the Desert she digresses occasionally, over-explains the obvious now and again, and her editor missed a few repetitious moments. Daughter of the Desert (also sold as Queen of the Desert) is a thumping good read, and is an excellent introduction to the history of the early twentieth century in the Middle East. But its primary value is as a vivid portrait of Gertrude Bell, an astoundingly important achiever in so many spheres of early twentieth-century politics and culture.