on August 9, 1999
Gertrude Bell was a fascinating woman, doing things that women just didn't do in the early part of this century: meeting Arabian royalty (and bandits and terrorists as well), going places uncharted by European men or women, and becoming something of a heroine to many Arabs of high and low rank. But this book, though it starts off well, becomes rough going fairly quickly. It feels as if Wallach quotes extensively from Bell's letters simply because she had access to them, not because they were always interesting or enlightening (though some were). There is lots of repetition (we must hear about once every two or three pages that she drank "bitter coffee"; the phrase "Young Turks" is defined three times, each time slightly differently, inside of about one hundred pages) and inexact detailing (three fairly detailed maps of the Middle East still leave out a number of sites important to the events of the book). By the end, when Bell was doing her most important political work in the construction of modern-day Iraq, I was skimming over the thick accrual of tedious detail that doesn't really bring Bell to life in the way she deserves.
on July 18, 2006
This is an interesting book, the most popular biography of one of the most interesting people of the early part of the last century. Gertrude Bell is largely lost to history, which is a shame. She was an expert on Arab affairs and Middle Eastern politics, a true polymath back when you could be such a thing. She spoke numerous languages, wrote "travel" books (accounts of travels she'd had in exotic places), was an accomplished historian and archaeologist, and worked during World War I as what amounted to an intelligence agent, serving further as an advisor after the war, liasing with the Arabs in Iraq. In addition to all of the above, she mapped out the boundaries of the country that became Iraq, and late in life founded the first museum for antiquities in Baghdad. All this in a man's world, where women weren't supposed to venture.
This is a good book on most of the subject, though Wallach's understanding of the events surrounding Miss Bell is sometimes a bit weak. She also proves tone deaf with regards to British society and its niceties, portraying Bell's relationship with T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") as somewhat unlikely because he was from a "lower middle class" family while hers was of a much higher level. In reality, Lawrence was the illegitimate son of an impoverished Irish Baronet (certainly not lower middle class) while her family were newly wealthy (her grandfather and father mined coal and smelted iron and steel) and therefor likely to be looked down upon by those with titles. Despite these faux pas, the book is generally interesting, and conveys a sense of Bell's influence in the aftermath of World War I, when she was considered by some to be the most important woman, and one of the most important people, in the administration of the British Empire. I recommend this book.
on December 17, 2003
Gertrude Bell was, by all accounts, a woman who relished a challenge. She broke through the barriers of her era and environment, defying social norms and codes in order to achieve what even today is a remarkable list of accomplishments. It is therefore disheartening that a woman who overcame considerable barriers in life should be defeated posthumously by the obstacle of Ms Wallach's truly awful prose style.
The opening pages of "Desert Queen" seem to be written as a parody of early twentieth century pulp romantic fiction. As the reader struggles bravely on through the overuse of saccharine adjectives, the sickening realisation comes that this is not a parody - this is what Ms Wallach thinks appropriate for a biography of a woman of Gertrude Bell's character. The opening lines of the chapter on Baghdad cause the reader to recoil in horror. There is an earlier phrase about conversations bouncing around silk lined drawing rooms that leaves one gasping in disbelief.
The prose is quite bad enough to be going on with, but in addition there is more than a suspicion that historical accuracy has been dispensed with. The flowery descriptions of meetings and events leave the reader asking "how do we know that?" Was Gertrude Bell really meeting a local sheik with "eyes flashing like jewels" - and if from where do we get this fascinating insight? If from Gertrude Bell's own diary or letters, it would offer a fascinating glimpse into her self-perception and character. Ms Wallach does not want to burden the reader with sources or footnotes, and one is left with the distinct impression that this sort of comment is little more than an insight into Ms Wallach's own imagination.
Whole areas of Gertrude Bell's character are just ignored, or acknowledged in the most desultory fashion. This pioneering woman was against female suffrage - but no genuine examination or discussion of that is thought relevant. She was the only female political officer of the Indian Army in the First World War - but no attempt has been made to examine the attitudes of Whitehall to this - and no official sources appear to have been used to detail what the reaction was at home. Any competent biographer would have spent time and effort detailing these facets of her character - the reader of "Desert Queen" will be disappointed if they are seeking this sort of analysis.
Tantalisingly, and particularly towards the end of the book, we get glimpses of how fascinating Gertrude Bell's story is. When Gertrude Bell's own words are quoted at length, or at enough length to keep Ms Wallach's prose in check, the reader begins to understand that in the hands of a qualified biographer (and expert in the Middle East region) this is a life that could offer significant insights into society and politics in the twilight of the British Empire.
Ms Wallach's lightweight style of writing is ill suited to anything other than "celebrity" biographies. There is no comparison with, say, the works of Robert Blake or Roy Jenkins. Both Gertrude Bell and the English language deserve far, far better than Ms Wallach is capable of.
on January 5, 1998
A sweeping, fascinating tale of a woman ahead of her time. This will written, well researched biography was hard to put down. Gertrude Bell herself, a contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, was a complex, brilliant woman whose life was peppered with many tragedies as well as adventures. Diminutive in size, she scaled mountains, camped in the desert and broke bread with tribal chiefs. She felt more at ease in the Middle East than her own homeland of England, where Victorian women were ruled by social confines. Perhaps it was because of her sex that Arabians allowed her more carte blanche. In a countryland which shuts its women off like trophies, Bell was often treated more like a preistess. She had the audacity to be ultimately feminine and intelligent at the same time, which gave her a special status on foreign soil. Professionally, Bell triumphed, and was accepted as an authority on the Middle East. Her love life, however, as well as relationships with her own family, fell short. If you want to entreat yourself to an adventure of a female "Indiana Jones", I recommend this book. Even if you don't care for Gertrude Bell's character, you will not forget her.
on July 25, 2003
A well researched book and,if you are interested in understanding Miss Bell, a deep portrait of a superb mind which could be unwisely influenced by those (males) she respected.
Ms Wallach is on the side of Miss Bell but wisely acts mostly as a narrator without pushung her agenda too hard.
That Gertrude Bell knew Iraq better than anyone, including the Iraquis, is not an issue but it also can be said that she bears a huge responsibilty for future tragedies. Locked into the dream of a united Iraq she forcefully slammed together three different cultures, brought in a king who had no business there and denied the Kurds their autonomy, therefore establishing over 80 years of bloodletting and instability.Not that it might have been better in any course of action!
One wonders whether her friend, Van Ess, was better equipped to really understand Iraq practically.
But what a mind..what a woman! Her White paper on Mesopotamia should be required reading for all governments dealing with Iraq.
on August 5, 2007
I began to read this book with anticipation. I was a put off by the sort of breathless tone more worthy of a bad romance novel.
About twenty pages in, I was surprised by a reference to the Ottoman Empire expanding since the 13th century from Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire expanded around Constantinople from the 13th to the 15th centuries, until they finally took the city in 1453, and promptly renamed it Istanbul.
I soldiered on, until I was informed that British were fighting Germans in the Boer war in the late 1890s. The Boers, descended from Dutch colonists, would have been surprised to hear themselves described as German.
These two mistakes, obvious to anyone with a decent knowledge of history, ruined my willingness to accept anything else in the book. I put down the book, never knowing if Miss Bell was able to overcome her lost early love.
Gertrude Bell's life seems to be worthy of a good biography. This isn't it.
on May 24, 2004
As the crisis in the Middle East continues, I find myself trying to explore how we got here. That search lead me to "Desert Queen" and the story of Gertrude Bell. I had heard of Bell of course. She pops us in a few places in TE Lawrence's "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and she was Churchill's great protagonist at the Cairo Conference. But she lived an extraordinary life, of which her service to the British Empire in the First World War and beyond was only a part. Yes, she was the only female political officer of the war. But before that she journeyed throughout Mesopotamia, the Levant and Arabia, often with only a small group of guides.
The book is well researched and describes her travels. Yet, you feel as if there is something missing. The author spends a lot of time and print discussing Bell's failed love life, and what she was wearing to the conferences and meetings at times seems more important than the meetings themselves. Yes, Bell was a product of her age. She was a militant ANTI-Suffragette, longed desperately for a husband and family, and was, at heart, a spoilt girl of the upper class, who even during the War in Iraq and the anti-British uprisings afterward (sound familiar), was seemingly more concerned about having the latest fashions delivered to her. Given the parallels between the current crisis in Iraq and the British imperial experience, this book could have been even more relevant but the author's focus on Bell's "feminine side" detracted from the essential story.
Still, the book rights a great wrong, and hopefully will rekindle interest in Gertrude Bell's career.
on July 15, 2006
This book was chosen for discussion by a member of our non-fiction book group. Along with other courses intended for continued learning, the group is affiliated with a local college. I would not have been interested in this book otherwise, because I had never heard of Gertrude Bell.
However,I found the book fascinating. Gertude Bell was an unusual woman for her time,educated at Oxford and extremely independent with a forceful personality. She traveled by camel through the deserts, becoming friendly with Arab leaders while exploring, mapping and finding artifacts for a museum she established.
Incorporated into the British administration in the Middle East, she held much power. She influenced Churchill and others when decisions were being made about the way Middle Eastern countries were to be run after World War I. She was instrumental in establishing Faisal I as king of Iraq.
A lot of the book covers her personal life which, on the whole, was unhappy and drove her to seek adventure away from England
This would be a good book for our politicians to read as it covers much of the history of the Middle East and describes the factions and feuds over the centuries that influence conditions to-day.
on August 22, 2007
As has been mentioned by others, I too wonder at the literary excesses of this book. "She sensed his profound hunger....". "....her heart pounding, her cheeks burning hot, and as his blue eyes burned with desire, he took her in his arms".
Gertrude Bell, an outstanding woman, deserves a better, a more maturely written biography. Thankfully, they are out there.
on January 4, 2004
I agree with other reviewers that the book has some serious stylistic weaknesses. A bit of editing would help the first few chapters. However, as an introduction to the conplicated and confusing history of the area, I found it to be painlessly clarifying. The maps in the front were especially helpful.
I can hardly believe that Gertrude Bell is real. It was a thrill to read about a true adventurer that dared the absurd.That she had such tenacity, dedication to the scholarly, fearlessness, and pluck makes this an especially good book for young women to read.