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Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations Paperback – April 29, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this hefty, thoroughly enjoyable biography of Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), English journalist Howell describes her subject as not only "the most famous British traveler of her day, male or female" but as a "poet, scholar, historian, mountaineer, photographer, archaeologist, gardener, cartographer, linguist and distinguished servant of the state." As Howell observes, "Gertrude always had to have a project," and she manages to bring those multitudinous projects, studies and adventures to life on the page. "I decided," Howell writes, "to use many more of her own words than would appear in a conventional biography": a felicitous decision when the subject's letters, diaries and publications are as seamlessly incorporated in Howell's engaging text as they are. Bell's role in the creation of Iraq and the placement of Faisal upon the throne, is fully detailed, both to honor her power and to haunt us today. But the strength and delight of Howell's superb biography is in the fullness with which Bell's character is drawn. Having clearly fallen in love with her subject (though not blind to her warts), Howell leaves no stone unturned—family history, school days, Bell's clothes, sometimes her meals, her friendships, her servants, her thousands of miles traveled, her fluency in languages (Persian, Turkish, Arabic) and, yes, her romances. 16 pages of b&w illus. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The breadth and depth of Gertrude Bell's accomplishments are extraordinary. Born to British industrial wealth and civic prominence during the Victorian era, she possessed boundless self-confidence, courage, and vitality. The first woman to earn top honors in history at Oxford, Bell was fluent in six languages, and became an intrepid traveler and celebrated mountaineer. Tragically unlucky in love, she romanced the world instead. Discovering her spiritual home in the Middle East, Bell transformed herself into a cartographer, archaeologist, writer, and photographer as she undertook perilous journeys to fabled desert outposts, commanding the respect of powerful Bedouin sheikhs. During World War I, Bell became the expert on Mesopotamia for British military intelligence, and a more crucial force in the forming of modern Iraq than that of her friend, T. E. Lawrence. From Cairo to Basra to Baghdad, Bell, against fierce adversity, devoted herself to justice. Howell writes with all the verve, historical veracity, and acumen her intoxicating subject demands--her spectacular biography leaves the reader lost in admiration and steeped in sorrow. It seems that all the profound knowledge about the culture of the desert Bell placed herself in jeopardy to gather was promptly forgotten. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books (April 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374531358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374531355
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (137 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,331 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

93 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Judith Wilson on April 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Gertrude Bell is someone I've come across many times -- in everything from scholarly to not-so-scholarly history books to the writings of Vita Sackville-West -- but until I picked up Georgina Howell's richly detailed and expertly written book, the woman I had glimpsed over the years merely suggested a wealthy Victorian woman (which Bell was) known more for her eccentricity than actual wit (not remotely the case).

Intellectually brilliant (fluent in 6 languages, including Arabic and Persian, and was the first woman to take a "first" at Oxford in Modern History), supremely courageous, wise and very human, I have been delighted and honored to at last sit down with Gertrude Bell and over the course of 300+ pages, make her acquaintance. In Howell's capable hands, Bell comes quickly and fully to life, holding my attention and demanding my admiration.

A somewhat unexpected bonus have been the extraordinary (and harrowing) tales of Bell's journeys across the Bedouin deserts in the years before the first world war. I've come away from these accounts (with their accompanying photographs, courtesy of Bell, who in addition to her other gifts was an accomplished photographer) with a more profound understanding of the middle-eastern world that we encounter today.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone with an interest in middle-eastern history, Victorian women, early 20th century achievements in mountain climbing, Victorian history -- and more. It's all there. It's a great book, about an extraordinary life. And it should be required reading for anyone who imagines himself or herself to be knowledgeable about the middle-east, or who wants to know more. Unlike so many "mid-east experts" Bell truly was an expert, with knowledge born of a great passion for that world, served by a magnificient wisdom and intelligence.
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66 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Molly Baker on April 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Current events in star crossed Iraq have brought out a renewed interest in Gertrude Bell (GLB). Much of it seems political, concerned with pointing fingers at "causes" for the current situation as arising out of the World War One aftermath. As is typical of today's shallow, axe-grinding treatment of history, most of what I see being described as Miss Bell's role at that time is overly generalized, if not downright misleading. Many absorbing biographies on GLB have been published. This one, esp. in the "Government By Gertrude" chapter," does a very nice job of showing the devil in the details of how King Faisal, his small staff, and English advisors pulled off something (i.e., guiding Iraq from a leadership mish mash to becoming an independent state) that moderns are still in a quandry as to how it may be done ... again. Keeping the cradle of civilization peaceful and prosperous, in spite of pressures from war lords and religious gangsters fighting over hegemony, and other nations wanting to plunder its resources, may always be a problem, and that is visible in this presentation as you see financial depression and ill health cutting drastically short the time Faisal, and Gertrude (herself the last of the British advisors to care that the Iraqi's got a fair deal out of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire) have to stabilize the milieu resulting from the 1919 WW I Peace Treaty settlements. Also, a vivid description of GLB's climbing adventures is given in this book so that what seems unbelievable for its time becomes undeniably substantiated. In spite of there being great volumes of data available as source material for Gretrude Bell stories, there is still much that has not been explicated, and much that will always remain mysterious from the time when she was a "spy" associated with the Arab Bureau.Read more ›
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Serge J. Van Steenkiste on June 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Georgina Howell brings to life Gertrude Bell, a woman whose accomplishments deserve to be better known than they have been. Born into the sixth-richest family in Britain in 1868, Bell got an education equal to that of a man. Young Bell was a "social hand grenade" due to her extraordinary self-confidence and intellectual brilliance. Bell did not get along well with the less developed personalities and intellects around her.

Despite her efforts to get married and have a family of her own, Bell never managed to find true happiness. As Howell clearly demonstrates through her book, Bell never fully recovered from the premature death of Henry Cadogan, with whom she fell in love in 1892. Bell fluctuated all her life between looking for personal fulfillment and devoting herself to the well-being of the community for no reward.

Despite these repeated setbacks in her private life, Bell would emerge as one of the most important architects of the modern Middle East. Bell first discovered the region when she traveled to Persia (modern Iran) in 1892. Bell's obsession with archeology became the driver behind her desert expeditions before WWI. Bell published different books about her archeological findings and learned to speak Arabic on top of five other languages during that period.

The knowledge that Bell got about the Middle East and its people proved invaluable when Britain fought the Turks in the region during the Great War. The same knowledge played a decisive roll in leading the Arabs to nationhood in the aftermath of WWI. Unsurprisingly, Bell has been compared to T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, who launched the Arab Revolt.
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