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Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia Paperback – June 15, 1999

4.2 out of 5 stars 223 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A biography of the woman who, indirectly, was the catalyst for many of the troubles in the Middle East, including the Gulf War. In 1918, Gertrude Bell drew the region's proposed boundaries on a piece of tracing paper. Her qualifications for doing so were her extensive travel, her fluency in both Persian and Arabic, and her relationships with sheiks and tribal and religious leaders. She also possessed an ability to understand the subtle and indirect politeness of the culture, something many of her colonialist comrades were oblivious to. As a self-made statesman her sex was an asset, enabling her to bypass the ladder of protocol and dive into the business of building an Empire. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

To Sir Mark Sykes, the pre-WWI British Foreign Office Arabist, "that damned fool," Miss Bell, created an "uproar" wherever she went in the Middle East and was "the terror of the desert." Three social seasons were all a young lady of good family was allotted to snare a husband. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) had thrice failed and received the consolation prize, a trip to Teheran to visit her uncle, the British envoy there. After that, she could not be kept close to the dank family manse in Northumbria but was drawn to the sun-drenched Middle East. Dominated even there by her Victorian father, head of a family-owned ironworks, she was denied permission to marry a moneyless diplomat. She refused?to her later regret?a married lover in the military and assuaged her disappointment by pressing British interests in Arab lands east of Suez, becoming in effect the maker of postwar Iraq. The first woman to earn a first-class degree in modern history at Oxford, she wrote seven influential books on the Middle East and, following WWI, was named oriental secretary to the British High Commission in Iraq. Not just another book about an eccentric lady traveler, this colorful, romantic biography tells of a woman with an inexhaustible passion for place that did not always substitute successfully for continuing heartbreak. Despite some maudlin passages, Wallach, coauthor with her husband, John Wallach, of Arafat, vividly evokes a memorable personality.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 1 Anchor edition (June 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385495757
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385495752
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (223 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,943,935 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By M. Ritchie on August 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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