BAR 34:04, Jul/Aug 2008
Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 512 pp., 16 pp. illus., $27.50 (hardcover)
The book under review is the most recent of numerous biographies of Gertrude L. Bell (1868–1926), one of the most famous (British) women of her generation. It is admittedly difficult to do justice to Bell’s many achievements, which include an excellent translation of Persian poetry, some of the best travel writing, exploration, archaeology, cartography, ethnography and, last but not least, politics. But Georgina Howell (known for her books and articles on fashion) presents a version of Bell’s life more hagiographic than biographic; the author admits that Bell is “my heroine,” extending her adulation to Bell’s step-mother, and subscribes unconditionally to Bell’s views. The book is devoid of any critical evaluation or contextual knowledge of Middle Eastern history, Iraqi politics and archaeology. Surprisingly this book was on the shortlist for Britain’s most prestigious non-fiction prize (the Samuel Johnson Prize) in 2007, but I don’t think it rises to that level. Currently, the best book on Gertrude Bell is Liora Lukitz’s A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006).