Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations


She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Born in 1868 into a world of privilege, Bell turned her back on Victorian society, choosing to read history at Oxford and going on to become an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author (of Persian PicturesThe Desert and the Sown, and many other collections), poet, photographer, and legendary mountaineer (she took off her skirt and climbed the Alps in her underclothes).

She traveled the globe several times, but her passion was the desert, where she traveled with only her guns and her servants. Her vast knowledge of the region made her indispensable to the Cairo Intelligence Office of the British government during World War I. She advised the Viceroy of India; then, as an army major, she traveled to the front lines in Mesopotamia. There, she supported the creation of an autonomous Arab nation for Iraq, promoting and manipulating the election of King Faisal to the throne and helping to draw the borders of the fledgling state.

Gertrude Bell, vividly told and impeccably researched by Georgina Howell, is a richly compelling portrait of a woman who transcended the restrictions of her class and times, and in so doing, created a remarkable and enduring legacy.

Author: Georgina Howell

Georgina Howell

Georgina Howell obituary - from The Guardian

The elegant, perceptive journalism of Georgina Howell, who has died aged 73, entertained and informed readers of British and American magazines for 40 years, until she retired to Brittany in 2000 to write Daughter of the Desert, a biography of Gertrude Bell, the explorer, linguist and archaeologist who was the British government’s oriental secretary in Iraq in the 1920s.

Bell, whose life has since been made into a film, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman, was Georgina’s heroine: an early feminist, the first woman to gain a first in modern history at Oxford, the first to achieve senior rank in British military intelligence and the first to win respect and to be treated as an equal by the establishment in Britain and rulers in the Middle East. The biography, published in 2006 and later retitled Queen of the Desert, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. Georgina also edited Bell’s writings in A Woman in Arabia (2015), for Penguin Classics.

Georgina began her career in journalism at 18 in 1960 by winning Vogue’s annual talent contest – the route to success for many aspiring young writers. She left behind the shorthand and typing classes at the London School of Secretaries and began work in Vogue’s Condé Nast offices “watering the plants and taking messages” for the garden editor of House and Garden, who, Georgina said, “had a very demanding social round that permitted few visits to the office”.

She was soon transferred to Vogue, where she wrote copy for fashion spreads, won £5 in a staff competition by coming up with the slogan “Buy nothing until you buy Vogue” and assisted in styling the studio shoots of David Bailey, Duffy, Snowdon and Terence Donovan.

Beatrix Miller (always “Miss Miller” to Georgina) became editor of Vogue in 1964, recognised the young writer’s talent and gave her features to do. Within a few years, Miller promoted her to features editor and she later commissioned her to write a history of Vogue UK, published in 1975 as In Vogue: Six Decades of Fashion. Georgina updated it in 1991 with the title In Vogue: 75 Years of Style, to coincide with the magazine’s 75th anniversary.

An only child, she was born in Kimberley, South Africa, where her father, Bill, a career RAF officer, was training British fighter pilots for combat in the second world war. Her mother, Gwen (nee Darrington), wrote and presented short stories for the BBC’s Woman’s Hour. When Bill was posted to RAF bases in the far east and Britain, Georgina was sent to a succession of substandard convent schools where, as a Protestant, she felt discriminated against. Her treatment by nuns gave her a deep loathing of organised religion, though she did once try Buddhism and believed that everyone had a soul and there would be a hereafter.

Georgina had the most impeccable manners. In the tumultuous world of magazine and newspaper journalism, she was a calm, cool, modest presence and never raised her voice in the executive positions she held after leaving Vogue – fashion editor of the Observer and deputy editor of Tatler.

But beneath it all there was steely determination, which became evident to David Robson, deputy editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, who commissioned features from her when she was a freelance writer in the 1980s. He remembers her tenacity in trying to find a famous woman who might have preserved the fashionable clothes she wore in the past. After negotiations by telephone with Bianca Jagger in Nicaragua, Georgina tracked down her frocks and accessories to a self-storage unit in Croydon.

“Bianca was twitchy about everything – photographer, hairdresser and makeup artist – and even insisted on having a mirror to reflect the camera viewfinder to check on how she looked,” said Robson. “But Georgina wouldn’t give up and she got the feature we wanted.”

Georgina infused her writing with worldly intelligence. In the book of her collected journalism, Sultans of Style (1990), she describes the work of Vivienne Westwood thus: “She created confrontational, nose-thumbing costume for people with a terror of passing unremarked … As fashion they’re schlock. As style they’re 100% effective.”

Her feature writing in the 1990s for American Vogue, the Sunday Times and Vanity Fair broadened to include interviews with rock and film stars, politicians and royalty: her subjects included Clint Eastwood, Axl Rose, Lord (Chris) Patten, Robert Redford, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Princess Diana, Princess Anne and Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1990 she married Christopher Bailey, whom she met while researching the misbehaviour of Hooray Henrys at the Royal Agricultural College (now University), where he was the registrar. Her first marriage, to the painter and art teacher Michael Buhler, with whom she had a son, Tom, had broken down in the late 60s.

Living with Christopher, in a 1,000-year-old, courtyarded manor house they restored in Brittany, became a new and blissful rural life for Georgina. Christopher devotedly cared for her after she was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. He and Tom survive her.

Reviewed by: Wendy Jane Carrel

Wendy Jane Carrel
Reviewed 8/27/2022

Seeking Gertrude 2022:


If you wish, please bear with my one-degree-of-connection stories below, and later book comments, describing why I was excited to read the Ajijic Book Club pick by club member Phyllis entitled Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell.

Once upon a time my father, disabled from an accident, became friendly with a Lebanese man who had considered purchasing a property father had for sale in Palo Alto, CA.

This man, with a law degree from the Sorbonne and a PhD in petroleum engineering from Cal Berkeley was an intimate of King Farouk of Egypt, Aristotle Onassis and other worldly souls of the era. A never-married “playboy”, it is rumored he was Dewi Sukarno’s lover. I was an ingenuous 11-year-old dreaming of brocaded gowns and long white gloves when he told me I was going to live my life in Arabia.

By the time I was 15 that nugget of a future had morphed into plans to become the first woman named as an ambassador to an Arabic speaking country. (April Glaspie manifested that remarkable achievement in both Egypt and Iraq). I would of course bring peace to the Middle East!

So, I studied Arabic as an undergraduate and sat in libraries reading about the colorful, romantic desert life that had fascinated eccentric British women for centuries. In their day the area was known as the Orient or the Near East and it was a travel destination en route to the British Empire crown jewel - India. Lady Hester Stanhope, Lady Anne Blunt, Lady Jane Digby, Lady Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, Dame Freya Stark, Dame Violet Dickson, and Dorothy Eady aka Um-Seti were among them.

When I was the youngest delegate (age 19) at the World Peace Through World Law Conference in Geneva, Switzerland I met Sir Tahsin Bey Kadry (1893-1985) who rode to the Gulf of Aqaba with Lawrence of Arabia in July of 1917 as the ADC (Aide-de-Camp) of Prince Faisal (later King of Iraq). Sir Tahsin had represented the Hashemites of Mecca (then part of the Ottoman Empire) in Beijing, Tehran, Istanbul and later when Iraq was created as a nation, Iraqi Ambassador to the UK, France, and Switzerland. He was fluent in five languages.

Through Sir Tahsin, who knew Gertrude Bell, I met former Iraqi Prime Minister Naji Shawkat (1893-1980), King Farouk’s ex-wife Farida and their daughters, and a plethora of ruling class notables who had moved to Switzerland. Sir Tahsin, who had many encounters with Gertrude, saw her as many traditional Arab men did at that time - “manly”. This may have been to her advantage, though in Western terms she did not appear to be manly. She loved home and hearth, nice clothes, flirting, romance, writing loving letters to family, and sipping tea in the afternoon served in silver with linen serviettes. She was also slim, fit, and attractive. She had red hair. She stood out as “different”.

The Memoirs of Sir Tahsin Kadry: The Early Years (World War I) assembled by two of his grandsons (2018) sells for $4.95 as a Kindle book. There is no mention of Gertrude Bell. 

Sir Tahsin first met Gertrude at Versailles. See attached photo of Faisal Hussein known at the time as King of Syria (before he became King of Iraq), and his entourage at the Paris Peace Conference (1919) which the Arabs did not ratify. Sir Tahsin (then Captain Kadry) is on the far right. T.E. Lawrence is next to Sir Tahsin. Both men were 5’ 5” tall. Another photo shows Sir Tahsin on a desert picnic with Gertrude and King Faisal.

In graduate school I continued to study Arabic, not knowing where it would lead. Well, that’s not entirely true. I realized how naïve I had been about the world of diplomacy. I switched my path to communications and media which lead to the idea of creating a documentary film with “Western” women who knew the Arab world intimately. Since they had trekked to wild Arabia, spoke Arabic, and had travelled through Arabian oases and sands from one tent and one city to another, I imagined them as vehicles of enlightenment for Western audiences about a culture not always easy to understand.

I journeyed first to Asolo, Italy to meet memorable explorer Dame Freya Stark, 20+ years younger than Gertrude. Gertrude lived 1868-1926, and Dame Freya 1893-1993. Dame Freya, even though she did not tell me directly as we sat in her living room (listening with a hollowed-out ram’s horn in her ear), did not enjoy being thought of as having much in common with Gertrude Bell, though they were both agents (their detractors called them imperial spies) of the British government foreign office in different decades. They were from different social classes. Dame Freya was an unceremonious “commoner”, and even though a prolific writer (22 books) and linguist (7 languages), was not an academic like Gertrude. Gertrude gave the illusion of following Victorian mores, but her actions showed she rejected them too.

In Kuwait I met the charming and entertaining Violet Dickson, author of Forty Years in Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1971, 335 pages) Violet’s book is an excellent read for those interested in the history of 20th century Kuwait and the British role in that country. This fine lady met Gertrude Bell on several occasions.

In January of 1921 Violet and her husband Harold were invited to dinner at Gertrude’s home in Baghdad. Gertrude was Sir Percy Cox’s Oriental Secretary at the time, and Harold was the Political Agent in Bahrain, also reporting to Sir Percy, the High Commissioner in Baghdad. Violet remembers Gertrude in that first meeting as “aloof and unprepossessing.” Gertrude was also “not interested in conversations with women.”  She was also not accepting of the vote for women. As Jack Philby wrote, (he was Gertrude’s friend and then detractor - they did not agree about self-determination for Mesopotamia) “Gertrude lived on a man’s plane; she was a little contemptuous of her own sex.” 

Gertrude, who was known for her candor, stated at the dinner party (insinuated in Violet’s book, and pointed out in Howell’s book), that it was “a pity that promising young Englishmen went and married such fools of women.” Violet, a newlywed at that time, wrote she was “uncomfortable and glad when the party was over” adding “I did not at that point appreciate Gertrude’s great talents as a scholar and her courage as a traveler.”  

Gertrude, who was known for her candor, stated at the dinner party (insinuated in Violet’s book, and pointed out in Howell’s book), that it was “a pity that promising young Englishmen went and married such fools of women.” Violet, a newlywed at that time, wrote she was “uncomfortable and glad when the party was over” adding “I did not at that point appreciate Gertrude’s great talents as a scholar and her courage as a traveler.”  

Later in 1921, Violet and Harold saw a lot more of Gertrude when she stayed with them in Hillah, Iraq. The three visited Babylon and Violet and Harold found Gertrude a most wonderful guide. At the time Gertrude was the leading authority on Babylon and remained so until her death.

Violet wrote she could see how Gertrude had gone down in history as remarkable.  When Violet would visit the tents of tribes, especially of the Anizah, the Sheik would share stories of Gertrude’s previous visits. 


Ten years of visits and interviews with Western women, including Marianne Ali Reza the first Western woman to marry a Saudi, Marguerite van Geldermalsen married to a Bedouin in Petra, Dorothy Eady who lived next to Abydos Temple in Egypt, a plethora of other unique women in Kuwait, Oman, Syria, and Yemen, and later Queen Noor of Jordan led to friendships but not to a film. 

Books about these ladies that may interest you:    I treasure my copy of Violet’s book graciously inscribed when we convened for tea at her home by the Kuwaiti sea in 1981.    by Marianne Ali Reza   by Margarite van Geldermalsen  Queen Noor’s autobiography

The unexpected dividend from my keen interest in the Arab world and in particular Mesopotamia because of Sir Tahsin was an invitation to spend 10 days in Iraq as a guest of the government at the first (and only) Iraqi International TV Festival representing the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences. The Iraqi government had asked for Dolly Parton and Bill Cosby and the Academy sent me. I was invited to sit on a jury with all men, but not for documentaries, for children’s shows, an area I knew little about. Included in that adventure was a memorable trip to Babylon. The year was 1988 and the Iranians were lobbing missiles into Baghdad. The missiles always missed their target, Iraq Radio & TV, across the street from the Melia Hotel where we, the government guests, were staying.  And yes, Saddam Hussein was still in power and huge murals of him in Bedouin garb and military uniform were not to be missed anywhere we travelled in Baghdad.

Howell’s book (Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2006)

A New Yorker review called Georgina Howell’s tome a “monumental biography.”  I agree.

I appreciated Howell’s scholarly research, attention to detail, and her keen interest in sharing who Gertrude was as a person – what possibly motivated her. I especially appreciated the early description of Gertrude coming from a family of builders of the British empire and Howell’s question “By what evolution did a female descendant of Cumbrian sheep farmers become, in her time, the most influential figure in the Middle East? She was as English as English can be, which is to say that she was bred in the wuthering heights of Yorkshire.”  I also appreciated how Howell weaved together the possibility of Gertrude’s discreet visit to the grave of Dick Doughty in Gallipoli, among other enlightening or mysterious details.

Author Howell, like Gertrude, is British. She managed impressive access to Gertrude’s prolific correspondence and documents through family, estates, universities, and the British government. I learned far more than I knew before.

I loved the small, descriptive details – maps of Gertrude’s journeys, mention that Ibn Saud was six feet tall, that Faisal spoke French, and that it was Dick Doughty who first dubbed Gertrude as Queen of the Desert, long before her Persian Queen of the Desert title Khatun was used in Iraq (translated to Noble Lady in Arabic). Housekeeper Marie was French and a compliment to the Baghdad household. And about her trusted desert guide and protector Fattuh - it must have been heartbreaking for Gertrude to find him after WW I and discover what happened in his life.

I am not necessarily in agreement with Howell’s assertion “the most influential figure in the Middle East” but do concur Gertrude was indeed a fearless trailblazer, an astute political analyst, and one of the few “colonialists” who could understand the complexities of Arab mind and culture. As one reviewer wrote, “Gertrude provided the brains for T.E. Lawrence’s brawn.”

It seems clear by her actions Gertrude was in Arabia because of genuine wanderlust, her love of nature, and academic interest. She sacrificed much to be useful, including a private life. She created her own trail. She earned a living with her collected knowledge. How many others knew the tribes and their histories, mapped out their movements, got to know their personal stories, and survived desert tribal peril?  Her expertise was without doubt of strategic importance to decisions of the empire. Unfortunately, her wisdom was not listened to by many of the key British leaders. They did not listen to T.E. Lawrence either. In the end he changed his surname to Shaw not to be associated with British government promises that had been broken.

Several players were involved in shaping the “modern” nations. It was a team effort. What is remarkable is that Gertrude was a woman in a man’s world, unheard of in her era. She did not allow her gender to stand in the way of valuable work. She rose above all obstacles. For that she is to be admired. She had great faith in her higher power until her last days when she was quite ill (years of off-and-on bouts with bronchitis, pleurisy – she was a heavy smoker, and malaria), depressed, and perhaps not feeling useful anymore. She must have been exhausted and in pain, and just wanted to stop. Apparently, on her last trip home to England, she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She put herself to sleep in Baghdad and was buried there with great ceremony and appreciation by the Iraqis.

If interested, there is another fine book that sings praise for Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen - The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia (Doubleday, 1996, Nan Talese editor) by Janet Wallach. I prefer this book title describing Gertrude’s accomplishments. I also appreciate how Wallach, another expert researcher with long-standing interest in the Middle East, brought Gertrude to life and to posterity. In Wallach’s book, Gertrude “emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history, a woman whose life was both a heartbreaking story and a grand adventure.”

Kate Muir in her New York Times Book Review of Wallach’s tome wrote that Bell "probably influenced Middle Eastern politics as much as her contemporary and friend, Lawrence of Arabia. While T. E. Lawrence operated with guns and camels, Bell's weapons were her pen and her afternoon teas." Lawrence and Bell conspired to impose Faisal Hussein as the King of Iraq, with Lawrence pressuring Winston Churchill in London, and Bell influencing the High Commissioner in Baghdad. They succeeded with that effort. The only remaining Hashemite kingdom in the Middle East today is that of Jordan which originated with Faisal Hussein’s brother Abdullah.

If you are interested in astrology, here is Gertrude’s chart and an interpretation based on the assumption she was born around noon. To date there is no record of the exact time of her birth.  

Wendy Jane Carrel   August, 2022