Sunday, 28 December 2014

Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach

A fabulous story, shame about the prose.

Outside of historians of the Middle East, Gertrude Bell is not a name known to many. Given that she was an adventurer, archaeologist, diplomat and spy, and a female at that, it seems curious. Perhaps she was simply overshadowed by T E Lawrence - it would be hard to step out from the shadow of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, certainly. Plus, she wasn't one to court publicity.

This may change as a film based on her life is due for release in 2015, starring Nicole Kidman. While it is unlikely to be a brilliant epic like Lawrence of Arabia - I've learned to lower my expectations when it comes to Hollywood biopics - it should give Bell some long overdue attention.

Which brings me to Desert Queen. The book recounts her life from her far from humble beginnings in northern England, the daughter of tycoon Hugh Bell, to her influential position as the person who helped found the state of Iraq in the 1920s. As that sentence implies, hers was an extraordinary journey. Young ladies in her situation in Victorian England - she was born in 1868 - usually confined themselves to doing good works and marrying aristocrats.

Bell had other things in mind. The first woman to gain a First in Modern History from Oxford University, she became by turns, mountaineer, archaeologist, explorer, writer, spy and diplomat. Her expeditions across the deserts of Arabia gave her an intimate and nuanced knowledge of the region's tribes and politics, a knowledge which was put to the test in the aftermath of World War One when the French and the British set about carving up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. It was only in the East that she could escape the constraints of Victorian and Edwardian society.

The book details all of this, unfortunately in a rather overblown style. Wallach is partial to outbursts of purple prose, and the writing gets a bit melodramatic at times, especially when it comes to Bell's love life. The imperious Bell would surely not have approved.

Including footnotes and index, Desert Queen is a hefty 419 pages, and the florid style makes it seem rather longer at times. I finished the book feeling Gertrude Bell deserved better.  

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
Written by Janet Wallach
Published by Phoenix Books
ISBN: 9780753802472