Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Georgina Howell

Sarah Crichton Books



Trade Paperback

512 Pages


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A Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year

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 Pictures, The 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.


Praise for Gertrude Bell

"Howell's book makes clear that Bell's whole life was extraordinary. Born into England's sixth-richest family, she was furiously independent almost from the start. She declared her atheism as a girl, and later, her intolerance for pretension. ('I have had enough of these dinners where people say "I think" all the time,' she wrote home from London. She wanted to know.) She became the first woman to get a first-class degree in modern history at Oxford, the first woman ever to travel alone in the Syrian desert, the first female officer in British military intelligence . . . Howell has unearthed some wonderful material, and she wisely interweaves her text with plenty of quotations from Bell's own trenchant prose."—Robert F. Worth, The New York Times Book Review

"Georgina Howell recounts these stories with a wide-eyed admiration that is, for the most part, infectious, and her long book is a gripping read. Often pursuing themes in Bell's life, rather than bald chronology, she introduces her readers to the atmosphere of Oxford colleges, to the perils and excitements of the Alps, and to the dangers and decorum of desert life."—Jason Goodwin, The Washington Post

"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, Booklist (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."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



It is 22 March 1921, the last day of the Cairo Conference and the final opportunity for the British to determine the postwar future of the Middle East. Like any tourists, the delegation make...

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  • Georgina Howell

  • Georgina Howell has worked in magazine journalism since the age of seventeen. She has written for Vanity Fair and American Vogue, and has worked at The Observer, British Vogue, The Tatler, and The Sunday Times. She lives in London and Brittany.