It’s official: Gertrude Bell is now my favorite historical figure (don’t worry, Nell Gywnn – you’re still first in my heart) and it has become my personal mission to make sure that everyone knows who she is. My apologies to everyone who has a conversation with me in the next six months, because I will find a way to mention Gertrude Bell and then get mad at you for not knowing who she is.
Gertrude Bell is commonly referred to as “the female Lawrence of Arabia” and that really explains in a nutshell how she’s been screwed over by history. If we lived in a world of gender equality, T.E. Lawrence would be called “the male Gertrude Bell” and Gertrude would have the four-hour award-winning biopic that everyone’s dad loves. But we don’t live in that world, dear readers, and because of this, T.E. Lawrence is a household name and Gertrude Bell is a footnote in his story (guess how many times Bell is featured in Lawrence of Arabia? Fuckin’ ZERO, and I’m still mad about it).
This is the second Bell biography I’ve read – the first was Janet Wallach’s Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, and readers should refer to that review for a more complete summary of Bell’s life and influence, because I’m going to spend the majority of this review comparing the two biographies.
I think that, ultimately, I prefer Howell’s take on Gertrude’s life. This book has more primary sources – Bell was constantly writing letters about her adventures, and Howell quotes them extensively throughout the book – which makes Bell much more dynamic. The scope of Howell’s book is also wider – while Wallach’s book focused mainly on Bell’s work in the Middle East later in her life, Howell seems to be trying to give equal attention to all the phases of Bell’s life. She spends more time on Bell’s childhood than Wallach did, taking time to establish the close relationship between Bell and her parents (she would continue to write letters to her father and stepmother throughout her life, and those letters are quoted most frequently in the book). Howell also devotes considerable space to Bell’s pre-Middle Eastern adventures – I don’t remember Wallach’s book addressing Bell’s mountain-climbing phase in her early thirties, except in passing, while Howell spends several chapters on it. Wallach’s biography was concerned primarily with Bell’s work in the Middle East, but Howell seems to be trying to create a more straightforward biography. Bell’s later life still takes up at least half the book, because that’s still when her most important work was done, but it was nice to have all the background information establishing who Bell was before then.
Where the two biographies really differ is in their portrayal of Bell as a person. In Howell’s biography, she comes off as significantly less sad and lonely as she did in Wallach’s – so much so, in fact, that her suicide sort of comes out of nowhere, and Howell doesn’t really address why Bell would want to take her own life. Also missing from the Howell biography is Bell’s early disdainful attitude for the Middle Eastern locals she encounters. Wallach addressed Bell’s changing attitudes towards the Arabs, but from Howell’s portrayal, Bell was nothing but respectful from Day One (she does not include the quote where Bell once referred to Arabs as being “like very old children”). Bell also comes off as much less prickly than she was in Wallach’s book, and Howell’s version of her had lots of friends and was liked by almost everyone. In fact, Bell doesn’t seem lonely at all in Howell’s version, although it is telling that Gertrude’s primary correspondents, even into her fifties, were her parents. She does, at least, address Bell’s anti-suffrage views, and she does so in more detail than Wallach, explaining the circumstances of the time that make this view understandable. I appreciated this, because Wallach kind of tosses Bell’s anti-suffrage opinions out as an afterthought, without going into why Bell might have held those views.
Gertrude Bell was a complicated figure, and it’s not surprising that two different biographers would portray her in two different ways. I didn’t even mind the disconnect between the two Bells that I’ve read about – it just means that I need to find even more of her biographies.
Verdict: four out of five stars