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).
I’ve never read a nonfiction book about Mary Stuart, and the last (and, I think, only) fiction book I’ve read about her was back in elementary school, when I read her book from the Royal Diaries series. (I think it was called Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country or something like that, and I remember not liking it very much.) What I knew about her going into this book was taken almost entirely from Elizabeth-centric history books, which obviously don’t always show Mary in the best light. I’ve always been staunchly Team Elizabeth, but I decided it was time I gave Mary a fair shot. (confession a: I mostly decided to start reading this book now because I have become obsessed with the CW show Reign, which I will discuss further at the end of the review because oh my god, you guys, and confession b: I was tempted to write this review as a fourteen-year-old Reign fan who was OUTRAGED at all the things that were missing from the show. But I digress)
A good, very thorough biography of a fascinating woman – Foreman is lucky to have had access to hundreds of letters written by Georgiana and her colleagues, so we get to see the historical figures telling their stories in their own words (something I’m not used to, being more fond of Tudor-era history). Also interesting was how many of Georgiana’s letters don’t survive, and why. She had some Victorian descendants who, due to being Victorian, took it upon themselves to clean up their ancestor’s image by censoring or even destroying any letters that openly discussed Georgiana’s numerous affairs. Thanks a lot, prudes.
“Great persons, like great empires, leave their mark on history.”
There’s a photo in this book of the 1921 Cairo Conference, called by Winston Churchill to figure out what to do with the newly-independent Arabia, and of the forty delegates pictured, there is one woman: Gertrude Bell. She was a colleague of Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence, and a close personal adviser to King Faisel (better known as Alec Guiness in Lawrence of Arabia, a four hour yawnfest of a movie that features Gertrude Bell exactly zero times). How does a woman born in 1868 end up traveling to parts of the Middle East that have never been explored by white men before, become a vital part of the British government in Arabia, and create the borders of modern day Iraq? The short answer is: with a hell of a lot of determination, curiosity, spirit, and (to be fair) Daddy’s money. But mostly the first three, because damn this lady was impressive.
Like most historical figures that interest me, I was first introduced to Lucrezia Borgia and her awesome, psychotic family through historic fiction. In high school I read The Borgia Bride by Jean Kalogridis, which was told from the perspective of Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancha of Aragon. It was awesome (and, as I now know from reading this book, pretty accurate) for several reasons: first, lots of sex, which to a fifteen-year-old is a great recommendation in itself; second, it was full of poisonings, backstabbing both figurative and literal (I recall that Sancha carried a dagger in her gown and used it several times), political intrigue, and general skullduggery. Also the author decided that, yes, the rumors were true and Lucrezia was sleeping with both her father and her brother Cesare, so there was that additional bit of escandalo. It was an awesome read, is what I’m saying, and when I saw this in a bookstore I decided to buy it on a whim and find out more about the real Lucrezia Borgia.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands…She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words into her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history, she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliche, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra’s infinite variety. He had no idea.”
For some reason, I expected this book to be historic fiction when I started it. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually a well-researched, completely factual account of John Singer Sargent, the woman known as Madame X, and the scandal caused by a fallen strap.
In the late 1800s, John Singer Sargent submitted a portrait of Amelie Gautreau, a beautiful Parisian socialite, to the annual Paris Salon. The painting showed Amelie standing at a table wearing a slinky black dress and looking to her left. The left strap of her dress had fallen off her shoulder, while the right one stayed in place. When the Salon visitors saw this painting (displayed amongst works depicting full-frontal nudity) they went absolutely batshit crazy over the impropriety of it all. Sargent was forced to repaint the portrait with the strap in place, but the damage was done: Amelie’s reputation was permanently ruined, and Sargent’s career was never the same.
Davis’s book explores the personal histories of Amelie, Sargent, and their respective families, as well as Sargent’s career and Amelie’s rise and fall in Parisian society. All of it is fascinating, although admittedly I could’ve done without the personal histories of Amelie’s grandparents and everyone Sargent painted. That being said, they were all fascinating people and I still liked reading about them, although the book would’ve been just as good without their stories.
Verdict: four out of five stars