Review: 'A Woman in Arabia' by Gertrude BellExplorer and activist Bell is best remembered today for helping create the modern state of Iraq. A smartly edited new collection of her writings presents a fascinating (if not always smooth) portrait.
"I cannot feel exiled here; it is a second native country."
Every biography carries dual burdens. One is to represent the life of the subject in the time they lived — how they operated within their own system — as honestly as possible. (That last bit's a real stinger; it's one of the reasons you should never trust a biopic of anyone who's still alive.) The other duty, which often comes in retrospect, is as a point of reference in its subject's legacy, which might be trickier still.
Gertrude Bell is the sort of subject who requires both burdens to be carried well. A virago, she was an Edwardian Great Explorer of the stamp history usually records and lauds in men. The British heiress applied her energy, intellect and funds to any problem she felt was worth solving, which over the course of her life included social issues at home, the Wounded and Missing department in the Great War, espionage and mountain climbing. But she's known to posterity as the woman whose obsession with "the Orient" was instrumental in the creation of Iraq. It's a complicated position that time has made no less thorny: She's been equally praised as the savior of Iraq's archaeological identity through her museum work and condemned as an early "voluntourist," aiding people abroad in order to feel something quietly superior about herself.
One of the most interesting achievements of A Woman in Arabia, a collection of Gertrude's writing extensively contextualized and edited by Georgina Howell, is that it seems determined to present Gertrude as honestly as the era and her own writings allow. She was a wry diarist with a heady sense of her narrative. Her letters are so confident and blithely uncompromising that one imagines the hard-smoking, riding-astride Gertrude must have appeared to the hometown set like Kate Beaton's velocipedestrienne.
But Howell smartly makes sure Gertrude's rougher edges get their due, excerpting Gertrude's casual racism alongside her charming anecdotes, and occasionally interjecting between the lines with a century's narrative remove. (Gertrude describes King Faisal as "amazingly lacking in strength of character" for not disavowing anti-British protesters, oblivious to the masterful game Faisal played with public sentiment.)
It's a fascinating read, though not always smooth. In deference to a life so varied, Howell has segmented Gertrude's milestones into chapters titled with the portent of tarot cards — The Mountaineer, the Desert Traveler, The Lover, the Kingmaker — alongside a detailed chronology. For some chapters, this makes sense; the Great War interrupted Europe so wholly that the boundaries are clear. But some aspects feel less powerful for being separated. Her increasing intensity about preserving artifacts — which eventually led her to treat digs like yard sales — reads at first like an effect of plucky British privilege. Coming across references to it later, when she's desperate to legitimize Iraq as a nation to European powers, gives that aggressive curation much more weight — but only for those willing to flip back and cross-reference.
Overall, though, the story that emerges is thought-provoking. Gertrude was keenly aware of the misogyny she faced from all quarters, and given what contemporaries (including the infamous Lawrence) had to say about her, one understands why she ordered queenly clothes for diplomatic meetings with sheikhs who took her seriously. Her energetic travelogues offer both beautiful imagery and casual, inescapable racism. And though her freedoms as a famous Westerner in Arabia gratified her — she jokingly mentions becoming a capital-P "Person" — they're also a reminder of the curtailed freedoms of others. (She arranged educational lectures for women, but wrote, "They must work out their own salvation and it wouldn't help them to be actively backed by an infidel, even ... I who am permitted many things here.")
Given the sheer amount of material her life provides to the camera, it's not surprising Gertrude Bell's life has been made into a biopic by Werner Herzog, titled Queen of the Desert — a distinction that encapsulates why Gertrude's determinism has sometimes come under scrutiny. As often happens given the ways history repeats, Gertrude's legacy makes easy parallels to the present, from world powers trying to determine the political shape of the Middle East to women's struggles to be taken seriously by male colleagues. In A Woman in Arabia, she faces it all with humor, passion, and candor; even a century on, she's a woman worth knowing.