From British journalist Howell, a lively biography of the daring Victorian adventurer, archaeologist and author, an early proponent of Arab self-determination.
Along with T.E. Lawrence, Bell (1868–1926) was instrumental in uniting Arab tribes against their Turkish oppressors; indeed, she is credited with helping to forge the nation of Iraq at the end of World War I. Her knowledge of the Middle East was far-reaching and formidable, thanks to decades spent traveling in the desert, sometimes alone, documenting the land and the intricacies of Bedouin life. She was the privileged granddaughter of Yorkshire industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, an engineer and iron manufacturer. Her mother died early on, and Gertrude grew up largely under the watchful eye of her enlightened French stepmother, Florence. Restless, uneasy with the debutante’s role, Bell, a brilliant, rebellious student, craved a mission in life and found solace in climbing mountains, studying archaeology and learning languages. Her 1897 translation of Sufi poet Hafiz launched a literary career that included such classic travel books as The Desert and the Sown (1907) and The Thousand and One Churches (1909). British military intelligence, respectful of her vast firsthand knowledge of the Middle East, solicited her advice and heeded her proposals for Arab self-rule. Bell never married, and several times her life was devastated by an impossible love affair. Heartsick and exhausted, she died from what might have been a deliberate drug overdose in her Baghdad home days before her 58th birthday.
The enthusiastic narrative often jumps ahead of Bell’s story and then backtracks, but there’s never a dull moment in the peerless life of this trailblazing character.