Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) shattered gender stereotypes while influencing British policy in the Middle East, particularly in the areas in and around present-day Iraq. Editor Howell (Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, 2007) brings the "female Lawrence of Arabia" to life through judicious selections from Bell’s massive public writings and personal papers.
Howell has arranged the text of her anthology by subject, ranging from Bell's talents as a poet and a linguist to her skills as a nation builder and kingmaker. Moving away from the realms of the arts and of policy, Howell also provides insights into Bell's love life, mostly through her subject’s own words. The overall effect is a biography of sorts, but it’s told from a vastly different perspective than traditional biographies of Bell by Howell and by Janet Wallach (Desert Queen, 1996). The truism that the past is prologue comes alive through Bell's adventures, especially her observation that trying to create a cohesive nation from the shards that became Iraq made no sense. Bell considered herself a citizen diplomat rather than a politician. She was suspicious of politicians, wondering if they ever abandoned self-interest. In Howell's biography of Bell, and even more so in this anthology, Bell comes across as a compassionate, erudite quasi-diplomat worthy of great admiration. Unlike so many of the rigid diplomats and politicians making decisions in England on the basis of a colonial mindset, Bell spoke the languages of those she wanted to help, all the better to gain reliable intelligence and establish trust. In addition to an introduction, Howell also includes a helpful chronology of her subject’s life.
An impressive anthology by a scholar who knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff within the massive amount of primary source material Bell left behind at her death.