DESERT QUEEN by Janet Wallach


The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell--Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia
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 The life of Gertrude Bell (18681926)--bluestocking, Oxfordian, orientalist--told in mind-addling detail by Wallach (coauthor, The New Palestinians, 1992, etc.). This biography of Bell--Britain's woman in Mesopotamia during the early part of this century--is a near day-by-day account of her life, relying heavily on Bell's correspondence and diaries to set the tone of the narrative (long on intimacy, short on analysis). Wallach deploys the linear mode of historical storytelling: She opens with the Bell clan amassing their millions in the ironworks of Northumbria and closes with Bell's suicide. In between are her early years at the family manses Red Barns and Rounton Grange; her first-class degree in modern history from Oxford; her years abroad, always moving in diplomatic circles (the parties, the dress fittings, the search for a mate) until she gets her first taste of the East in Persia. Forget about men--though Wallach tries hard to insinuate them into the story as often as possible, it's clear from this moment on that Bell's destiny is not with a person but with a place, and that place is turn-of-the-century Syria, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. Money allowed her to ramble; she got to know the land and people and archaeology. And when called, she did her bit for the empire: spying on the Turks and Germans, giving T.E. Lawrence the lowdown on tribal ways, sweating away the war years in Baghdad and Basrah. As intimate advisor to Iraq's King Faisal, she whispered the colonial office's wishes into his ear. The rub here is in the details--too many, and they dampen, at times suffocate, the narrative: ``A cigarette and a cup of thick Turkish coffee at her side, she munched pistachio nuts and studied.'' From the swarm of particulars emerges a curious soul--hard traveler, hack for Empire, cosmopolite, iconoclast, anti-suffragist--a complex, absorbing character, long overdue for study. (30 b&w photos, 4 maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1996
ISBN: 0-385-47408-3
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1996


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