Besides reshaping the political map of the Middle East, Gertrude Bell was a noted scholar and a distinguished linguist. Literally and metaphorically, she entered uncharted territory. Like so many Victorian women, she flourished abroad, that exotic and open land which afforded freedom undreamt of in the parlours of home.
Bell was born into a family of prosperous Northumbrian industrialists in 1868, a time when Britain was engorged with confidence. When she went up to Oxford in 1886, her tutor made her sit with her back to him because she was not a man. But she showed them all: she gained a First in Modern History, went on to publish translations of the Persian poet Hafiz, and in later years produced the critical triumph The Desert and the Storm.
Although she traveled through many lands, she was happiest in the desert, on the far edge of life. After a week on a camel she could straightaway walk for miles (I was a physical wreck for a month when I tried). It was in Iraq that she made her mark on history. The first woman to serve as a military Intelligence officer, Bell’s career in that field was dazzling. Self-rule, Bell became increasingly convinced, was the way forward in the Arab world. She advised Churchill at the 1921 Cairo conference, influencing the establishment of the Hashemite kingdom of Trans-Jordan. She was in on the birth of modern Iraq, and made sure that Faisal, her confidant and a Hashemite, became its first king.
Slender and red-haired with green-blue eyes, Bell was a committed smoker. She never married. Dick Doughty-Wylie, soldier-statesman, poet and Arabist, was the love of her life, but he already had a wife, and although he was passionately involved with Bell for many years, the relationship remained unconsummated. Doughty-Wylie died on the beach at Gaillipoli, and Bell’s spirit died with him.
The black dog hounded her throughout the second half of her life, and three days before her 58th birthday, she killed herself. At her memorial service in London her grieving father said, ‘I think there never were father and daughter who stood in such intimate relations as she and I did to one another.’
Sitting in her tent during a hailstorm, Bell read Hamlet, then composed a letter to Dick. ‘Princes and powers of Arabia’, she wrote, ‘stepped down into their true place, and there rose up above them the human soul, conscious and answerable to itself.’