Gertrude Bell: a reflection on her legacy as a Person

Not many people know Gertrude Bell: her life, her achievements, and her legacy have been largely written out of history. The influence she exerted over the British administration in the Middle East, particularly between 1915 and 1926 when she died, was enormous and outweighed that of her male counterpart T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. Yet, when someone mentions a British official that traveled the desert on horseback and fought for the Arab cause, it is Lawrence of Arabia that comes to mind, headdress and all.

If you think about it, for the mere fact that Gertrude Bell, a woman born and raised in the Victorian age, did manage to achieve what she did is impressive. The list of who she was is long: she was a linguist, a translator, a poet, a mountaineer, a photographer, an archaeologist, an explorer, a desert traveler, a spy, a war worker, a diplomat, a British officer, a nation builder, a royal counselor, and a Person.

Portrait of Gertrude Bell, circa 1910.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), ca. 1910 — Courtesy of Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive, Newcastle University.

She was born in 1868 in the English countryside, into a world of privilege: a wealthy heiress, she could devote herself entirely to her passions without really caring about the financial aspects of her exploits. Her status opened her the doors of dinners and parties where politics and matters of state were discussed and she was able to make valuable connections that would accompany her in the course of her short, intense life. She was smart and skilled: Gertrude Bell was the first woman to gain first-class honors in Modern History at Oxford University, she mastered Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, besides another bunch of languages.

Most of all, Gertrude was passionate, and she was curious. In her letters and diaries, you can feel a deep, powerful enthusiasm for everything she undertook mixed with a real sense of accomplishment. Her words emanate unique energy and a sense of awe for everything she was doing that, was constantly with her.

She loved archaeology: her first encounter with the subject was in 1899 in Greece when she was already 31. She built up her knowledge, learning epigraphy, photography, and how to pinpoint sites in the spare time she had between her expeditions. She was in touch with the great personalities of her time: David Hogarth, Salomon Reinach, and William Mitchell Ramsay, just to name a few. She would become an expert in Byzantine culture: her entry in the Prolegomena read “the remarkable pioneer woman of Byzantine architecture”. Archaeology never really left her: in 1922, when working for the newborn Iraqi state, she was appointed by King Faisal Honorary Director of Antiquities for Iraq and in 1923 she started working on the Iraq Museum.

Gertrude Bell on horseback during one of her expeditions.
Gertrude Bell in Duris, Lebanon, in 1900. Courtesy of Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive, Newcastle University.

In Iraq, she became worried about protecting the archaeological sites and the treasures of the country. In the Antiquities Law she drafted it was determined that of the objects excavated by foreign institutions in the country, half should remain in Iraq. This controversial resolution clearly shows her multiple loyalties and her attempt to protect both Iraqi heritage and the interests of foreign archaeologists and institutions.

Her love for archaeology went hand in hand with the one for travel and in particular for desert travels. As with archaeology, this passion came comparatively late in her life: in 1900, when she was 32 years old.

During her lifetime, she made seven expeditions into the vast regions of the Middle East and Turkey. This happened in a period when most of the world was profoundly ignorant about the territory that went by the generic term “Arabia”. Her travels throughout the desert made her an expert of the region and its inhabitant: as Lord Cromer, a former British Consul General in Egypt said, “Gertrude Bell [knew] more about Arabs and Arabia than almost any other living Englishman or woman.” The knowledge she acquired during her travels was vast and politically valuable: she came to master the desert etiquette, she understood the politics and relations between the conflicting tribes, and she used this knowledge to her advantage to travel throughout the desert undisturbed, with her majestic caravan.

This first-hand knowledge gave her access to the circles where state affairs were discussed and decided: in November 1915 Gertrude Bell left England and the work she was carrying our for the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau and traveled to Egypt where she started working collecting intelligence of Middle Eastern affairs. After almost one year she is appointed head of the Iraq branch of the Arab Bureau and from then on her life would be devoted to the making of the Iraqi state

She took part in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the Cairo Conference in 1921. She was the only woman.

Gertrude Bell in the group photo at the Caire Conference.
The British delegates at the Cairo Conference, 1921. The group was set up by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to discuss the future of Arab nations. Gertrude Bell was the only woman. Courtesy of Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS.

Gertrude Bell was much more than this: she translated the Divan of Hafiz magnificently, she was a prominent woman climber of her time, she was a confident counselor of King Faisal of Iraq, who she helped to become king.

Yet when she is remembered at all usually she is remembered as an antifeminist. In 2004 London’s National Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibition on pioneering women travelers, Off the Beaten Track. Gertrude Bell’s corner was accompanied by a short caption reading: “Despite her own achievements she actively opposed British women being given the right to vote.” Even if technically correct, the statement doe not take into account the deep reasons for such a position that Gertrude held.

Gertrude and her family were well aware of the condition of the women of the time and were convinced that women needed to be emancipated first and only when having achieved a decent level of instruction and living conditions could they actively participate to the political life of the country. Gertrude, as well as her family, agreed with John Stuart Mill: a woman needed first and foremost to become a “Person”. Time and again Gertrude would write in her diaries that she felt to have become a Person: curiously enough, this happened frequently in Arabia during her travels, when sheiks and Arab leaders regarded her as their equal. The same level of equality was very hard for her to obtain among British officials: Gertrude Bell, in their eyes, was always a woman that acted like a man and that made her way into a world dominated by men. To her fellow countrymen, she was a spinster, a “conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging, blethering ass”, as Mark Sykes described her.

Gertrude Bell during a break at the Cairo Conference on camelback
At the Cairo Conference in 1921: Gertrude Bell is flanked by Wiston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence. Courtesy of Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive, Newcastle University.

In this regard then her successes were greater than the ones of Lawrence of Arabia, that acted in a world that was more ready to recognize his achievements than hers. Gertrude Bell, then, even if opposing the women’s suffrage embodied in her life the need for women of her time to strive for independence. For this same reason, she despised many of the women she encountered – most of them, wives of British officers: “a collection of more tiresome women I never encountered”, she would write in September 1920 speaking of British women abroad.

Gertrude Bell is still written out of history. Sometimes it feels like that her wonderful life cannot align with our society’s values.

Gertrude Bell’s legacy is not recognized today, probably, because her personality and her achievements are still border-line for our epoch. We still tend to see Gertrude Bell as a woman. The public does not really care about her role in Middle Eastern politics: as a woman, the public might be more interesting in her love life (which, personally, I found the most boring part while reading her biography). It is no coincidence that while the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia have been celebrated in Hollywood movies, books, and popular culture, the only Hollywood movie on Gertrude Bell (focuses on her love life. An article in The Telegraph explains that clearly: “The real reason that Hollywood may not have touched the Bell story in the past was because of the perceived lack of love interest.” It’s something that makes you think.

It is maybe ironic what T.E. Lawrence said about her:

“A wonderful person — not very like a woman, you know?”

Sources

The life of Gertrude Bell is truely incredible and this short article has merely scratched the surface of it. The two books I have relied upon for it are Gertrude’s biography by Georgina Howell and the anthology of her writings also edited by Georgina Howell.

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