Gertrude of Arabia
GERTRUDE BELL:Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.By Georgina Howell.Farrar, Straus & Giroux.481 pp. $27.50
The life of Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) cries out for a biopic. More famed and influential in her day than her colleague T. E. Lawrence, with whom she rallied Arab tribes to rebel against the Turks during World War I, she was eclipsed after her death by the mythmaking that crowned him Lawrence of Arabia. But Lawrence could never have accomplished his own cinematic exploits among the Arabs if not for Bell’s preceding years of intrepid travel and dogged information-gathering in the desert.
Bell was pivotal to the politics of the day, serving as Oriental secretary in the British administration in Baghdad—she was the only woman officer in British military intelligence—and tirelessly shepherding unruly Iraq toward the wobbly independence it finally achieved in 1932. Her life, like Lawrence’s, ended in pathos. The great political adventure ebbed, leaving her lonely in Baghdad, and she died at 57 after what most biographers agree was an intentional overdose of pills.