Last month in a fascinating review of Kate Bolick’s memoir Spinster, Briallen Hopper called for a redefinition, even a celebration of the word “spinster.” Citing eminent spinsters of yore, including Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth I, Flannery O’Connor, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Addams, and Harper Lee, Hopper argues the true definition of a spinster is a woman who chooses independence above all else. She quotes Henry James, describing Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians: “There are women who are unmarried by accident, and others who are unmarried by option; but Olive Chancellor was unmarried by every implication of her being. She was a spinster as Shelley was a lyric poet, or as the month of August is sultry.”
There is another woman who we should add to this impressive list: the indomitable Gertrude Bell, the linguist, the poet, the archaeologist, the desert traveler, the war worker, the kingmaker, the builder of nations: the queen of the desert. And yes, she never married.
Luckily for those of us who are unfamiliar with Gertrude Bell, there comes A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, from Penguin Classics. The book is edited by Georgina Howell, the author of the 2007 biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. A Woman in Arabia is a collection of Bell in her own words, helpfully annotated by Howell, told mostly through her letters home to family and friends. The book is not shaped chronologically but instead through Bell’s many lives, in Arabia and back home in Europe.
Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 to a British iron family. Her mother died shortly after the birth of her younger brother in 1871, and her father remarried five years later. When most young women her age would’ve been concerning themselves with “coming out,” Bell was busy learning Arabic, having already mastered Persian. “I should like to mention that there are five words for a wall and 36 ways of forming the plural,” she wrote to her cousin. By adulthood she would speak fluent French, Italian, German, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Not one to put knowledge to waste, Bell traveled to Persia at the age of 24 and met Henry Codogan, a legation secretary who gave her the poetry of Hafiz. Though the two wanted to marry, her parents forbid it (Henry was poor and a gambler) and tragically, the young man died after falling into an icy river while fishing. “Partly as a tribute to his memory, and a lingering suspicion that it might have been suicide,” Howell explains, “Gertrude wrote, and in 1897, published Poems From the Divan of Hafiz, an English rendering of 43 poems of the 14th-century Sufi mystic.”
After a brief vacation spent mountain climbing à la Leni Riefenstahl in the Alps, Bell returned to Greece, then to Syria and Asia Minor as a cartographer, photographer, and archaeologist. Bell’s love for the Arab people made her their representative. She came to an agreement with the king that there would be 50-50 division of all finds between Iraq and the excavators. On this excursion she began work on what would eventually become the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Her work would go on for decades guiding other explorers with the most accurate and reliable cartography and photography of the region.
“As early as 1905, Gertrude’s name was recognized throughout Britain as the country’s best-known traveler,” Howell writes. On every journey, Bell would travel in style, with “couture evening dresses, linen riding skirts… a fur coat that would double as a blanket… beneath layers of lacy petticoats she hid guns, her two cameras and film, and many pairs of binoculars and pistols as gifts for the most important sheikhs. She carried Egyptian cigarettes, insect powder, a Wedgwood dinner service, silver candlesticks and hairbrushes, crystal glasses…” leading the local villagers to ask, “Have you seen a queen traveling?”
Though she would have undoubtedly remained in the Middle East, World War I and a love affair brought her back to Europe. She was called on to work for the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department in Boulogne, France. The office was a mess; Bell set to work streamlining and improving the system and was made the head of the department. The difference between the standard letter sent from the War Office and Bell’s improvement on it is remarkable.
Form B101-82: “Deeply regret to inform you that E.R. Cook British Grenadiers was killed in action 26th April. Lord Kitchner expresses his sympathy. Secretary, War Office”
Gertrude Bell: “Madam, it is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death of Number 15296 Private Williams, J.D. which occurred at Place Not Stated on the 13th of November, 1914. The cause of death was Killed in Action.”
Bell, whose brother and lover were fighting in the war, was deeply affected by her work at the W&MED. “The tales that come in to me are unforgettable,” she wrote a friend. “The splendid simple figures that live in them people my thoughts, and their words, brought back to me, ring in my ears. The waste, the sorrow of it all.”
The man Bell loved was Richard Doughty-Wylie, a lieutenant colonel in the British army. Though Christopher Hitchens wrote in his review of Howell’s biography that Iraq may have never existed as a country if Bell had married this man, there was truly no chance of an official union. Doughty-Wylie was married, and though he and Bell had exchanged a number of racy letters, when they did have time alone they never consummated their relationship. His wife threatened suicide, and in the end it was all for nought, as Doughty-Wylie was killed during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. “It is said that she heard this devastating news mentioned casually at a lunch party. She sat there, ashen-faced, then quietly excused herself and left the table.” Howell writes. “Her half-sister, Molly, was to write ‘It has ended her life—there is no reason now for her to go on with anything she cared for.’”
But Molly was wrong—Doughty-Wylie was not Bell’s entire life, and she did have a reason to go on: the people of Iraq. Bell made it her mission to bring self-determination to the people of Iraq, and to give them a government led by one of their own. By then Britain’s parliament had come to rely on her opinion of the region—she even wrote a very prescient argument on the dangers of Zionism in 1917. Her paper, “Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia,” basically founded the idea that Iraq should become its own nation. She later worked to bring Faisal to Iraq, and eventually he was crowned king in 1921. The two had much in common: Both were aristocrats who had lost their mothers at the age of 3. Many said the king treated Bell like a sister.
If all of this sounds like the makings of an major motion picture, you’re in luck. The Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman, is on its way to a theater near you sometime this year, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence and Damian Lewis as Doughty-Wylie.
But by the time Faisal was safely crowned, Bell’s health had begun to seriously deteriorate. She returned home to England in 1925, only to find her father’s business failing. She saw as many friends as she could when she was home, and despite her ill health, returned to Iraq in 1926. After a day of swimming, her maid found her dead, next to a bottle of pills.
Gertrude Bell was only 58 when she died but had lived more lives in those years than most. While at home she would have been considered an unmarried spinster, she wrote home at the age of 37, “I have become a Person in Syria!” Even King George V sent Gertrude’s father and stepmother a lengthy telegram of condolence. But it was always obvious to whom Gertrude truly belonged. She was buried in a cemetery outside of Baghdad, with British and Iraqi officials as pallbearers. A brass plaque was put up in the Iraq Museum to acknowledge her great works. Her frenemy T.E. Lawrence, to his credit, perhaps put it best in a letter to Gertrude’s parents: “Of course it is you who are unhappy, not having Gertrude anymore, but there—she wasn’t yours really, though she did give you so much.”