The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell

I finished this book over a week ago and have delayed reviewing it for one reason: Gertrude Bell was such a complex and accomplished person that it’s hard to know what to say in a short review. In fact, my only complaint about Howell’s well-written and exciting biography of this astonishing woman is that she sped through some parts of Bell’s life that, for most people, would warrant a book in and of itself. Then again, would I have read a 700-page biography? Probably not. Howell did an admirable job of keeping the text down to 419 pages.

Let’s get one of the unpleasant aspects out of the way right now: Bell opposed women’s suffrage. With her stepmother, she had been active in lobbying for the rights of the working poor and saw firsthand the burdens many working class women suffered. Her clearly flawed rationale for opposing suffrage stemmed from two related issues. First, she thought there were more pressing problems related to women’s rights, and second, only a quarter of British men were eligible to vote and universal suffrage would swamp the system. As history has shown us, we can’t set priorities like that, and fortunately, Bell’s beliefs did not carry the day.

On to her extraordinary life! Bell was extremely close to her father, who encouraged her in everything she aspired to do. And Bell wanted to do a lot. For example, instead of following the usual course for a wealthy young woman and becoming a debutante, Bell read history at Oxford. However, with career options for educated women being close to non-existent back in the late 1800s, she returned home after acquiring her degree. As Howell makes clear, Bell had to chart her own course.

For a while, she helped her stepmother in working with the poor. She also traveled, as the rich did in those days, to visit family friends. It was during one of these trips that she took up mountain climbing in the Alps — more uncommon among her generation’s women than attending Oxford. During another trip, she discovered her first love, the Middle East. (Note that she also did fall in love with two men during her life, one unavailable to her due to class, the other due to the fact that he was already married.)

Bell had a facility for languages and became fluent in Arabic and several other languages with relatively little effort. She took up archaeology, learned the etiquette of dealing with tribal chiefs, and made some amazing journeys into territory that was unexplored by Europeans. As a result, when post-WWI international treaties led to the need to set political boundaries, Bell was included. She had to be — no one else knew as much, not even T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, who also participated in the discussions.

This doesn’t even touch the surface. If you like history at all, or if you enjoy a good biography, you must read this book. It is exceptional.

As for animal lovers, I don’t think there is anything in this book that would put off someone who can’t stand to read incidents of animal abuse and neglect. Lawrence shoves a camel to make it behave, and that was about it. Bell loved dogs and seemed to calm her camels — in fact, in two photos of the 1921 Cairo Conference participants, her camel was the only one that wasn’t waving its head and blurring the picture. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

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April 4, 2009 - Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history, travel | , , , , , , , , ,

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