It’s difficult not to think that, had she lived in a different age, the writer, explorer, archaeologist, civil servant, kingmaker and co-founder of the Iraqi state Gertrude Bell would have stormed into the Royal Society of Literature and become one of its leading lights and Fellows. With a bit of luck she might have been elected in the late nineteenth century, having published Safar Nameh: Persian Pictures, A Book of Travel (1894) and Poems from the Diwan of Hafiz (1897). That would certainly have set the cat among the pigeons, though, because at that time the RSL was, in the words of Isabel Quigly’s study, “very much a male club”.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was a formidable character. Born into a wealthy family, she rattled off a string of famous female firsts. She was the first woman to take a First in Modern History at Oxford, one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the first woman to win its prestigious Founders Medal “for her important explorations and travels in Asia Minor, Syria, Arabia and on the Euphrates”. She was the first woman officer to serve in British military intelligence. She rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, helped to draw the borders of the new state of Iraq, draft its constitution and choose its king. And, as if that were not enough, she founded its national museum and library too.
Brilliant and bookish, Bell was no stay-at-home scholar. She was equally comfortable on a vertical limestone face in the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps – where she reached the summit of seven unclimbed peaks and had one, Gertrudspitze, named after her – as she was boning up in a library on her Arabic, Hebrew and Persian. Within a couple of years of learning Farsi, she won critical acclaim for her translation of the great poet Hafiz. She was an outspoken and accomplished linguist who excelled in an otherwise exclusively male world.
There is a remarkable photograph taken in Baghdad in 1924 which provides stark evidence of how the odds were stacked against her. Bell, then the Oriental Secretary in the British High Commission, is flanked by 29 British and Iraqi colleagues. Every one of them is a man. The attitudes she faced from some of her sharper-elbowed contemporaries must have been just as testing as the freezing, 53-hour Alpine blizzard she endured clinging to a rope against the sheer northeastern face of the Finsteraarhorn in 1902.
Take Sir Mark Sykes, one half of the Anglo-French team which in 1916 drew the infamous Sykes-Picot line carving up the Middle East between the two colonial powers. In a letter to his wife, Sykes wrote of Bell: “Confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”
No matter. Bell was made of sterner stuff and wasn’t going to be held back by entitled men. By 1907 she had decisively established her literary credentials with the publication of The Desert and the Sown, a masterpiece of travel writing which brilliantly blends personal discovery and political history with adrenaline-fuelled adventure in Syria and Palestine. Her voice on the page, as in real life, was strong, honest and unmistakable. She writes con brio, full of confidence, vim and vigour.
“To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel,” the book begins. “The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open, the chain at the entrance of the sanctuary is lowered, with a wary glance to right and left you step forth and behold! the immeasurable world.”
She spent the next two decades exploring and describing it. Published in 1911, Amurath to Amurath brought back another series of highly charged journeys across the Middle East to her readers. She captured even more of the immeasurable world in the 1,600 sparkling letters she wrote to family and friends, posthumously published from 1927 and now available in Newcastle University’s online archive.
A trailblazer for women on so many fronts, Bell was perversely no friend to the suffragettes and was a staunch opponent of the extension of the vote to women. So much so that she agreed to become the secretary of the women’s Anti-Suffrage League. It makes you wonder what she might have said had she been told the RSL’s first female President would only be elected in 2017. Who knows, in another world Bell might have pipped Marina Warner to the post by 100 years.