Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

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9780374531355: Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

A marvelous tale of an adventurous life of great historical import

She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Born in 1868 into a world of privilege, Bell turned her back on Victorian society, choosing to read history at Oxford and going on to become an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author (of Persian Pictures, The Desert and the Sown, and many other collections), poet, photographer, and legendary mountaineer (she took off her skirt and climbed the Alps in her underclothes).

She traveled the globe several times, but her passion was the desert, where she traveled with only her guns and her servants. Her vast knowledge of the region made her indispensable to the Cairo Intelligence Office of the British government during World War I. She advised the Viceroy of India; then, as an army major, she traveled to the front lines in Mesopotamia. There, she supported the creation of an autonomous Arab nation for Iraq, promoting and manipulating the election of King Faisal to the throne and helping to draw the borders of the fledgling state.

Gertrude Bell, vividly told and impeccably researched by Georgina Howell, is a richly compelling portrait of a woman who transcended the restrictions of her class and times, and in so doing, created a remarkable and enduring legacy.

" ... there’s never a dull moment in the peerless life of this trailblazing character." - Kirkus Reviews

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About the Author:

Georgina Howell has worked in magazine journalism since the age of seventeen. She has written for Vanity Fair and American Vogue, and has worked at The Observer, British Vogue, The Tatler, and The Sunday Times. She lives in London and Brittany.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One GERTRUDE AND FLORENCE mmm  It is 22 March 1921, the last day of the Cairo Conference and the final opportunity for the British to determine the postwar future of the Middle East. Like any tourists, the delegation make the routine tour of the pyramids and have themselves photographed on camels in front of the Sphinx. Standing beneath its half-effaced head, two of the most famous Englishmen of the twentieth century confront the camera in some disarray: Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who has just, to the amusement of all, fallen off his camel, and T. E. Lawrence, tightly constrained in the pin-striped suit and trilby of a senior civil servant. Between them, at her ease, rides Gertrude Bell, the sole delegate possessing knowledge indispensable to the Conference. Her face, in so far as it can be seen beneath the brim of her rose-decorated straw hat, is transfigured with happiness. Her dream of an independent Arab nation is about to come true, her choice of a king endorsed: her Iraq is about to become a country. Just before leaving the Semiramis Hotel that morning, Churchill has cabled to London the vital message "Sharif's son Faisal offers hope of best and cheapest solution." By what evolution did a female descendant of Cumbrian sheep farmers become, in her time, the most influential figure in the Middle East? She was as English as English can be, which is to say that she was bred in the wuthering heights of Yorkshire. These northern farmers have acquired a very particular character ever since the eleventh century, when, alone among the English, they refused to submit to William the Conqueror. Physically and mentally tough, they are given to few words, unvarnished and bluntly delivered. Gertrude Bell's great-great-grandfather was a Carlisle blacksmith, and her great-grandfather began the first alkali factory and iron foundry at Jarrow. Her famous and powerful grandfather Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, born in 1816, was a metallurgical chemist and perhaps the country's foremost industrialist. Manufacturing steel on a huge scale, he produced one-third of the metal used in Britain and much of that used for railtrack and bridge construction in the rapidly developing Empire. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's most distinguished scientific institution. Educated first as an engineer, he studied at Edinburgh University and at the Sorbonne in Paris, then in Denmark and the south of France. Author of The Chemical Phenomena of Iron Smelting, he was looked upon as the "high priest of British Metallurgy" and he was the first to identify the value of phosphorus fertiliser as a by-product of steel-making. Referred to as "Sir Isaac" or more familiarly as "Lowthian," in 1854  he was elected Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne, then later be- came Liberal Member of Parliament for Hartlepool and High Sheriff  of County Durham. He was a contemporary and friend of Charles  Darwin, Thomas Huxley, William Morris, and John Ruskin, men to whom can be attributed seminal advances in evolution and science, art, architecture, and social reform. Lowthian was president or vice-president of eight national engineering and chemical institutions, several of  which he had founded. He was also the director of the North Eastern Railway. With Lowthian's two brothers John and Tom, Bell Brothers owned collieries, quarries, and iron ore mines; factories and foundries whose furnaces, burning twenty-four hours a day, regularly reddened the night skies. His company and its associates employed more than forty-seven thousand men, and the family boast was that they would make anything "from a needle to a ship." Besides the first iron and steel works in Newcastle, and the second at Port Clarence in Middlesbrough, he set up a chemical plant for the country's first manufacture of aluminium--until then, a metal as valuable as gold. On the factory's opening day, he was driven in his carriage through the streets of Newcastle in an aluminium top hat, which he doffed to the crowd. He was the first British ironmaster to own a machine for making steel rope. Lowthian wrote several scientific books, but his most remarkable was a comprehensive and logical assessment of Britain's prospects for competing with the world in steel production. He invested heavily in research into the process of steel-making, and was determined to push Britain into developing new technological industries. In the hope that all of British industry would follow his example, he advocated government support for scientific research and technical development. But in this,  after a lifetime's work, he failed. As he had forecast, other countries--and particularly Germany with its Krupps armaments and Thyssen steel--grew in technical competence and productivity, outstripping Britain and building the wealth and power they were to wield in the  First World War. A formidable giant of a man, a paterfamilias who would have almost sixty grandchildren--the number is disputed--Lowthian and his wife, Margaret Pattinson, set a pattern for the Bells of comfortable rather than lavish lifestyle. Considering the huge scale of his enterprises, and his position as the Bill Gates of his day, he did not live extravagantly. This may have had something to do with Margaret's influence: she came from a family of shopkeepers and scientists. His first house, Washington New Hall--four miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne, a stone's throw from the home of the ancestors of George Washington--was not quite a mansion, and the house he built at the zenith of his power, Rounton Grange, was not quite a stately home. He toyed with Gothic, but settled for William Morris's humbler Arts and Crafts style, with its emphasis on traditional artisan skills as a panacea for the ravages wreaked by the Industrial Revolution. This would remain the characteristic style of the Bells' private houses and public buildings. Unlike many heirs to great fortunes, Lowthian's elder son Hugh, Gertrude's father, also lived modestly for a captain of industry. His own first house, Red Barns, at the fishing village of Redcar on the Yorkshire coast, a short train journey from Clarence, reflected this. After Lowthian's death, the house he owned in London was sold, the money presumably divided between Hugh and his siblings--Charles, Ada, Maisie, and Florence. Lowthian was admired rather than loved, and appears to have been dictatorial and harsh towards his family. Gertrude and her sisters and brothers addressed him as "Pater." An illustrated family alphabet they drew up for Christmas at Rounton in 1877, when Gertrude was nine, reflects the feelings of the children towards their abrasive grandfather. A for us All come to spend Christmas week B for our Breathless endeavours to speak C is the Crushing Contemptuous Pater . . . Elsa, Gertrude's younger half-sister, has added: "Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell" in pencil, lest it be thought that this description referred to the gentler and kindlier Hugh. A family story suggests the awe with which "Pater" was regarded by the Bells. Lowthian forbade anyone to use his horses. When one of his granddaughters fainted one evening at dinner from a riding injury (a broken collarbone), everyone conspired to hide the truth: she had borrowed one of his horses and gone hunting with the gentry. The children's grandmother Margaret could be as scathing as Lowthian. A teatime visitor once said to her hostess: "Your scones are lovely." "So I see," retorted the old lady. "Your hand has not been out of the dish since you arrived." Some previously unknown stories about Lowthian emerged recently from papers found in one of the Bell houses, Mount Grace Priory, the ruined medieval abbey where Gertrude's father and stepmother ended their days. English Heritage was renovating the house before opening it to the public when they found the papers hidden under the floorboards. Among them is a reference to a tragic event at Washington New Hall, where "in 1872 a seven-year-old sweep was suffocated in the Hall chimney." If the little boy met his end in Lowthian's chimney in 1872, the ironmaster had comprehensively broken the law. Parliament had forbidden the use of children as chimney-sweeps a full twenty-six years earlier. Sir Isaac may have known nothing about the presence of the chimney-sweep until it was too late; however, whether because he was deeply upset or because he wanted to escape a damaging association, he moved into the newly built Rounton Grange as soon as possible, and let Washington New Hall stand empty and unsold. Nineteen years later, he gave it away as a home for waifs and strays, on condition it was renamed "Dame Margaret's Hall"; today, it is divided into pleasant apartments. Not perhaps unconnected with this story is the fact that many years later Hugh Bell successfully lobbied for a parliamentary bill to protect children from dangerous work. (In the 1860s, the Earl of Shaftesbury  reported that children of four and five were still working in certain factories from six in the morning until ten at night.) The papers found under the boards also contained the sentence, "On one winter's night [Sir Isaac] came out of the Hall to find his coachman frozen stiff on the box-seat of his carriage." The facts remain mysterious. The unfortunate coachman may have had a heart attack rather than dying of exposure, and yet it emerges clearly that consideration for others was not, perhaps, Lowthian's principal quality. The author of these papers, which contain many confirmable facts about Lowthian's life and work, may have been Miss K. E. M. Cooper Abbs, a Bell relation who was the last tenant to live at Mount Grace. If she was moved to record Lowthian's life, it may be because she was incensed that, whether by accident or intent, so many family papers and archives were burnt by members of the family after his death. There is to this day no biography of the man who was as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A more lovable, more charming man, Gertrude's father, Sir Hugh, led the Bell industries and inherited a vast fortune. Like his father, he was educated in Edinburgh, at the Sorbonne, and in Germany, where he studied mathematics and organic chemistry. He began work at eighteen at the Bell Brothers Ironworks in Newcastle, became director of the growing Port Clarence steelworks that dominated the grimy roofscape of Middlesbrough, and eventually ran the entire business and all its ramifications. He dug the ironstone from the Cleveland hills, worked the coal from Durham, brought the limestone from the backbone of England, lived on the Tees, and was a director of the North Eastern Railway, which brought the raw material to the steel foundry. His public works were second to none, especially after his second marriage to Florence Olliffe. He built schools and founded libraries, constructed meeting houses and workers' terraces, made a community centre for staff and labourers at Rounton and paid for a holiday home for worthy families needing a country break from life at the works. He also constructed the famous Transporter Bridge, which is still used to ferry workers and tourists quickly and cheaply over the River Tees. In 1906 he became Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding, welcoming royalty and other VIPs whenever they ventured into the windswept Yorkshire landscape, and was three times elected Mayor of Middlesbrough. In supplying the Empire, the Bells brought a global view to British industry. Sir Hugh was an accomplished public speaker, delivering persuasive messages on such subjects as free trade, which he passionately endorsed, and home rule for the Irish, which he passionately opposed. You can hear in his published speeches the vigour and humour with which he captivated audiences of all types and classes. In his words: Free Trade is like the quality of mercy: it is twice blessed, for it blesses him that gives and him that takes, and I for one will do nothing to place any restriction upon it. The Free market is the greatest safeguard we have against the tyranny of wealth. I look forward with dread to the accumulation of great fortunes in single hands . . . There are millions of persons in this country depending upon weekly wages, upon work which may be discontinued at the end of any week. It is with them I am concerned, and about them that I am perturbed, and not about the class to which I belong. He welcomed the rise of the new trade unions, while warning that the writings of Karl Marx could lead socialists into revolutionary movements that would destroy British industry and employment in the competitive world that he endorsed. When Gertrude was born, Queen Victoria had been on the throne for thirty years. She was driven by Prince Albert's relentless determination to replace the louche self-indulgence of Georgian Britain with Victorian industry and propriety. Britain, and particularly England, led the world in technical superiority--as evinced in that paeon to the Empire, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. The British army, able to call on troops from around the world, represented what was probably the greatest military power of all time; the British navy held control of the oceans and the trade across them, and kept the peace. If those other empires, the Russian and the Ottoman, were still in a state of feudal serfdom and of institutionalized corruption at every level, the British example, inspired by Victoria and Albert, brought at least a concern for moderation, philanthropy, and honest dealing. By the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of Empire was evolving from one of commercial exploitation to one capable of taking a pride in honest and benevolent government. Commercially aggressive but socially responsible, the Bells personified the new mood, and they enjoyed all the confidence of the right people in the right place at the right time. Hugh married Mary Shield when he was twenty-three, choosing a local girl who was the daughter of a prominent merchant of Newcastle upon Tyne. They were married on the Scottish island of Bute on the Clyde, where the Shields kept a holiday home. Their first child, Gertrude, was born in 1868 at Washington New Hall, the home of Hugh's father. Family life centred on this larger-than-life industrialist who had made the Bells the sixth-richest family in England. He could not have been easy to live with, nor the house peaceful, and there are many intimations of his bombastic temperament and caustic wit. Although Hugh, his elder son, had an inclination for the political life, he had had it made brutally clear to him that his future lay in Middlesbrough, with the fastest-growing part of the iron business. Lowthian, based at the original works in Newcastle, would descend on the new Port Clarence steelworks at irregular intervals, to scrutinize and doubtless criticize every aspect of Hugh's work. It would have been with great relief that Hugh and Mary moved with their two-year-old daughter out of Washington New Hall for a quieter domestic life of their own. It was not to last long. Beautiful but delicate, Mary survived only three weeks after the birth of their second child, Maurice, in 1871. Hugh became for a time a poignant figure. When he had buil...

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