This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.
Gertrude Bell was a writer, traveller, linguist, archaeologist and probable spy. She explored and mapped parts of the Middle East, influenced British imperial policy-making in the region and played an important part in the founding and administration of modern Iraq after the First World War. She died in her sleep in 1926 of an apparent overdose.
When did you first hear about Gertrude Bell?
I was introduced to her by Sir Richard Branson’s aunt, Clare Hoare, who sent me Georgina Howell’s book Daughter of the Desert just before I went to report from Iraq. She said I needed to know about this woman [Bell] – in her time one of the most powerful women in the British empire and the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Howell’s book is impeccably researched and beautifully told, yet for all Gertrude’s achievements, her story remains relatively unknown.
What kind of person was she?
Few descriptions do her justice. She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, but even that doesn’t go far enough as she was arguably more inspirational, multi-faceted and respected than even he. She was not afraid to speak her mind and to express unpleasant truths. This didn’t always make her popular among her British (male) peers – but I love her for it!
What made her a hero?
Her capability and her humanity. She was born in 1868 into an enormously wealthy family – her grandfather is described as the ‘Bill Gates’ of his day. Gertrude could have led a privileged life, but turned her back on Victorian social convention, insisting on reading history at Oxford instead. She became the first woman to take a first in modern history. In the years that followed she learned Persian, Arabic and Turkish, translated Sufi poetry and went on to become an expert on Arabian desert travel – finding herself working in military intelligence alongside TE Lawrence.
What was Bell’s finest hour?
She had so many! She spent 53 hours on a rope in a blizzard on the summit of one of seven ‘virgin’ peaks in the Engelhorn mountain range in Switzerland, (one of which is named after her). She was also one of few foreigners to survive the Najd desert [in modern-day Saudi Arabia] and the hostile Arabian tribes who lived there, and her memory lived on long in Iraq – so much so that her story was part of the school curriculum there, but sadly not in the UK. She was able to win the admiration and indeed affection of Arab statesmen: a woman in a man’s world who used diplomacy and grace to achieve so much.
Is there anything that you don’t admire about her?
She was flawed, as so many great people are. I am sure she could be immensely stubborn and appear aloof to some, and she did not suffer fools gladly. Perhaps her lack of political instinct among her British peers did not serve her well either – but I like to think she said things as they were because she was honest.
Can you see any parallels between Bell’s life and your own?
I share her fascination for the Middle East. I travelled there in my teens on a shoestring, spending time with the Bedouin in the desert and learning to ride in the shadow of the pyramids.
I also learned Arabic at university and studied Islam and Middle Eastern history, so I strongly empathise with Gertrude’s interest in the culture and history of the region.
Would you have made a good spy?
Gosh, I would like to say yes, but I am not particularly good at ‘politics’. Perhaps I share that with Gertrude too.
If you could meet Bell, what would you ask her?
If I could come with her on her next adventure!
Kate Silverton is a journalist and news presenter for the BBC.