A Woman in Arabia

“I summoned my sheiks,” Sheikh Fahd Beg ibn Hadhdhal told Gertrude Bell upon reading one of her letters, “I read them your letter and I said to them, Oh Sheikhs…This is a woman—what must the men be like!” A similar sense of awe at Bell’s sheer bravado, intelligence and wide-ranging accomplishments grip the reader of her letters, journals, military dispatches and travel writing newly collected in the Penguin edition of A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert.

The anthology, edited by Georgina Howell, author of Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, is divided into thematic sections that convey the multi-faceted personality of the intrepid explorer. Sections like The Linguist and The Poet give a sense of Bell’s poetic voice and literary style. The travel writing contained in The Mountaineer, The Archaeologist and The Desert Traveler disclose her insatiable thirst for exploration. The Person and The Lover (at age 38 Bell finally met the love of her life, Dick Doughty-Wylie who was, inconveniently, married) contain more intimate revelations about Bell’s personal ambitions and desires. The War Worker, The Prisoner (Bell was detained on an ambitious journey through one of the most dangerous parts of the desert by Turkish troops asking for permits she did not have), The Nation Builder, The Kingmaker and The Courtier all display Bell as an essential political player, savvy diplomat and architect of British policy in Arabia after World War I, when she helped draw the borders that shaped the Middle East.

Together these various outlets present a vivid picture of Bell and establish her profound legacy, but—as the Sheikh noted—it is perhaps her letters that lend the most insight into the depth of her emotional intelligence and empathy. As her contemporary T.E. Lawrence and fellow champion of the Arab cause put it, “Her letters are exactly herself—eager, interested, almost excited. She kept an everlasting freshness.”