An Interview with Georgina Howell

In the new Penguin Classic A Woman in Arabia, The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, editor Georgina Howell presents Gertrude Bell's most interesting letters, military dispatches, diary entries and travel writings to uncover her struggles, triumphs and lasting contributions to history. Howell, who defined the character of this remarkable woman in her biography Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, discusses Bell’s influence today, which falls on travelers, politicians and readers alike.


Longitude. Not only did you edit and introduce the new Penguin Classic A Woman in Arabia, you also authored the biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. What first drew you to study the life of Gertrude Bell?

Howell. I was a contract writer for the Sunday Times Magazine when the editor, Robin Morgan, invited us to a dinner, and he requested us each to contribute an essay about their hero or heroine – the figure who had most inspired us. I knew at once who my heroine would be. When the piece was published I had the biggest post-bag of letters I had ever had, before or since. Germaine Greer’s iconic work, The Female Eunuch, taught me and many others to forge our place in the world without asking for doors to be opened for us. To Gertrude, no mountain, no tribal chief, no opponent, no shut door was an obstacle.

Longitude. Did you travel to research the biography? How did your travels prepare you to write about such an intrepid explorer?

Howell. My work has taken me on many travels and given me the chance to meet the greatest achievers in the world, be they movie stars, royalty, musicians, politicians, fashion designers -- from Elizabeth Taylor and the Reagans to Bono and U2. Occasionally, I have travelled in style but never experienced the rigours of her ventures into the unknown. When my husband and I visited Yorkshire it was not just to research the huge Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University but to meet descendants of her family, two of whom had sat on Gertrude’s lap as children. We saw Washington New Hall where she was born, in the same village where George Washington was born, and toured the places where her family had their mines and steel-mills. We stayed in the house where she grew up and found the abandoned site of the mansion her grandfather built. There we walked in the remains of the gardens she created. We might have gone to Mesopotamia to meet the Iraqi nation she founded but sadly the war of 1993 was raging and the destruction continued as we wrote her biography.

Longitude. How did you select which passages would be included in this anthology? Was it difficult to choose?

Howell. Gertrude wrote every day for 40 years, her output including her eight books and letters, diaries, secret notes to government, policy papers, a huge document demanded by the British Parliament about the government of Iraq. The library in Newcastle has 75 feet of her archives. I believed there was enough to assemble the story of her life in her own words; the autobiography she never wrote. So I selected passages to create that story. I believe that choosing those passages, like needles in a haystack, would have been impossible if I had not written a biography of her myself.

Longitude. The structure of the collection effectively demonstrates Bell’s multi-faceted personality and far-reaching abilities. How did you decide to organize the excerpts into categories such as The Desert Traveler, The Lover, The Nation-Builder, etc.?

Howell. All previous biographies of Gertrude are written chronologically but she was a woman of such action -- always travelling, learning new languages and skills, exploring fresh fields -- that the real person is easily lost in the catalogue of events. I was fascinated by the woman herself and wanted her to shine through each of her talents and individual achievements. She had setbacks too and failings. They needed to be set in their true context, not just as passing events. Of course the division of her life into its components: her talents, her achievements and involvements, risks confusion for the reader -- you can wonder ‘where are we now in her life?’ Hence the very thorough chronology given at the start of the book, not just detailing her own activities as the months pass but keying them into the dates of world events and those in which her family was involved. It is the most thorough chronology of her life you can find anywhere.

Longitude. Which side of Bell -- the traveler, the lover, the political mover -- most appeals to you?

Howell. Her love of clothes may seem an odd choice but I loved to learn how she hid bullets in her white silk stockings, wore linen culottes to measure archaeological sites, and having ridden a camel all day, would visit a sheikh in his tent with her red hair pinned up and evening dresses of lace and silk made for her in Paris.

Longitude. How did you feel about Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Bell in Werner Herzog’s new biopic, Queen of the Desert? (If you’ve had the chance to see it!)

Howell. When will we see it? I read that Ms. Kidman holds the show. For me it is sad that the film ends in 1915 just when Gertrude’s vast knowledge and indomitable drive impinged on world events. That was when she became the most powerful woman in the British Empire, and in those days perhaps that meant the world.

Longitude. How did studying Bell’s role in the shaping of the Middle East after WWI influence your perspective on today’s Middle East?

Howell. Gertrude fought Churchill’s wish to get the British army and administrators out of Iraq. She had brought the people into a greater prosperity than they had ever known. At the same time she knew Iraq could have been overwhelmed at any minute by a vengeful Turkish army from the west, a Russian Communist insurgency from the north and a murderous Wahhabi invasion from the south. There would certainly have been no nation of Iraq, in fact, there would have been very few people left alive in Mesopotamia. That is why Iraq had to have the temporary support of the British army and administration and be large and strong enough eventually to defend itself. With the support of many influential Jews, Gertrude was able to prevent Israel becoming a Zionist state as early as the end of World War One. By so doing she saved the lives of the many Jews who had already settled in Israel and would otherwise have been slaughtered by angry Arab mobs. And she preserved the credibility of the Western powers who had promised freedom and independence to the Arabs. She foretold that an Israeli state established in Palestine would face ‘trouble without end’ and she was right. At the end of the last American invasion, Iraq needed a Gertrude Bell. The lessons she taught (and which were studied by Colin Powell and the State Department) could have prevented the ensuing chaos. The million men, army and police, made idle by the Americans, were the kindling for the fires that rage on. She enabled the tribal leaders and the religious wise men to take pride and responsibility in the nation. They remain the keystones of Arab life but the Americans ignored them.

Longitude. How does travel for women now differ from the challenges Bell faced? In what ways might she act as a model for today’s independent woman traveler?

Howell. There are many women today who travel in wild places, immerse themselves in other cultures, volunteer to serve where life is hard, even dangerous. Many of them perhaps are exploring themselves as well but Gertrude always travelled with a purpose; she was no tourist adventurer. She would return from every exploration with a new body of knowledge. She learnt the languages wherever she went and even spoke some Urdu, Japanese and Korean. When she travelled in the Middle East she was an unwitting anthropologist. She entered the lives of the tribes, the farmers and the townsfolk. She became respected by the leaders and befriended ordinary people relating their ancient tales in their own dialect. They felt able to put their trust in her.