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Penguins on Parade: A Woman in Arabia!

By (August 16, 2015) No Comment

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penguin gertrude bellSome Penguin Classics are clear, almost necessary improvements on their own Penguin predecessors, and we’ll be closing out our week of Penguins with two of those – starting with a new collection of the writings of Gertrude Bell called, somewhat redundantly, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. The volume is edited by Georgina Howell, author of the 2007 biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nation, who writes that she hopes it will “stand in” for the autobiography Bell never go around to writing. And it certainly comes a lot closer to being that autobiography than did the previous Penguin volume of Gertrude Bell, 1953’s Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell, which consisted mainly of letters bell wrote to her father and stepmother over the years, regaling them with studiously nonchalant stories of her travels (“if it were not for a little touch of frostbite in the feet I should be merrily on my way to fresh adventures …”) and painting (as was her custom – her letters were often very long and always exceedingly quotable) vivid pictures of the far-off experience her family’s ironworks money was financing, as when she wrote to her father about a journey through the desert to Hayil in January of 1914, with this entry on the 25th:

To-day we set off in a frosty dawn and marched on down the valley. Ali and I walked on for an hour and waited in a sandy hollow for the camels, and the foot-prints were all round us in the sand. ‘They are fresh,’ said Ali. The valley ended in a wide, open plain, set round with fantastically riven hills black and rusty red as the volcanic stone had weathered. The light crept round them as we marched across the plain. They stood in companies watching us, and in the silence and emptiness were extraordinarily sinister. Suddenly Sayyah called out, ‘There is smoke.’ A tall spire of smoke wavered up against a black hillock. I must tell you that we were waterless and thirsty – the camels had not drunk for four days. We were not at all sure when we should find water, neither did we know in the least what Arabs had kindled the fire whose smoke we watched, but the consensus of opinion was that it was a ghazu – raiders. These are the interesting moments of desert travel.

The letters in that Penguin volume from sixty years ago were all chosen by her stepmother, who acknowledged that “there had clustered round her in her lifetime so many fantastic tales of adventure, based on fact and embroidered by fiction, tales of the Mystery Woman of the East, the uncrowned Queen, the Diana of the Desert …” But she doesn’t acknowledge what she had to have known: that a sizable chunk of those fantastic tales had originated with Gertrude herself, who wasn’t at all averse to the idea of being a legend in her own lifetime (after all, she’d seen it happen to friends of hers, including Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence). To the real pioneering treks she made up European mountains and across Arabian deserts, she added innumerable passages about the wildlife, the curious customs, and most of all the ferocious weather of the region:

We have had a week of fierce heat which still continues, temperatures 122 odd and therewith a burning wind which has to be felt to be believed. It usually blows all night as well as all day and makes sleep very difficult. I have invented a scheme which I practise on the worst nights. I drop a sheet in water and without wringing it out lay it in a pile along my bed between me and the wind. I put one end over my feet and draw the other under and over my head and leave the rest a few inches from my body. The sharp evaporation makes it icy cold and interposes a little wall of cold air between me and the fierce wind. When it dries I wake up and repeat the process. This evening Sir Percy and I went out motoring at 7 but it was too hot. The wind shrivelled you and burnt your eyeballs. They say it does not last very long like this – inshallah!

It’s all very evocative, but weather is also the letter-writer’s first choice for a safe subject, which might be why there’s so much of it in the letters of this earlier volume. And even when the subjects vary, they can only begin to hint at the vast variety of things Gertrude Bell wrote in her life. Not just letters by the tens of thousands but also diaries, archaeological guides, hundreds of position papers for the British government, and eight published books. Georgina Howell quotes from a tempting range of these writings in the course of A Woman in Arabia, giving readers a much fuller picture of Bell in the process, if also making the interested reader wonder why the whole thing is only a little more than 250 pages long when it could easily have been three times that length without risking the inclusion of a single boring sentence. In her advisory capacity to Arabian kings and British ministers, in her pivotal role in putting King Faisal on the throne of a newly-conceived kingdom of Iraq, Gertrude Bell quite literally helped to draw the map of the modern world’s most volatile region – but here she gets 200 pages less than the Penguin Classics book of ghost stories. An enlarged edition might be something to consider.

As it is, perhaps A Woman in Arabia should be seen more as a supplement to Selected Letters of Gertrude Bell (and vice versa) rather than a replacement for it. If only the two could be combined; it’s consistently fascinating to watch Bell contour the details of what she’s writing to the interests and tastes of her recipients. We don’t get much of that variation by simply reading the 1953 volume, since most of its letters are written to her parents. And there isn’t much more of that variation in Howell’s book, since she’s more concerned with showing us Bell in all her various capacities (the chapters of A Woman in Arabia have titles like “The Desert Traveller,” “The Lover,” “The War Worker,” and “The Nation Builder”). But reading the two books side-by-side can yield many intriguing moments of difference, moments when we can almost look into Bell’s mind as she subtly alters the stories she’s telling, first to her father:

We are camped within sight of Hayil and I might have ridden in to-day, but I thought it better to announce my coming and therefore I sent on Muhammed and Ali and have camped in the plain a couple of hours or so from the town. We finished with the Nefud for good and all yesterday – and to-day we have been through a charming country – charming for Arabia – of great granite rocks and little plains with thorny acacia trees growing in them and very sweet scented desert plants. We passed a small village or two, mud houses set in palm gardens and all set round with a mud wall. I hope the Hayil people will be polite.

And then, in an entirely more jaunty tone, to her close friend and almost-lover Richard Doughty-Wylie (the ellipses being Howell’s):

We are within sight of Hayyil and I might have ridden in today but I thought it better to announce me auspicious coming! So I sent in two men early this morning, Muhammed and ‘Ali, and have myself camped a couple of hours outside. We had … a most delicious camp in the top of a mountain, Jebel Rakham. I climbed the rocks and found flowers in the crevices – not a great bounty, but in this barren land a feast to the eyes … Yesterday we passed by two more villages and in one there were plum trees flowering – oh the gracious sight! And today we have come through the wild granite crags of Jebel ‘Aija and are camped in the Hayyil plain. From a little rock above my tent I have spied out the land and seen the towers and gardens of Hayyil, and Swaifly lying in the plain beyond, and all is made memorable by Arabia Deserta. I feel as if I were on a sort of pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites. And the more I see of this land the more I realize what an achievement that journey was. But isn’t it amazing that we should have walked down into Nejd with as much ease as if we had been strolling along Piccadilly!

To her father, on September 5, 1920, she can strike a grim (and damningly prescient) note:

We’re near to a complete collapse of society – the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel. We’ve practically come to the collapse of society here and there’s little on which you can depend for its reconstruction. The credit of European civilization is gone. Over and over again people here have said to me that it has been a shock and a surprise to them to see Europe lapse into barbarism. I had no reply – what else can you call the war? How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?

But only a few days later, in Howell’s book, we find an excerpt of an entirely different tone:

The thing isn’t made any easier by the tosh T. E. Lawrence is writing in the papers. To talk of raising an Arab army of two Divisions is pure nonsense … I can’t think why the India Office lets the rot that’s written pass uncontradicted. T. E. L again: when he says we have forced the English language on the country it’s not only a lie but he knows it. Every jot and tittle of official work is done in Arabic; in schools, law courts, hospitals, no other language is used. It’s the first time that has happened since the fall of the Abbasids …

The experience of reading back and forth between the volumes is delightful; it reads back in to Bell something of her curious chameleon quality, which is a different thing from being multifaceted, and which is often the first quality to be steam-pressed out of a conventional linear biography. Some hints of that chameleon quality are preserved in A Woman in Arabia, which benefits enormously from Howell’s extensive biographical grounding of all the various excerpts she presents. In a way, especially for a writer as prolific and self-aware as Bell was, this may be the truest form a biography could take.

“In guiding the new British administration of Iraq,” Howell writes of Bell, “she was doing the most important work she had ever undertaken. To the people queuing up outside the secretariat in Baghdad, she was more than an administrator; she was someone they could trust. She spoke their language and had never lied to them.” Those people lining up outside, as well as thousands lucy reads gertrude bellmore around the world, were grief-stricken when she died in 1926. Her boss, the High Commissioner, wrote, “Her bones rest where she had wished them to rest, in the soil of Iraq. Her friends are left desolate.” T. E. Lawrence, her old colleague and sparring partner, called the loss of her “nearly unbearable.”

Reading the collection Howell has assembled here, it’s easy for a reader to understand that loss. Bell’s voice in all of its energy and so much of its contradiction is captured quite well here. “Strange isn’t it? To be so much in the midst of it all – strange and delightful for I love it,” Bell wrote at one point, and we feel it in every page of A Woman in Arabia. Now if the nabobs at Penguin could be convinced to do a nice reprint of the Selected Letters …