Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Desert Queen

At the turn of the last century, Gertrude Bell was considered one of the most powerful persons in the British Empire. But I wonder how many people have even heard of her?

In 2005, Janet Wallach wrote Desert Queen, a memorable biography of this most fascinating woman. Gertrude Bell was an archaeologist, adventurer, cartographer, diplomat, and spy. She graduated from Oxford at the age of seventeen and spoke six languages. Traveling throughout the Middle East, Bell personally compiled much of the on-the-ground research that informed the policies of the British as pursued by T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. 

Because of her vast knowledge of the area, Gertrude Bell was also instrumental in laying out the national boundaries of much of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite her suspicious death at the relatively young age of 57, the list of her accomplishments is ridiculously long. And she is one of the few westerners of the time who is still fondly remembered and celebrated by the Arab world today.

T.E. Lawrence followed Gertrude Bell’s advice and became world famous. And he got his own movie out of it. To be fair, Bell got her movie too. Newport Library owns that as well. I haven’t seen it, but there is no way a ninety minute film could adequately cover this woman’s extraordinary achievements. Read Janet Wallach’s biography of this amazing woman first. Then you can see the movie. And then you can watch Lawrence of Arabia. But first things first.

You can reserve Desert Queen here.

And you can reserve Lawrence of Arabia here. Admittedly it’s a great film.


  1. Many thanks for posting a review of a non-fiction book!

  2. I read a lot of non-fiction; roughly half of my posts are reviews of books on history, economics and art.