The bluestocking and the sheikh

DESERT QUEEN: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach, Weidenfeld pounds 20
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The lure of the Middle East has been as potent for the women of Britain as for the men. In a list comprising, among others, Mary Wortley Montagu, Hester Stanhope, Isabel Burton, Jane Digby, Lucie Duff Gordon and Freya Stark, one would have no hesitation in awarding the palm to Gertrude Bell, a truly remarkable Arabist who committed suicide in 1926, just three days short of her 58th birthday. "The uncrowned queen of Arabia", "the brains behind Lawrence of Arabia", "the maker of Faisal I of Iraq" - Bell has been called all these things, and deservedly so. She badly needed a first-class modern biography and here she gets one.

The daughter of a rich Northumbrian industrialist, Gertrude was one of the first women to enter Oxford University and the very first to get a First in History. Wallach describes her at 20 as "a snob, a bluestocking, a woman with an attitude". Bell wanted to marry a penniless minor aristocrat, Henry Cadogan, but her father would not give his consent; Cadogan later drowned in an accident, leaving her distraught. After that she devoted her life to desert travel, for which she was well fitted, being clever, courageous and a talented linguist. She was a skilled mountaineer who scaled many of the Alpine peaks - there was a close brush with death on the Finnsterarhorn glacier in 1902 - and then in rapid succession she explored Jerusalem, Petra, Palmyra, Syria and the Druze country. Her most significant journey, in 1913-14, was a long trek to Hayil in the heart of what is now Saudi Arabia. Though warned not to go both by the British and the Turkish authorities, she cleverly sought out the powerful sheikhs of the Howeitat and secured their protection. After crossing the Nefud to Hayil, she was held prisoner for a fortnight by the third most powerful ruler in Arabia, ibn Rashid (the "big two" were the Hashemite Sharif Hussein and ibn Saud).

With six long desert odysseys behind her, having also translated the poet Hafiz and published her little classic The Desert and the Sown, Bell knew more about certain aspects of Arabia than any other westerner.When the British prodded the desert Arabs into revolt against the Turks in 1916, she was eagerly sought out for her expert knowledge of the Arab tribes of the Nejd and became the first female Political Officer attached to the British forces. It was on her advice that T E Lawrence made his famous alliance with Audah of the Howeitat and took the port of Aqaba. But Bell was frustrated during the war, since she was confined to her desk and could not make forays into the desert as Lawrence did.

The postwar period 1919-22 takes up much of Wallach's book. Bell was as disillusioned as Lawrence by British duplicity at Versailles and after. Perfidious Albion was never so clearly on display as in 1919, when the peace conference had to sort out the mess made by three conflicting British promises: the McMahon-Hussein letters that guaranteed Palestine and Syria would be part of a Hashemite kingdom; the Sykes-Picot agreement giving Syria to the French; and the 1917 Balfour declaration designating Palestine as a future Jewish homeland. In addition there was Bell's influential political enemy St John Philby (father of Kim), who wanted to ditch the Hashemites in favour of the rising power of ibn Saud and the Wahhabis.

Bell threw in her lot with Hussein's son Faisal, Lawrence's associate in the revolt in the desert. After tortuous negotiations, which saw her at loggerheads with her political superiors, Bell secured a triumph of sorts in 1921 when Faisal was made king, not of the larger area in Hejaz originally promised to the Hashemites, but of modern Iraq. Once Faisal was king, he seemed to have no further use for Gertrude, previously his confidante. Precluded from marriage and domesticity by her own nature, Bell was a pure technician of the Arab world, and when her expertise was no longer needed, she saw no point in continuing with life.

If the exposition of the tangled politics of the Middle East in this book is first-rate, Wallach is less sure-footed in probing her subject's psyche. Bell, who lost her mother when she was three, appears to have had an advanced form of "father complex". Doubtless this was why she evinced no interest in Arab women and opposed female suffrage in England. Sexually she was neurotic, immobilised by the countervailing tugs of desire and revulsion. She had a long epistolary "affair" with a minor diplomat named Dick Doughty-White, and often seemed on the point of giving herself to him, but would then draw back at the last moment.

Wallach is much too tentative in dealing with this material, and always seems relieved to be able to return to the world of high politics. But this is an important book on an important woman. Gertrude Bell is not just another intrepid but inconsequential lady traveller exhumed for posterity by a well-meaning feminist biographer, but a woman of real significance in the history of the post-1918 Arab world.