How someone died is not always relevant to how they lived; but in the case of Gertrude Bell, I believe that the circumstances of her death tell us a great deal about how she felt about her own life - which in turn casts light on a whole host of historical contingencies of that era, not least the impacts of class and sex, during a time when the Middle East was being carved up and re-plated for Western consumption.
I've studied Gertrude Bell's work for over 25 years. I never felt especially attracted or connected on any personal level to the woman who manifests herself in her writings, but was always fascinated by the richness of her archaeological and photographic output and how that legacy was handled. Yet, just lately, I find myself being drawn again and again to read about the circumstances of her death. I think I know why this is, and it certainly is personal - this year I'll be the age she was when she died. And I think I've finally found the connection that was missing.
The death of Gertrude Bell on the 12th July 1926, from an overdose of 'sleeping pills' in her bedroom in Baghdad, is now well documented in her biographies, and in more recent years it has certainly been fairly openly discussed in terms of suicide. I understand the sensitivities that previously existed around this, particularly for the surviving family members. Suicide was illegal, and I imagine there would have been a desire to protect her long-serving maid, Marie, from any criticism or punishment, as well as Bell's reputation and legacy. I remember giving a talk to the Palestine Exploration Fund in the early 1990s, having returned from fieldwork for the Gertrude Bell Photographic Project, and being extremely circumspect in what I had to say about Bell's final days and death.
But biographers like Wallach and Howell have now addressed this subject more overtly, and I don't think we're doing Bell any favours by not exploring this element of her story. Why would a woman as brilliant as she - as accomplished, as well-known - either take her own life or be so reckless with the risks of such a large and lethal dose of sleeping pills?
There were a number of reasons why Bell was extremely unhappy, some due to circumstances outside her control, and some which were part of her character. Taken all together, they might point to a state of mind that was understandably despondent. Importantly, she would still have had the mental faculties to be acutely aware of her own despondency and the lack of any illustrious future waiting for her. I think it also points to a place in history where she felt dislocated from the world she had once known, and suspected that this new world had no use for her - and that's very significant in terms of trying to know the layers of history in this narrative.
1. Bell's decline in physical health
From her early adult years, Bell had been extremely fit, active and adventurous; plus, she was a risk taker. Physically, it seemed that she could do everything, and easily. She pushed herself with extreme challenges which would have led to intense adrenaline highs. Prior to 1911 and her third major journey across the Middle East, at the age of 43, she had recorded ten mountaineering first ascents in the Bernese Alps. James Buchan describes her as 'the greatest woman mountaineer of her age'. On one of her ascents she nearly died, apparently swinging from her ropes for over two days. She had also travelled extensively in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Palestine, spending long days in the saddle in difficult terrain.
By the time of her death on 12th July 1926, she was very frail and very ill. Bouts of malaria had taken their toll, and Bell developed bronchitis and pleurisy in quick succession. There are suggestions that Bell - a very heavy smoker - had, in her final visit home to England in early 1926, been diagnosed with lung cancer. Georgina Howell's biography points out Bell's ambiguous references in 1925 to a 'last summer', which could indeed be read as a stoic farewell to friends and family.
2. Bell's associated fatigue and despondency
She been prescribed the drug that eventually killed her, Dial (diallylbarbituric acid or allobarbital) at some point prior to her death. A barbiturate, it was used at the time as a sedative, as well as an anti-convulsant and in pain relief. The need for this drug alone suggests that Bell was very unwell, as the side-effects would have outweighed the benefits were this not the case. It also carried risks - even for those who had built up a considerable tolerance, exceeding the maximum dose was very often fatal.
The heat in the Baghdad summer would have been stifling. I've studied and worked myself in the Middle East in July, and the heat orders your day and overwhelms your senses. If you do fall ill, it's really hard to recover if there are times of the day where you never feel cool; and it's hard to sleep and feel properly rested. The constraints of western clothing and the framework of the western working day - which we seem to take everywhere with us, at least partly - make everything seem ten times worse.
In 1926, given Bell's state of health, I'm guessing she felt that sensation that becomes ever-more present each day, that one's body is detaching from one's mind. It can be dislocating and depressing, and there is some evidence in Bell's letters home that she was very unhappy.
In her last two letters home to her father and step-mother, written on the 7th July, five days before her death, she gives the impression of being worn down whilst trying to be upbeat, of being tired and weary of the daily grind whilst trying to talk up her achievement of founding the museum - and of being permanently conscious of the need to try to escape the heat. Her last words in writing to the woman she called 'mother' were: 'There is the lunch bell and I'm dreadfully in need of some iced soda water. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.' Her last words to her father were also of the heat: 'Darling, I must stop now; summer does not conduce to the writing of very long letters. Your loving daughter Gertrude'.
3. Bell had recently been home to England, and the winds of change regarding the family's fortunes were palpable
The family were heavily involved with the industrial development of the north-east of England, and after the first world war they lost much of their fortune to death duties and increased competition in the iron and steel industry.
Bell by all accounts adored her father, Hugh. But on her last visit home he was preoccupied with family business and labour disputes. She returned to Iraq, to her 'work'.
She would have been aware of the pervading fear that the family money - the money that provided her with an income - was drying up. Whilst far from even approaching being poor - she left £50,000 in her will to the Baghdad Museum - she was unusually feeling a pressure to be (or be seen to be) 'salaried'.
Indeed post-WW1 labour relations were one of the subjects mentioned in her last letter to her father, with the General Strike of May 1926 still very fresh in their minds. Her 'work' had rarely been paid work, and the archaeological expeditions and the photographic travels were privately funded. It was another change to the structures that held her world in place.
4. Being a woman in a man's world was no picnic
Bell enjoyed the attention she received as a special woman in a world of men in the Middle East - attention she received from Europeans and Arabs alike. But attention for simply being Miss Bell the political officer wasn't enough. She really was invested in the archaeology and the landscape and what she called the 'adventure'.
But she had long realised that her sex disadvantaged her. In 1914, she wrote of
'a profound doubt as to whether the adventure is, after all, worth the candle. Not because of the danger - I don't mind that; but I am beginning to wonder what profit I shall get out of it all ... There are two ways of profitable travel in Arabia. One is the Arabia Deserta way, to live with the people, and to live like them for months and years ... It's clear I can't take that way; the fact of my being a woman bars me from it. And the other is to ride swiftly through the country with your compass in hand, for the map's sake and for nothing else, I might be able to do that over a limited space of time, but I am not sure. Anyway, it's not what I'm doing now ... I almost wish that something would happen - something exciting, a raid, or a battle! Yet that's not my job either. What do ineffective archaeologists want with battles! They would only serve to pass the time, and leave as little profit as before ... it's a bore being a woman when you're in Arabia'.
So she knew that being exceptional doesn't change the over-arching culture one is in. But I think she was quite conflicted on the fairness of this, and 'performed gender' with class concerns being her driving force. Indeed, she didn't want to change anything about sex qualifications back home - she was against women being given the vote, for example - and was seemingly only pro social change whilst in the Middle East.
Also of interest is that fact that whilst she was only the third woman ever to be elected to the Society of Antiquaries of London, there is no evidence that she ever took any advantage from this membership or visited Burlington House whilst in London in 1925. Jeremy Johns wrote, in an address to the Society, that
'[Bell] returned to England twice before her death, in the summer of 1923 and again the in the summer of 1925. On both occasions she passed through London and had ample opportunity to visit the Society, but there is no record in her papers that she did so. Indeed, I regret to say, that I have found no reference to her election, news of which much have reached her when she was distracted by the 1921 Cairo Conference.'
It's almost as though she were only 'free' to be exceptional, to have the limelight, to be an archaeologist, and to challenge the social mores of the time, when she were situated outside of England and in the Middle East, where women arguably had even less status than they did in England.
5. Strange relationship choices and loneliness
The sights and experiences of WW1, the Arab Revolt of 1916, and the Armenian Massacre (about which she wrote vividly), may well have left its mark on Bell. Adventures do not always make us strong. Some visceral experiences need to be shared and it seems she had precious few people to share anything with.
Her choices for relationships showed an uncharacteristic lack of judgement, notably her adoration of the married Dick Doughty-Wylie, and, in later years, for the married Ken Cornwallis. She asked both to divorce their wives in order to marry her. Neither did. Doughty-Wylie was killed during WW1 at Gallipoli, apparently causing her massive heartache.
The behaviour of Ken Cornwallis around the time of Bell's death is very interesting. He'd been in England at the same time as Bell in 1925, and had basically poured cold water on her desire for marriage. Bell returned to Baghdad in early September 1925, and Cornwallis also returned there for his work. In her biography, Howell observes that Bell had sent him a note the day before she died, asking him to look after her dog Tundra 'in case anything happened to her'.
Cornwallis later claimed that he'd been unwell and didn't understand the significance of the note, which is why he ignored it - which I have to say, in a society that ran on the efficient delivery of and responses to handwritten notes and letters between colleagues and friends, seems to be stretching the truth. He later claimed it was for this reason that he didn't look after the dog (he knew how to - he was a dog lover himself), and eventually Marie had it transported back to Bell's parents.
Cornwallis, I think, ignored the note, and ignored the implicit 'cry for help' within it. Gertrude Bell, already lonely and still grieving for her younger brother Hugo who had died of typhoid some months earlier, may well have felt this final rejection to be too much.
Of Hugh, after his death, she wrote to her parents that he had had '... a complete life. His perfect marriage and the joy of his children and then at the last his seeing you again ... I wonder if we should be happier too if we thought we were all to meet again.'
For the hugely independent traveller and diplomat of the Middle East, she displayed a dependence on family and male figures in her 'English life' that she never unlearned. To me, she wasn't 'an Englishwoman in Iraq'. She was an Englishwoman in England; and became a re-invented montage in the Middle East, dipping in and out of social territories and trying to keep her balance.
6. Bell's loss of privilege and the rise of Lawrence
She was aware of her loss of privilege. She had opposed women's suffrage and seen it granted nevertheless. She was aware that she was starting to be regarded by men whom she thought of as her social and intellectual inferiors as being insufferable. Mark Sykes used language about her that could only have been applied to a woman: 'Confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!' She'd felt the casual, cold hand of misogyny even when at her most influential and hard-working.
And she'd seen T E Lawrence - a man 20 years her junior, born outside of her privilege - match her fame following what was only a very limited publication in 1922 of The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom about his role in the Arab Revolt during WW1, subsequent to the sensationalising of his exploits by journalist Lowell Thomas.
Lawrence then kept a fairly low profile for a while, partly due to imposed changes to his military career, but in the years between 1922 and 1926 he had been hard at work on a corrected version of Pillars which was intended to reach a wider audience - an abridged version titled Revolt in the Desert. It was inevitable that this would be greeted with further publicity and notoriety for Lawrence.
The intersections of the lives of Bell and Lawrence have been written about, but as far as I'm aware only in terms of their supposed spying activities, so it's interesting to consider how Bell's last year and her death intersected with Lawrence's resurgence as the character in the Arab Revolt.
Bell certainly did know what Lawrence was up to with Revolt, as she was one of the people he selected to ask to read through the near-final drafts. This appears to have happened during her final summer in England in 1925, as Lawrence wrote to his editor Edward Garnett on the 27th July of that year, 'Judgements upon this chapter vary. Gertrude Bell, a woman of enormous heart and whirling head, of the book said, "Approved: all but the libellous, untruthful description of yourself." Very nice of Gertrude.'
How she might have felt about the forthcoming book is difficult to gauge. She'll have been aware that it was an extremely well-written, richly observed travel narrative as well as an adventure story. She may have been all too aware, as her influence and privilege waned, that Lawrence's fame and career were only just starting.
7. Her 58th birthday was looming, and the well of validation was running dry
She died just before her birthday - 2 days before her 58th birthday to be exact. It can be the case that once past our middling years, there's nothing quite like a birthday to remind us of our own mortality and what a speck of dust in the universe we are. What have I achieved? Who is there in my life? What lies in my future?
Cornwallis had effectively abandoned her to her maid and her allobarbital. Her close colleagues had moved on. Cox, who sought her counsel, was long gone. Dobbs, his replacement, did not need her counsel. Bell, out of all the British advisers in Arabia, had wanted to keep the British promises over the region and pushed for an independent state. Whilst she kept more moral integrity than the rest of them, by 1926 it must have been becoming clear that the new states created after World War 1 were not coalescing into successful countries.
Her day to day life was labelling exhibits in her museum - quite the come-down for the trained archaeologist and the brilliant intellect upon which others had previously relied.
For Bell, a dose of Dial, far too big for her fragile body to sustain, ended her life. She was buried with honours in Baghdad that same day, her coffin draped with the British and Iraqi flags and carried by junior officers from the High Commission. It was reported that she had asked her maid to wake her - no suspicion of suicide was to attach to Bell, whatever her intention, nor to Marie. Bell was very careful about that, to her immense credit. The death was not recorded as suicide.
And so ...
Personally, I think Bell got shunted aside by the countries she served, and by the people she trusted - and, for reasons perhaps of a sense of social obligation, she didn't want to bother her family directly with her pain and so she put literal distance between them. The colleagues who had shown her loyalty had moved on and been replaced; and I think she was lonely, worried about the future, and forlorn.
Distance was the metaphor of her life, from her early 20s onward. She always been able to solve a problem, to punctuate boredom, to remove herself from awkward situations, to find a better place, by going on a journey. I think her last journey was, like most other things she did, thought about, risk-laden, and intentional.
Yes, she could be vain; yes, she was privileged; and yes she thrived on drama - but she was genuinely out of the ordinary, and the manner of her death was avoidable. The worst-case scenario for me is if Gertrude Bell's step-mother knew that she was probably going back to Baghdad to die, or even tacitly encouraged her to do so rather than her dying of cancer at home in England - and then kept that knowledge from her father. And what if Cornwallis knew of her illness also, and distanced himself ... and Faisal was absent, too. It's perhaps illuminating how a woman of such rare talent and such vivacity became so dispensable so quickly once family wealth and the adventures faded, and the spectre of cancer came calling.
Sources: Ella Ravilious's blog for V&A on Gertrude Bell at Hatra; James Buchan's 'Miss Bell's lines in the sand' in The Guardian 12 March 2003; Pat Yale's 'Gertrude of Arabia: the great adventurer may finally get her museum' in The Guardian 9 August 2016; Janet Wallach 1996 Desert Queen - the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell: adventurer, adviser to kings, ally of Lawrence of Arabia; Georgina Howell 2006 Daughter of the Desert - the remarkable life of Gertrude Bell; Jeremy Wilson 1989 Lawrence of Arabia - the authorised biography of T E Lawrence; Jeremy Johns [undated, poss circa 1989] unpublished address on Gertrude Bell and the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University, given to the Society of Antiquaries of London; H V F Winstone 1980 Gertrude Bell.
Author's edit: minor typos corrected 17th June 2017 and 10th October 2017, and 1st May 2018.