There’s something in the underlying belief system of Werner Herzog’s execrable film about Gertrude Bell, ‘Queen of the Desert’, that is so flawed and lamentable that there aren’t enough rotten tomatoes in the world to throw at it. The beautiful and raw swathes of Middle Eastern landscapes which permeated Bell’s intricate psyche become, in this biopic, a backdrop to male-gazed ‘love interests’ and smatterings of imperial politics, and even the desert cannot compensate for the plodding cascade of cardboard cut-out personalities inflicted upon the viewer.
If a particular type of manly mind, fossilised in the last century, were to leach out its limited thoughts onto a blank storyboard, it might just about create the tick list of woeful stereotypes of historical women who ‘broke the mould’ which seem to inform this film. There’s no subtlety in its portrayal of the development of Gertrude Bell’s character as a woman; no analysis of the structural inequalities which pervaded Bell’s life, whether she acknowledged them or not (bar some clumsy signalling of the frustrations of living in ‘a man’s world’ through stilted dialogue); and no conception of how she came to understand (or not) her own privilege and her limitations as they played out within two very different patriarchal and unequal societies in England and Iraq.
Presumably the film-makers thought that the remarkable story of Gertrude Bell in and of itself would carry the film and carry the day. Unfortunately (and to my mind unforgivably) it is the film that lets down the remarkable story - just as it lets down the remarkable woman. Despite the big budget and the stellar cast, the production reduces Bell and those in her life to a palimpsest of tropes, and underestimates the critical faculties of the audience(s). Compared to the carefully crafted documentary film ‘Letters from Baghdad’, the Herzog movie is arguably a waste of camera time. Which is quite the achievement.
My disappointment and frustration with Bell’s portrayal in Herzog’s ‘Queen of the Desert’ led me to start writing a blog piece about what is actually fascinating and significant about her life and her relationships - and yes, that includes her ‘love life’ (when this is not being mis-characterised and hatchet-edited as part of the movie process) - as well as thinking about what perspectives might best be brought to bear when analysing and studying the important aspects of Bell’s world and agency. The resulting study is something of a psychological narrative, punctuated by Bell’s encounters with real flesh-and-blood people. (I also have a lot more to write about the circumstances around her death, and how it was received and documented.)
I’d been very (happily) surprised at the interest shown in my previous blog article about ‘The Death of Gertrude Bell’, which has attracted tens of thousands of readers, and I thought that it might therefore be useful to develop a longer series of articles about this very special woman, looking at her from a number of angles. I knew I’d need to describe and assess, as others have done, the things she did, and said, and wrote, and achieved, and speculate about their contemporary impact and her longer legacy; but I wanted also to look beyond that and explain as best I could why she did them, and why she was attracted to certain people and what that meant for her, and how she became who she was - from her childhood onward, through her life, up to her death.
Bell’s childhood, which affected her attachment style(s), was not without its traumas – maternal death before she was even three years old, devotion to a father who was a very busy man, the arrival of a step-mother and new siblings, and attendance at boarding school as an adolescent. The class privilege and family wealth into which she was born and socialised could not shield her from life’s often cruel realities. Indeed, she frequently found the baggage of social and gendered proprieties heavy to carry.
When young, her intelligence only carried her so far outside of the corral of her family’s expectations. The family considered itself fairly progressive - but the social strictures of their class in later Victorian England nevertheless loomed large. Two (successful) years at university were followed by chaperoned travel, and a period of meeting suitable young men. She married none of them. Yet the young men she knew – Billy Lascelles, Bertie Crackenthorpe, William Pease – were all pretty good paper candidates. An obvious conclusion is that she didn’t ‘succeed’ in getting married as a young woman because she actually chose to succeed in not getting married.
Bell did not slavishly follow her step-mother Florence’s instructions, and she sometimes teased Florence with slightly daring tales in letters of unchaperoned activities in London. However, one cause Bell did embrace at her step-mother’s request was rejection of suffrage for women. Bell also respected her parents’ rejection of her informal engagement to the future-faking, love-bombing gambler Henry Cadogan, whom she had met in Persia. Yet none of these complexities are properly explored in ‘Queen of the Desert’.
There was more travel for Gertrude Bell at the beginning of the 20th century, notably some impressive journeys through the deserts of the Middle East, which she documented in writing and through photography. There followed secretarial role and intelligence roles in the Great War, in France and Middle East, and subsequently notable service and a life in Baghdad, helping to establish the new kingdom of Iraq.
Gertrude Bell had other parts of her life still to live. This included relationships with not just one but two (and possibly three) married men. These were men who were to all intents and purposes unavailable and unattainable, but whom she apparently saw as prizes worth the hard task of acquisition. Perhaps to Bell these tasks presented her - indeed, presented both of them - with worthy romantic obstacles to overcome; it was as if the challenge of jointly traversing difficult terrain was itself worth craving, and the fraught and emotional journey a thing worth having, in order to reach the ultimate destination of togetherness. These particular adventures, however, were doomed to failure, and brought huge sadness and despair into Bell’s life.
And through all this, and throughout her political career and archaeological endeavors, she had her family relationships to fall back on as well as her friends and servants and colleagues – people who affected her profoundly and upon whom she relied emotionally and practically. Some let her down badly, especially towards the end of her too-short life.
At the age of 57, alone at night in her bedroom, she committed suicide in Baghdad.
Gertrude Bell was no cardboard cut-out, and we need to watch that our language and the images we create around her don’t bring into being a fake Gertrude, the opposite of that which she deserves. Speculative explorations of her life are fine and of course inevitable; but let’s not turn a multi-layered personality that took decades to evolve into a two-hour, by-the-numbers Hollywood heroine. Her complex character and the forces that created her deserve to be appreciated – and not just as a study of Bell herself, and her family’s connection to and memorialisation of themselves within their northern English locale and landscape, but as part of the study of women, and class, and the social conditions for women of this period. And there are still many stories to be told about her relationships, her servants, her friendship with T E Lawrence, her views on Jerusalem and the Jewish State, and her photographic legacy.
And thus, the articles I’ve been drafting have grown into not just one book but a series of short books, which have taken shape over the summer. They’re not going to be long reads – the first one’s looking to be about 20,000 words – and they’ll be available on here, ‘as cheap as chips’ as the British say (i.e. extremely inexpensive). Any pennies and cents raised will help to fund this website, the rest of which remains Open Access (free to use) and free of adverts, and which promotes a wider awareness and appreciation of Gertrude Bell and her archives, and archaeology in general.
Watch this space for more on the remarkable Gertrude Bell. If you want to keep in touch with me about my online publications, please use the Contact Me form on this website.
Acknowledgements: The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University; Tony Curzon Price openDemocracy 2017. Opening photograph: Gertrude Bell in front of her tent aged 41, probably at Babylon (Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University).