Gertrude Bell led some impressive expeditions across the desert landscapes of the Middle East, but rarely was she without her baggage animals or a cart to carry her dinner service, provisions and equipment, and a servant (or two) to prepare her meals. She also needed corn for the horses and camels and food for her ‘soldiers’ (bodyguards) and servants, so she commanded some fairly sizeable caravans at times. A British woman from a relatively elite social background, she reported back to her father and step-mother in regular letters about her travels, her archaeological surveys, her studies of Arab tribes, and her mealtimes. It wasn’t just that food per se was important to her - she was diligent about properly punctuating her day with breakfast, lunch and dinner. The online Gertrude Bell Archive of Newcastle University, thanks to its search function, shows 627 entries in her diaries and letters just for the word ‘dined’ alone. Desert travels also involved eating with Arab tribal leaders as part of the social obligation of reciprocal gift-giving. Bell also received culinary hospitality from many Middle Eastern peoples, including the Yazidis. The details that Bell gives us of these cultural transactions are a fascinating insight into the role that food and eating played in her desert travels, the creation of her persona, and how she saw the natural order of things.Read More
Gertrude Bell and T E Lawrence did their best, whilst disagreeing over fundamental issues such as the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. Bell foresaw endless struggle and war – and what she saw in France, the fear and the grief and the pain and the suffering, especially of the young, made her wearily cynical of her generation getting it right. She died in 1926; but, like many, by 1915 she’d already seen and felt enough. It was far from ‘all over by Christmas’ - it was never over.Read More
Gertrude Bell’s experience of war work in the south of England and in France was brief, but formative. It began just a few months after the outbreak of the Great War in the summer of 1914. It’s an intriguing story, able to be told primarily because we have her surviving letters as a central part of the archive. Bored and frustrated at Clandon Park Hospital in the south of England - which has been, to date, a little-discussed episode in her life - with no role to speak of except taking round reading materials to wounded Belgian troops, she maneuvered her way over to France to fill a secretarial position. Bell, while there, awkwardly met with Lilian (‘Judith’) Doughty-Wylie, the experienced, respected field nurse who was the wife of the man she hoped to marry; had an epiphany about life being too short; set up a filing system to help distraught relatives better trace missing and wounded boys and young men; and came home just a few months later. Within a year Gertrude Bell was called to the Middle East to serve the British administration – where, in Baghdad, after a series of notable geo-political accomplishments, she died just a decade later by her own hand.Read More
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.)Read More
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 circumstances 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.Read More
I look at my photographs of Greenham Common from the early 1980s and I see more now than I saw then. I see the women again, certainly: defiant, rainbow-colourful and vibrant; and I see the sharp razor wire perimeter and the police presence; but I also see competing masculinities that I hadn't thought about before.Read More