coming this autumn via this website

Gertrude Bell, outside her tent, Middle East. Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

Gertrude Bell, outside her tent, Middle East. Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

Gertrude Bell

Love Through A Different Lens

This book is presented as an unashamed antidote to Werner Herzog’s film about Gertrude Bell, ‘Queen of the Desert’. As I noted in a previous blog post on this website, in my mind the movie is so flawed and lamentable that there aren’t enough rotten tomatoes in the world to throw at it.

The book I allude to in that post is shaping up well, and I’ve followed up many fascinating leads regarding Bell’s formative years and relationships with unavailable (married) men, including the man given a curious prominence in her Wikipedia entry, the diplomat Sir Frank Swettenham.

This book asks questions of Bell’s relationships and deliberately looks for answers in her childhood.

It goes way beyond the ‘Queen of the Desert’ and its cardboard cut-outs.

Indicative Contents 

Biographical Summary 

Chapter 1 Introduction: why another book on Gertrude Bell? Countering Werner Herzog 

Section One: The Early ‘Love Interests’ and Bell’s Social World 

Chapter 2 A World of Suitors, Rejected: Billy Lascelles, Bertie Crackenthorpe, William Pease, Capt Foster, Harold Russell et al 

Chapter 3 Henry Cadogan 

Section Two: The Married Men 

Chapter  4 Sir Frank Swettenham 

Chapter  5 Charles ‘Dick’ Doughty-Wylie 

Chapter  6 Kinahan ‘Ken’ Cornwallis 

Section Three: Family Dynamics and Ultimate Unhappiness 

Chapter  7 Bell’s Childhood and Its Psychological Effects 

Chapter  8 The Death of Gertrude Bell 




Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

Was Bell’s ‘first love’ Henry Cadogan really the innocent abroad, the luckless paramour? Might he not be better portrayed as a ‘future-faker’, in modern parlance?

What was Bell’s actual relationship with Sir Frank Swettenham? Did they really have a ‘passionate affir’, as his biographer claims?

Which parts of Bell’s personality forged in her childhood years propelled her intense obsession with the married - and very attached - Lt Col Dick Doughty-Wylie?


Similarly with Kinahan ‘Ken’ Cornwallis - what needs of Bell’s were being met by their relationship, and why? And quite how badly did his eventual divorce and subsequent indifference to Bell her, up to the very point of her tragic self-inflicted death?

To analyse Gertrude Bell’s loves - both her family and personal relationships - leads us to understand better what drove her, what sustained her, what enabled her create her own self-envisioned persona, and also ultimately took her down that final road to her end.

The resulting study is something of a psychological narrative, punctuated by Bell’s encounters with real flesh-and-blood people. The book also looks at the circumstances around her death, and how it was received and documented.

From an earlier blog post

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.

Gertrude Bell with her father, Hugh Bell c 1922. Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

Gertrude Bell with her father, Hugh Bell c 1922. Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

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 significant service and a life in Baghdad, helping to establish the new kingdom of Iraq.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gertrude Bell - Love Through A Different Lens will be available later in 2019