Gertrude Bell Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gertrude Bell 1868-1926

(Full name Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell) English nonfiction writer and archaeologist.

Bell was one of the first Western women to travel and do archaeological research in the deserts of the Middle East. She wrote extensively on the ancient cultures of the region, and documented the daily experience of her travels as a prolific letter writer. Bell also established and was the first director of the State Museum for Antiquities in Baghdad, Iraq.

Biographical Information

Bell was born into an upper-class family in county Durham, England. Her father was a knighted industrialist; her mother died when Bell was two. Bell's step-mother, Florence Eveleen Eleonore Olliffe, was a noted dramatist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. After graduating from Oxford in 1888 with honors in history, Bell was forbidden by her parents from marrying Harry Cadogan, a man she apparently loved and who died a year later. In 1892 she visited Persia—now Iran—for the first time, and inaugurated a peripatetic life devoted to the study of ancient cultures and the preservation of antiquities. Her accomplishments include traveling around the world twice, attaining fluency in Arabic and Persian, climbing the Swiss Alps, and conducting major explorations of the Middle Eastern deserts, many never before visited by a Westerner. She was also made a Commander of the British Empire and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. With her travels restricted by the events of World War I, Bell worked first for the Red Cross as a tracker of missing persons, and then for the British intelligence service out of Cairo, Egypt. After the war, she worked with Thomas Edward Lawrence—immortalized as "Lawrence of Arabia"—helping to establish the nation of Iraq. An accomplished and seemingly independent woman, Bell was a founding member of the Woman's Anti-Suffrage League, believing that strident feminism, symbolized by the right to vote, was a hindrance to the progress of women in English society.

Major Works

Bell's first work, Safar Nameh (1894), a book of essays on her travels in Persia, was first published anonymously; she was not happy with the quality of the work at the time. It was subsequently published under her name, with an introduction in which she somewhat disclaims the book as a youthful effort. Safar Nameh has been praised for evoking the natural beauty of what is now Iran, and for conveying the romantic enthusiasm of the author. Her first major work, Syria: The Desert and the Sown (1907), is an account of her first serious expedition in the Middle East, started in 1905, during which she journeyed through Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. The title of the book comes from Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat (eleventh-twelfth century), in Edward Fitzgerald's 1859 translation; "The strip of herbage strown that just divides the desert from the sown." In Amurath to Amurath (1911) Bell describes her experiences during a 1909 journey that took her along the Euphrates river from Aleppo to Hit, then to Karbala and Baghdad. During this trek she met with Kurdish tribesman and visited the castle at Ukhaidir, considered a superlative example of Sassanian architecture and reminiscent of pre-Muhammadan buildings. This book was criticized by some commentators at the time for emphasizing architectural detail and history over the narrative of her trip. Palace and Mosque at Ukhaidir (1914) describes her return to this site, and is copiously illustrated with Bell's drawings and photographs.