Saturday, August 25, 2007

Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

I very much enjoyed this book, but can recommend it only with reservations.

Desert Queen is the story of Gertrude Bell, a British traveler, linguist and archaeologist who during the First World War became an effective intelligent agent and analyst, and was one of the architects of the new state of Iraq. She was daring and smart and determined, and so far as possible lived her life on her own unconventional terms. Not only is she an important figure -- about as important as her colleague T.E. Lawrence -- but the imperial project she was part of is of obvious relevance today.

Desert Queen effectively tells this story in some detail. Then why the reservations?

First, if you care about prose style and the unambiguous construction of sentences, you may wince many times as you go through it. This is as much the fault of Anchor Books, the publisher, as of the author. All authors need editors, and good editors are worth more than what they are probably paid. Also, the author was not responsible for the omission of two pages (at least) of notes at the back of the book.

Second, and more seriously, this is a book that seems to have been written almost entirely from Bell's point of view. The book is chock-a-block with quotations from Bell's voluminous correspondence, fortunately preserved, and so it is simple to see what she thought about various subjects -- and as I said, they are important subjects. However, there is no effort to reconstruct how others saw her, her opinions, and her actions. This is particularly important when her political efforts after 1914 are examined. Were her ideas sound? Were her evaluations of various actors accurate or well-based? We aren't given a chance to find out.

Gertrude Bell, as I learned from Wallach's book, was determined to be a "Person" in her own words, an important player in some great work. She also, according to people who knew her, was usually trying to impress some male figure, her beloved father, colleagues, superiors, the occasional figure of desire. To what extent did these factors influence her judgment as a policy analyst and political fixer? Gertrude's correspondence tells us that many men in the imperial service resented and criticized her. Did they have a point?

Similarly before the war Gertrude traveled extensively in the Middle East, meeting, talking to, and observing people unknown to other Europeans. How accurate were her observations? How do they hold up in the light of other sources?

You won't find these things out in Desert Queen. It doesn't qualify as a critical or first-rate biography. Is there one?

Gertrude was an enthusiastic photographer in her traveling phase. Some are already on the web here on a domain named "Gerty" after her. Despite the generosity of the Gertrude Bell Project at the University of Newcastle in posting those photos free, I think there might be a market, both scholarly and popular, for an annotated book of her pictures.

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