I came to this book ignorant. Years ago I concluded that Gertrude Bell was uninteresting compared to Freya Stark, probably because her role in the Middle East became official, unlike Stark’s freelance approach, so I never read anything by or about her. The remarkable qualities of this biography will, I am sure, impress even the most knowledgeable reader, but to me it has come with the full thrill of revelation, leaving me flabbergasted at my own mistake.
In her preface Howell recalls being invited to write an article entitled ‘My Hero’, and knowing instantly that hers was Gertrude Bell, and that ‘a reminder of her glorious life was overdue’. ‘Her glorious life’? Such preliminary enthusiasm arouses suspicion in a cautious reader, but what follows justifies it.