Diana Athill

A Life Worth Reading About

Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell


Macmillan 518pp £20 order from our bookshop

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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,