Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell - review by Diana Athill

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.

Gertrude Bell, a Yorkshirewoman, was born in 1868. Her adored father, who had inherited important iron- and steelworks and a substantial fortune, was not merely rich but also loving and, for a Victorian parent, astonishingly liberal. He, and an equally loving stepmother, equipped her with a self-confidence equal to her

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