Gertrude Bell was born in 1869, into a wealthy north-of-England family. Her mother died when she was just three, but her father married again - Florence, a writer - when she was seven. Gertrude was educated at Queen’s College in London and then at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, achieving a first in history. Thereafter, she journeyed in Europe and also spent several months in Bucharest and in Tehran, where her uncle was British representative. Her travels continued with two round-the-world trips, one in 1897-1898 and one in 1902-1903.
Bell travelled widely in the Middle East, learning Arabic, meeting many Arab tribal leaders and investigating archaeological sites. She published several travel/archaelogy books, such as Syria: The Desert and the Sown; and she also collaborated with T. E. Lawrence. British Intelligence recruited her during the WWI, and subsequently, with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, she was appointed Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner in Baghdad, where she was an important influence in the creation of modern Iraq, and in the naming of Faisal, the recently deposed King of Syria, as first King of Iraq. As Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. She died on 12 July 1826 from an overdose of sleeping pills, though whether this was an accident or a deliberate act has never been established. She never married, though had a close relationship during the war with Charles Doughty-Wylie. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, American Diplomacy or The Guardian.
Most of Bell’s letters and diaries (1877-1919) were given by her half sister to Newcastle University, which hosts a dedicated Gertrude Bell website, including transcribed copies of her diaries.
Some extracts from Bell’s diaries were edited by Rosemary O’Brien and published by Syracuse University Press in 2000 as Gertrude Bell - The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914 (see Googlebooks). However, although Bell’s diaries are published therein, O’Brien says the centrepiece of her book are, what she calls, the ‘Doughty-Wylie Diaries’. She explains: ‘It was Bell’s custom to record her journeys in small notebooks and to sift through them afterward when drafting private reports, articles, or books. On the Arabian trip, however, she kept parallel records: Two notebooks were eventually filled with daily entries, which, cited as “Diaries,” appear without revisions as appendixes to this volume. A third notebook contains a brilliant reshaping of the daily entry material, written for Charles Hotham Montague (Dick) Doughty-Wylie, a British army officer with whom Gertrude Bell was in love.’
The publisher offers this blurb: ‘The fundamental themes of her life - reckless behaviour; a divided self which combined brilliance of intellect with a passionate nature; a sense of history; and the fatal gift of falling in love with a married man - are all here in remarkable detail.’
The following extracts are taken from The Arabian Diaries: the first three come from the ‘diaries’ contained in the book’s appendices, and the fourth comes from the main part of the book, i.e. what O’Brien calls the ‘Doughty-Wylie Diaries’.
18 December 1913
‘Fine, cold, snow on the hills. We took 2 hrs 20 min. to get off. Left at 8.35 and had an hour’s bad struggle through the muddy zera’ the camels falling down at intervals. When we were S. of the Roman camp our rafiq joined us, Hamad al Lafi of the Ghiyath. The latter seem to be gom with everyone except the Sayyad and the Jumlan who are fellah tribes of Damascus. But, being with us he does not fear to meet the B. Hassan with whom he is gom. We want one of them as a rafiq. He goes with us for a mej. a day. The big chiefs of the Hasenneh are Sa’ad and Muhammad ibn Milhem who receive ma’ash from the Govt. The B. Hassan are a new group; they were once part of the Ghiyath. We got into the volcanic country at 11.30 and marched over broken ground straight onto a tell called el ‘Abd which we reached at 2.30 and found a muddy rain pool where we filled our girbehs. Grass growing between the stones and on the patches of low ground which are free of stones. A man of the Jumlan Sayyad rode out to see who we were; they are camped to the S. of us under the hog’s back which was my first bearing, 102° from ‘Adra. Got into camp at 4 in a low patch with the Saigal tells immediately in front of us. Beautiful sunset glow. We saw one of the Dumairis at his husbandry. He sowed first and ploughed afterwards. The Jumlani Sayyadi was much surprised to see me, but I offered no explanations. Excellent mushrooms-fitr. We saw a good deal of naitu today but there are no shajar tonight.’
9 January 1914
‘The temp fell to 22° in the night and our unwelcome guard had a bad time. Spent the day waiting for the Qaimmaqam of Salt. F. and Abdallah came back (the chowwish had offered to bring them back in the middle of the night) and we all spent the morning making a new tent pole for me, the soldiers aiding. Heaps of gazelle in the hills. Sat in F.’s tent and drew out a section of Kharaneh in afternoon. Cold and horribly windy. Jusef Ch. who has been away all day, came back in a good and obliging temper. It is all rather fancy I must say.’
10 January 1914
Disgusting day, cold, wind and sleet. We got out of camp and rode to the station where I waited for the baggage. Jusef Chowwish and 4 soldiers with us. A little way from the station we saw soldiers - it was the Q. who turned back to Zuwaideh [el-Juweiyida] by another road. When we reached Zuwaideh he had gone on to ‘Amman with the Yuzbashi. Hurried on and got to the hill down to ‘Amman, with little rain. I walked down, got onto Jusef’s horse and cantered up to the Serai, where I found the Q, Halim Beg Abu Sha’r, the Yuzbashi, Ishaq Effendi, and the Mudir, Muhammad Beg. All very friendly. I explained my doings, laid my complaint before them about the Yuzbashi and convinced Halim Beg that I was harmless. He telegraphed the same to Damascus. Two young men, Hanna Bsharra, and Ferid, son of Habib Effendi with whom I lodged at Salt. Hanna presently explained to me that Halim, a Xian, did not want to take any responsibility and I had better telegraph to Devey, which I did. My men pitched tents in pouring rain, below the theatre and before the Odeon.’
17 April 1914
‘It was quite cool today - comparatively; 85 was the highest temperature I registered and we profited by the weather and made a 10 hours march, without fatigue. A dull part of the desert, this is; long shallow steps leading us up into the high Hamad. I think we have left Mesopotamian heat behind and it looks as if it might rain, in which case we shall be flooded out, being in low ground for the sake of our evening lights, and under such insufficient canvas too. Khair inshallah! Today we saw fresh prints of horsemen. ‘Adwan (who is a charming man by the way) opined that they were Shammar of the Jezireh [al-Jazirah], Mesopotamia, looking for ‘Anazeh. with whom they are at feud. I feel no kind of anxiety as to ghazzus while I have ‘Adwan with me. A man from the house of the great shaikh of the Dulaim, a relative of his, and employed by the Government in collecting the cattle tax - it would be impossible to find a surer rafiq. When I part from him the fun may begin, but perhaps not - the Shamiyyeh [Shamiyah] is tolerably safe. Anyways I don’t bother at all; we have been through places so much worse and come out whole and sound. The Government has raised the sheep tax by more than a piastre - I suppose that’s the wax[?l. How much of it do they receive, I wonder? ‘Adwan says truly that the shaikhs eat more than the Government. The long fatigue of travel is upon me and I talk little while we ride. Whenever I talk ‘Adwan greets me with smiles and fair answers. I love these desert people and the sudden heart-whole part they play in your fortunes. And then you leave them and what do they think afterwards? I believe they have a pleasant memory of service rendered and of the quick intimacy of the few days’ journey. One of my rafiqs, far away on the other side of the Nefud, said once over the camp fire “In all the years when we come to this place we shall say: ‘Here we came with her, here she camped.’ It will be a thing to talk of, your ghazzu. We shall be asked for news of it and we shall speak of it and tell how you came.” I expect they will, and it makes me dreadfully anxious that they should tell nothing but good, since they will judge my whole race by me. That recollection very often checks the hasty word when I am tired, and feeling cross, or bored - heavens! how bored, cross and tired some times! Then I try to remember that they will tell how I came.’