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Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
GEORGINA HOWELL

Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell
47 reviews (2007) (512p)
ALA Notable Books - Nonfiction Finalist

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Book Description
A marvelous tale of an adventurous life of great historical import
 
She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Born in 1868 into a world of privilege, Bell turned her back on Victorian society, choosing to read history at Oxford and going on to become an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author (of Persian Pictures, The Desert and the Sown, and many other collections), poet, photographer, and legendary mountaineer (she took off her skirt and climbed the Alps in her underclothes).

She traveled the globe several times, but her passion was the desert, where she traveled with only her guns and her servants. Her vast knowledge of the region made her indispensable to the Cairo Intelligence Office of the British government during World War I. She advised the Viceroy of India; then, as an army major, she traveled to the front lines in Mesopotamia. There, she supported the creation of an autonomous Arab nation for Iraq, promoting and manipulating the election of King Faisal to the throne and helping to draw the borders of the fledgling state. Gertrude Bell, vividly told and impeccably researched by Georgina Howell, is a richly compelling portrait of a woman who transcended the restrictions of her class and times, and in so doing, created a remarkable and enduring legacy.
Georgina Howell has worked in magazine journalism since the age of seventeen. She has written for Vanity Fair and American Vogue, and has worked at The Observer, British Vogue, The Tatler, and The Sunday Times. She lives in London and Brittany.
A Washington Post Top 100 Book of the Year
 
She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Born in 1868 into a world of privilege, Bell turned her back on Victorian society, choosing to read history at Oxford and going on to become an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author (of Persian Pictures, The Desert and the Sown, and many other collections), poet, photographer, and legendary mountaineer (she took off her skirt and climbed the Alps in her underclothes).

She traveled the globe several times, but her passion was the desert, where she traveled with only her guns and her servants. Her vast knowledge of the region made her indispensable to the Cairo Intelligence Office of the British government during World War I. She advised the Viceroy of India; then, as an army major, she traveled to the front lines in Mesopotamia. There, she supported the creation of an autonomous Arab nation for Iraq, promoting and manipulating the election of King Faisal to the throne and helping to draw the borders of the fledgling state. Gertrude Bell, vividly told and impeccably researched by Georgina Howell, is a richly compelling portrait of a woman who transcended the restrictions of her class and times, and in so doing, created a remarkable and enduring legacy.
"Georgina Howell recounts these stories with a wide-eyed admiration that is, for the most part, infectious, and her long book is a gripping read. Often pursuing themes in Bell's life, rather than bald chronology, she introduces her readers to the atmosphere of Oxford colleges, to the perils and excitements of the Alps, and to the dangers and decorum of desert life."—Jason Goodwin, The Washington Post
 
"A book on a remarkable person who helped found, and tried to stabilize, the new nation of Iraq out of the wreckage of that Empire. It is curious that some of history's spectacularly high-achieving women, like Florence Nightingale and the subject of [this] lively, and topical, biography Gertrude Bell were born and lived a good bit of their lives under the Victorian era's 'glass ceiling' . . . Much of the story is told in Gertrude's 'own trenchant prose' and it is hard to disagree with Ms, Howell's assertion that 'some of the most clear-sighted things ever written about Iraq came from the pen of Gertrude Bell.' A fine life, well told."—John Linsenmeyer, Greenwich Times

"The breadth and depth of Gertrude Bell's accomplishments are extraordinary. Born to British industrial wealth and civic prominence during the Victorian era, she possessed boundless self-confidence, courage, and vitality. The first woman to earn top honors in history at Oxford, Bell was fluent in six languages, and became an intrepid traveler and celebrated mountaineer. Tragically unlucky in love, she romanced the world instead. Discovering her spiritual home in the Middle East, Bell transformed herself into a cartographer, archaeologist, writer, and photographer as she undertook perilous journeys to fabled desert outposts, commanding the respect of powerful Bedouin sheikhs. During World War I, Bell became the expert on Mesopotamia for British military intelligence, and a more crucial force in the forming of modern Iraq than that of her friend, T. E. Lawrence. From Cairo to Basra to Baghdad, Bell, against fierce adversity, devoted herself to justice. Howell writes with all the verve, historical veracity, and acumen her intoxicating subject demands—her spectacular biography leaves the reader lost in admiration and steeped in sorrow. It seems that all the profound knowledge about the culture of the desert Bell placed herself in jeopardy to gather was promptly forgotten."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
 
"In this hefty, thoroughly enjoyable biography of Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), English journalist Howell describes her subject as not only 'the most famous British traveler of her day, male or female' but as a 'poet, scholar, historian, mountaineer, photographer, archaeologist, gardener, cartographer, linguist and distinguished servant of the state.' As Howell observes, 'Gertrude always had to have a project,' and she manages to bring those multitudinous projects, studies and adventures to life on the page. 'I decided,' Howell writes, 'to use many more of her own words than would appear in a conventional biography': a felicitous decision when the subject's letters, diaries and publications are as seamlessly incorporated in Howell's engaging text as they are. Bell's role in the creation of Iraq and the placement of Faisal upon the throne, is fully detailed, both to honor her power and to haunt us today. But the strength and delight of Howell's superb biography is in the fullness with which Bell's character is drawn. Having clearly fallen in love with her subject (though not blind to her warts), Howell leaves no stone unturned—family history, school days, Bell's clothes, sometimes her meals, her friendships, her servants, her thousands of miles traveled, her fluency in languages (Persian, Turkish, Arabic) and, yes, her romances."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Georgina Howell Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award

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