Episode 249: Gertrude Bell

Gertrude, 1910 via Encyclopaedia Britannica

Gertrude Bell, a daughter of privilege took her enormous intelligence, unfathomable bravery, and an entire set of Wedgwood china into the uncharted parts of the Middle East, making maps, discoveries, and friends along the way. Her work helped pave the way for the establishment of the modern country of Iraq.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868, in County Durham, England. She was the first child and only daughter of Sir Hugh Bell and Mary Shields Bell, and, after her mother passed away, was raised since childhood by her stepmother, Florence Olliffe Bell. Gertrude grew-up in a wealthy family of fairly progressive thinkers and was educated at Queens College and Oxford University (where they had only recently begun enrolling women and still didn’t give them actual degrees.)

She did follow some convention and, after being denied marrying the man she loved for the conventional reason of him not making enough money, she did her conventional debutant time doing traditional debutant activities. But, once she had aged out of “marriageable” and became “chaperone” age, her life really got going.

Gertrude traveled extensively for most of the rest of her life. And not all posh, typical travel (although she did travel with an entourage and glamping supplies) we’re talking about activities like mountain climbing and desert wandering in the Middle East. This was her favorite area to explore and live, made easier by being fluent in Arabic and not holding back from speaking her mind.

Her adventures were numerous, at times her numerous friendships were lifesaving, and her documentation of the people she met and the lands she loved aided in the establishment of modern-day Iraq and divvying up the freshly fallen Ottoman Empire, and guiding Great Britain through WW1.

Gertrude Bell, CBE: author, adventurer, archaeologist, museum creator, unofficial but effective diplomat, political advisor, and a woman who put (parts) of convention aside to live her life by her own rules died on July 12, 1926, at her home in Baghdad. She was 57 years old.

By Janet Wallach
by Liora Lukitz
By H.V.F. Winston
By Pat Yale

An entire site dedicated to her: The Gertrude Bell Society

A timeline of her life from Women in Exploration.

Despite what appears to us as an easy yes, Gertrude was not in favor of women getting the vote, she was (as were many in her class) anti-suffrage. Find out why in this article from a Newcastle University blog, dig into their archive on her, and more about her life in another from the same school.

This is the museum that she helped establish, The Iraq Museum.

A discussion about her death from an overdose of sleeping pills.

The history of “Cook’s tour” (which isn’t about someone who cooks going on a tour.)

An explanation of the Balfour Declaration after WWI

Sigh. Watch it if you must, but it’s not a favorite over here.

Instead, watch this documentary series from PBS, Letters From Baghdad, it’s much…much better.

And if you know Greta Gerwig, maybe she should get her eyes on Gertrude’s story.

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Break music: Spy vs Spy by Sound of Seventy-Three. End music: Intrepid by Love Amplifier

(used by permission from Ilicense Music)