It’s impossible to capture a whole life in a single book or film. I imagine realistic attempts at capturing a life would be akin the Borges story where a map of the world was as large as the world. I was thinking about this when watching Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. Yet, I could have begun this review by arguing that while no man is an island, one woman in all the world was once a vast sand sea.
I recently reread Queen of the Desert, the biography of Gertrude Lowthian Bell by Georgina Howell, because of the film. Previously I have read one of Bell’s diaries (randomly discovered at a second-hand book store) as well as articles and other sources of information about her. It all went into informing my thesis back in the day. Now, finally, I have seen this film, although the film I really want to see is the documentary on Bell voiced and produced by Tilda Swinton, Letters from Baghdad.
Both Swinton and Nicole Kidman manage to capture something of Bell’s physicality and voice, but since I have yet to see Letters from Bagdad I can’t comment. So I will make do with Herzog’s effort. It is meticulously detailed in parts, with certain scenes replicating and then embellishing known historic records of Bell, including photographs (for example, the Sphinx scene). Yet the film is curiously abridged. It implied she was more of a dilettante than a serious academic and archaeologist who authored books during her travels. It left out her ill-health, and the wearying business of her later diplomatic job, which is fair enough perhaps, as endless rounds of meetings, and answering correspondence and completing paperwork against tides of English animosity and ignorance do not a great epic make, even if set amid the romantic yet stifling heat of 1920s Baghdad.
Thus, the film covered some of the known facts a matter of factly, even if it underplayed her erudition. This film went all out on abbreviated romances, but left out the mysteries, like whether Bell was the woman in white visiting her beloved’s grave at Gallipoli. It also ignored the nature of her death via an overdose and the outpouring of grief in Iraq at her funeral.
I’m no expert on Middle East Affairs, but this film neglected to indicate that while Bell was considered the only outsider to know the Bedouin, her legacy today is difficult to wholly embrace. She was a complex person in a shifting maze of complexity, made more complex since. Borders she drew are today more arbitrary, and more often transgressed. However, it might because she was used to wandering empty landscapes but Bell could see far (to misquote The English Patient – which even references her maps but calls Bell he). She was one of the few to properly witness and report upon the Armenian Genocide and to warn of the possible dangers posed by the creation of a Jewish state.
But if one could map the life and world of Bell it would contain deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, Oxford University, and the European Alps she climbed in her youth and her childhood home. It would depict her time wandering along and between the two rivers of Mesopotamia with her guides, track her long distance correspondence with her stepmother and father, and add in the blank spaces depicting the unknowable in-betweens that are the sum of a person.
A map of Bell’s life would situate the resistance she faced from societal expectations for her class and gender. It would reveal the archaeological digs she contributed to, and catalogue her books. It would celebrate her support of education for Iraqi women and interrogate the reasons for her opposition to English women’s suffrage. It would follow her friendships, listen to her languages and translations and land upon her founding of the Museum of Iraq. While the performances hinted at Bell’s strengths, Herzog’s film leaves much of the above out and more besides, to address what is implied about her romantic life. To my mind thwarted romance was the least interesting about Gertrude Lowthian Bell, uncrowned Queen of the Desert, spy, explorer and king-maker.