The Letters of Gertrude Bell

edited by Lady Bell, D.B.E. New York: Boni and Liveright. 1927. 8vo. xvii+400+ 375 pp. Illus. 2 vols. $10.00.
THE first volume, with its talk of clothes and dizzy mountain climbing and journeys to the Near East, prepares us somewhat for the energy that was focused so fiercely on the problems of the war and the problems that came after.
Pitchforked into the dirty mess of war and politics in Arabia, the reader is first of all impressed with the depth of Miss Bell’s scholarship. He then pauses to admire her rare quality of human understanding. ‘Unless I am very much mistaken we have got the confidence of the people we are working with.’ These people, with whom we take tea daily in her letters, turn out to be learned Doctors of Islamic Divinity or bloodthirsty border chieftains coming to her, as a trusted friend, for advice on war and peace and the probable attitude of the British Government. To win their confidence meant, first of all, a remarkable fluency in the vernacular; next, a mastery of the details of local customs, religious prejudices, the whereabouts of well water, and the mating season of camels, which perhaps no other white person but Lawrence could boast. Last, and most important of all, it meant sympathy. It was probably this quality more than any other which raised her mere information concerning facts to a level where it became of national — even international — importance.
It has been commonly said of Miss Bell that she did a man’s work for the Allied cause and for Arabia. But the astonishing thing is that she did a woman’s work as well. It speaks volumes for her superior officers and for that unexpectedly adaptable machine, the British Empire, that she was allowed to make use of her particularly feminine gifts. Wisdom, political acumen amounting to statecraft, and even an amazing adroitness in languages were probably all traceable to this same quick sympathy that never failed. Lawrence, important as a fighter, was chiefly useful for his feminine qualities — tact, sympathy, and incurable love of intrigue. He and Gertrude Bell took an unmannish joy in personalities. Both appreciated that a leader is more significant than a cause in the East.
It is an unusual book of letters, which is interrupted by chapters from a Major General and a British High Commissioner ‘cordially welcoming this opportunity of paying tribute to the memory of a dear friend and a most devoted comrade.’ Their chapters on the war and the post-war history of Arabia and Mesopotamia are added to elucidate the letters which Miss Bell wrote to her family and friends. These two famous administrators do her the honor of describing the campaigns and the complicated political situation rather than continually writing about her and her work. They take it for granted that we know how much she was in the thick of it and what a voice she had in making laws, crowning kings, advising H. B. M.’s government, and writing White Books to be read in England. So, too, Lawrence mentions her name with that of Mr. Wilfrid Blunt (and no other) in his preface to the new edition of Doughty. That fact alone is sufficient to prove what her place will be in history and in literature.
If ‘letters are the only true reading,’ these are indeed among the great examples of a great form of literature. Happily they are written with no eye on posterity and have no conscious style. Lady Bell has edited them so dextrously that, in the midst of Bagdad politics, an order to a London dressmaker or a message to a friend crops up to remind us that the author is, after all, an English woman of our own day who has been presented at court, climbed Swiss peaks, and taken a most brilliant First at Oxford. That Miss Bell was a poet could perhaps be guessed from her simple prose; but the few translations from Hafiz which are given in the preface leave one amazed that she did not devote her life to the practice of the art.