Desert Queen: The extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell
By Janet Wallach
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese
419 pp., $27.50
A woman's Odyssey with the wanderers of the Indian desert
By Robyn Davidson
280 pp., $23.95
It is tempting to look for some common spark that urged a late Victorian woman and a late 20th-century woman to traverse the world's harshest desert places. But the century that divides the journeys of Gertrude Bell and Robyn Davidson produced such increased opportunities for women that similarities seemed forced.
Born into a prominent family, Bell was the first woman to earn a first-class degree in modern history at England's Oxford University. As her biographer, Janet Wallach, points out in Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Bell was a brainy, independent woman, made miserable by the simpering feints to snare a husband.
Considered over-the-hill at the age of 23, she took one of the few options available to unmarried women of her class: she became an ardent traveler, writer, and scholar. Persia was the place she longed to visit. Teaching herself the language, she departed for Tehran in the spring of 1892. In what she called "paradise," she found a spiritual home and a man.
Unfortunately, her beloved Henry Cadogan was not wealthy enough to be considered marriage material by her family. Decorously, the couple began seeing less of each other. In 1894, the year that Cadogan suddenly died, Bell published her first book, a translation of the poems of 13th-century writer Hafiz.
There would be other men in Bell's life, but they would have to compete with the desert. By age 30, hungry for challenges, she learned Arabic and photography.
With a retinue of servants, fine china, and a portable bathtub, she traversed Palestine and Syria, making careful notes and thoughtful images.
On a return trip to England, she threw herself into archaeological study, eventually publishing her original findings on the Mesopotamian site of Ukhaidir. It was through archaeology that she began her life-long acquaintance with T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
Bell settled on a program of travel, mapmaking, and study of Arab politics, which she hoped would inform the public about life in the Middle East.
How ever much she felt at home in the desert, she was always a paternal imperialist, eager to promote British interests abroad. Her chance came when World War I made her knowledge of Middle Eastern politics pivotal to British oil interests in the Persian Gulf. After the war, she continued to serve her country, helping to draw the lines in the sand that define present-day Iraq.
Whether with sheiks, princes, consuls, or prime ministers, Bell resolutely lived in a man's world. She was as impatient with Western women as she was in the harem. Believing most of her country women too unsophisticated to vote, Bell worked against women's suffrage.
By contrast, Australian Robyn Davidson neither sought the corridors of power, nor the exclusive company of men. Davidson, whose 1992 trek through the deserts of northern India is the subject of her current book, Desert Places: A Woman's Odyssey With the Wanderers of the Indian Desert, kept equal company with men and women.
She also regularly paused to compare her life of privilege with that of the desert people. "One forgets," she writes, "that poverty means the absence of choice."
The intense self-awareness and self-criticism that fills "Desert Places" contrasts markedly with Wallach's portrayal of Bell's reserve. Then again, it is easier to maintain one's composure when one, like Bell, has friends in high places. Lacking grand connections, Davidson spends months in prolonged bargaining merely to allow her to join the Rabari, pastoral nomads of northwestern India, in their annual migration.
Having just 20 words in common with her host family, Davidson quickly came to rely on gesture. Following months of 100 degree heat, little water, a few fist-sized spiders, and a nocturnal visit from a poisonous snake, Davidson's frustration peaked. Being able to fully voice her experiences to others became as important to her as food.
Yet given the chance to take early leave of the migration, Davidson decided to stay the course. Although she had always thought of herself as resilient and independent, she came to realize that she, like those in her post-World War II generation, unconsciously felt that "someone or something will always be there to catch a fall." She comes to embrace as her own the Rabari worldview, which posits greater self-reliance.
It may be that Bell, as her biographer suggests, initially went to the desert to put meaning in a cramped Victorian existence. But Davidson's trip sprang from a cryptic, yet assuredly gender-neutral restlessness.
Where Bell is always an upper-class Englishwoman abroad, Davidson felt her national, cultural, and even gender identity subsumed by experiences of the moment. One is left to wonder what each of these women would have done in the circumstances of the other.
* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.