Sometimes people’s lives get overlooked when history is remembered and retold. (And more often than not, these people are often of the female sort.) Neither of these two women was familiar to me before I encountered their biographies, but I don’t think I’ll forget either of them for a long time.
Gertrude Bell has been called both the female T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and the woman who invented Iraq. Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell’s riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (FSG, 2007), are justified by the facts of this remarkable woman’s life. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford; the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society; and the first female British Intelligence Officer. After graduating from Oxford, she visited Tehran and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. She ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding its complexities and shaping its future. She was also an intrepid mountain climber (there’s a pulse-pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps); organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I; and somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women’s suffrage in England. She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian, and in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq’s first king. Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, has given us a compulsively readable and information-packed account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. I highly recommend it for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.
I am so grateful to Caroline Moorehead for writing such a readable, riveting, and informative biography of an incredible woman, who was, before I read this book, entirely unknown to me. This not-knowing is somewhat surprising, since Lucie’s own memoir has never been out of print, ever since it was published in the 19th century, five decades after her death. In Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era (Harper, 2009), Moorehead illuminates a tumultuous period in French history, all seen through the life of her subject, who was intelligent, charming, politically astute, and lucky. That she survived the guillotine during the turbulence of the French Revolution when many of her friends and family did not, certainly attests to the astuteness and the luck. After you read the book, you’ll see how apt the other two adjectives are as well. She was born in 1770; her father, Arthur Dillon, was an upper-class Irishman who came to France with the exiled James II. When James returned to England, Arthur remained and married one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting (a position Lucie herself would later hold). At a time when young women were expected to marry advantageously and at the whim of their elders, Lucie chose her own husband, Frédéric, the son of Louis XVI’s Minister of War. Moorehead’s descriptions of the French court are evocative; at the same time, she depicts the growing discontent among France’s liberal thinkers like Lucie and her immediate family, who wanted to rein in the powers of the king, and turn France into a constitutional monarchy. During the Terror that followed the storming of the Bastille and Robespierre’s reforms, Lucie and her family were forced into hiding and finally made their way to the U.S., settling on a farm near Albany, where Lucie became friends with many of the movers and shakers of the new country, including Alexander Hamilton. They returned to France, thinking peace and safety were at hand, only to be forced to leave again – this time to London. They returned home to France when Napoleon first assumed power (Lucie just happened to be related to Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, by marriage). Among much else, she happened to be in Brussels during what would be Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
I have to say that the facts of Lucie’s life are only a small part of what makes this biography so rich for readers. There are of course the personal sorrows (many pregnancies ending in miscarriages, births and then early deaths of her children – all but one died before they reached age 30) and the roller coaster-like events that she lived through, all of which would seemingly have laid low many a lesser spirit. But it’s Lucie herself who carries us through the pages, and Moorehead’s adroit use of Lucie’s own writing to illuminate a time and a place. French history was never really my thing – I’ve always been much more of an Anglophile – but this biography awakened an interest in me that I never knew was there. And, in the end, isn’t that what reading is all about?