Making history

Malise Ruthven

  • Gertrude Bell by Susan Goodman
    Berg, 122 pp, £8.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 907582 86 9
  • Freya Stark by Caroline Moorehead
    Viking, 144 pp, £7.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 670 80675 7

When, shortly before the Second World War, Freya Stark was asked by a publisher if she would write Gertrude Bell’s biography, she turned the idea down. Although she admired her famous predecessor as a fine traveller and considered Amurath to Amurath one of the best travel books she’d read, Freya was not ‘very fascinated by her as a woman’. At first sight, this judgment seems surprising. Throughout her active career as a traveller in the Middle East, Freya was compared with Gertrude Bell. Both women travelled in remote and dangerous regions. Both wrote about their experiences in highly praised books. As well as being talented linguists and accomplished photographers, both women showed unusual physical courage, having received their early training in the tough and demanding school of Alpine mountaineering. Both women acquired formidable reputations for mental toughness, and for getting their own way. Both were frustrated in love, through indifference, betrayal or bereavement, but enjoyed close and enduring friendships with men. Both were Imperialists who served Britain with distinction in wartime, placing the special knowledge acquired in their travels at the disposal of military intelligence. In the carefully ordered realm of public service, both women showed scant regard for the rules of masculine hierarchy, corresponding with chiefs above the heads of their superiors, inviting accusations of meddling and intrigue. Both of them at times appeared jealous of other women, not least because each was conscious of her reputation as an exceptional woman in a man’s world.

It is perhaps significant that if they ever set eyes on each other it would have been, not in Baghdad, where Freya arrived in 1928, two years after Gertrude’s death, but at meetings of the Women’s Anti-Suffragist League in London, of which Gertrude was a founder member and which Freya attended, with Mrs Humphry Ward, in 1914, for both women were unabashed élitists who felt that their positions as privileged females would be undermined if their less educated sisters were given the vote. Both also held traditional views about the role of women and would greatly have preferred – or so they thought – conventional careers as wives and mothers if the right men had appeared at the right time. Gertrude was forbidden by her parents to marry the impecunious diplomat with whom she fell in love during her first visit to Persia; never one to rebel against her parents’ wishes, she broke the engagement. (The young man, Henry Cadogan, was drowned not long after her departure.) Freya was jilted by the Italian doctor to whom she became engaged during the First World War; and, according to her own account (though this has never been confirmed by the man’s family), she was cheated of a second chance of happiness by the death of her fiancé on a secret mission to Germany shortly before the outbreak of the Second.

With so many obvious similarities, it seems likely that Freya’s apparent indifference to Gertrude was in part a matter of rivalry. Freya suspected that, had Gertrude been alive when she arrived in Baghdad, the ‘Khatun’ (‘Lady of the Court’), as she was known, might not have been kind to her, notorious as she was for putting other women down. Like Freya herself, Gertrude admired the young men who administered, single-handed, large tracts of lawless territory. ‘They are wonderful, these young Englishmen who are thrown out into the provinces and left entirely to their own resources,’ she wrote in 1921. ‘They so completely identify themselves with their surroundings that nothing else has any significance for them, but if they think you’re interested they open out like a flower and reveal, quite unconsciously, wisdom, tact and patience which you would have thought to be incompatible with their years.’ Like Freya, she worshipped the type of laconic Englishman epitomised by her boss Sir Percy Cox. (Freya’s boss and hero was General Wavell.) The women, however, she regarded as frivolous, insisting on balls and parties which exhausted their menfolk and took them away from their work. ‘It is the wives – confound them,’ she wrote. ‘They take no sort of interest in what is going on, know no Arabic and see no Arabs. They create an exclusive (it’s also a very second-rate) English society quite cut off from the life of the town. I now begin to understand why British government has come to grief in India.’

These words, written in 1923, might well have been Freya Stark’s a decade or so later. Freya, however, arrived at her view of the role of women in the destruction of Empire by a somewhat different route. Coming to Baghdad poor and with few connections, she took rooms in a shoemaker’s house whence – as Caroline Moorehead writes – ‘she made sorties by rowing boat across the Tigris, to soirées where she observed the British and local life.’ She scandalised officialdom by appearing at parties in Arab costume and accepting the hospitality of beduin sheikhs; and while she eventually managed to win over more enlightened admirers of both sexes by her wit and charm, she remained an object of suspicion for most members of the British Club until, eventually, her reputation as a writer and explorer gained her an eminence that would enable her to put the Club in its place.

Gertrude Bell, by contrast, was sufficiently sure of her social position not to care what the Club might think. The granddaughter of a Durham steel magnate and Liberal MP who twice refused a peerage (though he accepted a baronetcy from Gladstone), she was a wealthy and well-connected woman who went East to escape the constraints of Victorian society. She was related by marriage to some of Britain’s most influential families, including the (Lord John) Russells and the Trevelyans; her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was also a Liberal MP. She took a brilliant First in history after only five terms at Oxford, despite enjoying an active social life. Her interest in the East began at 25, when she spent six months at the Embassy in Tehran with her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles. The book she wrote describing her experiences, Safar Nameh, or Persian Pictures, is vivid and colourful, with a sharp eye for detail – not unlike many of Freya Stark’s early sketches. But she was also a scholar, and went on to produce a translation of the great poet Hafez which is still reckoned one of the finest in English. In between Arabic, Persian and archaeological studies, she went climbing in Switzerland, scaling several unconquered peaks as well as the 14,000-foot Finsteraarhorn. Her sang-froid at one moment of crisis probably saved her guide’s life. By 1914 she had been twice round the world with her brothers Maurice and Hugo, made two journeys through Ottoman Syria to Anatolia and Mesopotamia, had worked on Byzantine churches with Sir William Ramsay, the epigraphist, and had charted and mapped the ancient mosque and palace of Ukhaidir. In addition to her scientific writings she had published two books about her journeys: Syria: the Desert and the Sown and Amurath to Amurath.

In 1914 Gertrude made her famous journey to Hail in Nejd (northern Arabia), unvisited by a European woman since Lady Anne Blunt had been there in 1878. She went to seek respite from her passionate but unconsummated love affair with Richard Doughty-Wylie (nephew of the great explorer Charles Doughty), whom she had met when he was British Consul in Konya. Doughty-Wylie was married, and was not prepared to risk his career by leaving his wife. A man with physical courage to match Gertrude’s, he was killed a year later at Gallipoli, in an action that won him a posthumous VC. The journey to Hail was not a great feat of exploration, but given the chaotic conditions in Arabia at the time, she was fortunate to return alive. Her friend the Ambassador in Constantinople had disclaimed all responsibilty when she insisted on leaving Damascus without permission from the Ottoman Government. The need to acquire and exchange rafiqs (‘companions’) from numerous beduin tribes as a guarantee against raids by their fellow-tribesmen gave her unrivalled knowledge of the tribal systems of northern Arabia, and when war broke out between the British and Ottoman Empires, this knowledge proved invaluable.

After working for a few months in Cairo with the Arab Bureau (made famous by T.E. Lawrence) she was transferred to Mesopotamia at the behest of Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy, who believed she would help him retain the Indian Government’s influence over Mesopotamiah affairs. As Oriental adviser to Sir Percy Cox, first in Basra and later in Baghdad, she deftly navigated the rapids and shoals of Mesopotamian politics, balancing her knowledge of the tribes with a recognition of the aspirations of the urban nationalists. Having originally thought of Mesopotamia, because of its tribal systems, as a natural part of Arabia, she came round to the view that it should become a separate entity under a British-backed Arab government. As her detailed and painstaking correspondence reveals, the issues were highly complex, involving conflicts between the towns and the tribes, Kurds and Arabs, Sunni and Shia, not to mention Turkish claims to the petrol-bearing region of Mosul. Under the influence of Lawrence and Hogarth, with whom she conferred at the Paris Peace Conference, she supported the candidature of the Sunni Amir Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca. Backed to the hilt by Cox, she won her battles with the formidable A.T. Wilson, who wanted tighter British control. She was thus instrumental not only in establishing King Feisal’s Iraq, but indirectly Saddam Hussein’s, a state with a predominantly secular outlook ruled by the Sunni Arab minority, now fighting for its life against the combined forces of Persian nationalism and Shia revanchism. She is perhaps the only British woman this century, before Mrs Thatcher, to have ‘made history’: her judgments directly impinge on today’s events.

By any reckoning Gertrude Bell was a remarkable woman, fit company for her companions in the new Berg Women’s Series, Mme de Stael and Emily Dickinson.[*] Unfortunately Susan Goodman’s book is somewhat unbalanced, sloppily written (‘her heart over brimmed with romance’), littered with irritating errors and grammatical infelicities, falling far short of the standard set for the series by Renée Winegarten’s excellent little book on Madame de Stael. In so short a text, Gertrude’s involvement with the anti-suffragists hardly deserves a chapter to itself, while the intricacies of Mesopotamian politics, which she helped unravel, require more careful treatment.

Nevertheless Ms Goodman raises an interesting question not looked into by previous biographers: did Gertrude Bell take her own life? She died in July 1926, from an overdose of her prescribed sleeping tablets, two days before her 58th birthday. The events of the previous two years had brought much to depress her. The family fortune had collapsed as a result of the coal strike, forcing the Bells to abandon her favourite home, Rounton Grange. Her beloved half-brother, Hugo, had died of typhoid contracted in South Africa. King Feisal, whom she had always idolised, found it politic to avoid her, in order to keep the militant nationalists quiet. Her health was poor, and declining, and she felt increasingly lonely. The proud Victorian values which sustained the optimism of her youth and her belief in human progress had been shattered by the First World War. ‘At the back of my mind I have a feeling that we people of the war can never return to complete sanity,’ she confided to her father in 1923, adding apropos her work as Iraq’s Director of Antiquities: ‘It’s amazing and rather horrible to be brought face to face with millenniums of human effort and then forced to consider what a mess we’ve made of it.’

Freya Stark is made of sterner stuff. Now into her nineties, she is still a woman of irrepressible vitality and strength of will. Whereas Gertrude Bell (as Ms Goodman observes) very rarely exposes her inner self in her writings, Freya’s great pre-war journeys are essays in self-exposure and self-revelation. It is partly this quality, and its attendant self-centredness, that makes Freya Stark (with, some might say, Wilfred Thesiger) second only to Doughty as an Arabian travel-writer. Where Gertrude Bell, a grand Victorian lady who believed that it was essential for the natives to know that one came ‘from a great and honoured stock’, travelled with her cook, her train of mules or camels (17 on the journey to Hail) and preferred to sleep and dine in her tent with its cutlery and napery, Freya was a little Miss Nobody who ventured almost alone into regions few Europeans, let alone European women, had ever dared to enter. She was often short of money, and had nothing to sustain her beyond her native wits and charm, resilience and enthusiasm. Twice she fell desperately ill in remote places, her life at the mercy of local doctors or folk remedies. A third time she was fortunate enough to be rescued by the RAF. Her illnesses (in most cases) were the result of her insistence (so un-Gertrude-like) on eating local food and sleeping along with the women, and their diseased children, in the harems. She shared the flies, the smells, the squalor and dignity of their lives. Unlike Gertrude, a privileged woman in a male world, Freya used her gender to gain access to both sides of the Islamic sexual barrier – especially in the Wadi Hadhramaut, which she visited in 1935 and 1938.

Freya Stark’s writing is both broader and deeper than Gertrude Bell’s, and she has an aphoristic way of concentrating layers of meaning into her sentences, which, as Patrick Leigh-Fermor has remarked, ‘always fall on their feet with a light, spontaneous and unfaltering aptness’. Gertrude’s wealth insulated her from vulgar professionalism: had she been born poor, or a generation later, she would certainly have been an academic or civil servant, an eminent member of the mandarin class. Freya, by contrast, is first and foremost an artist, possessed almost equally of integrity and mendaciousness. In her desire for social acceptance, she may have exaggerated the gentility of her origins, while the accounts of her conversations with tribesmen, or the way she scores off local bores or bullies, a sharp-tongued Emma speaking perfect Arabic, smacks more than a little of l’esprit d’escalier. But none of this matters: it is all part of Freya’s genius for projecting herself by creating a persona through which her journeys are experienced and her encounters with people dramatised. Like much of the best travel writing, her books may well contain a fair amount of fiction, but until a fully-researched biography appears it will be impossible to judge how far she has embroidered on reality.

Caroline Moorehead wisely avoids entering what remains speculative territory. She recounts the events of her life as Freya Stark herself has related them in four volumes of autobiography and eight volumes of letters (two of which Caroline edited following the death of her mother Lucy Moorehead). She has drawn on her own personal knowledge of Freya, as well as interviews with friends and admirers. She has also made use of an unpublished biographical notebook kept by Sir Sydney Cockerell, friend of Hardy and W.S. Blunt, who inspired Freya to write her first and finest volume of autobiography, Traveller’s Prelude (1950). She tries to avoid hagiography, however, and has usefully delved into the little-known memoirs of the late Gertrude Caton Thompson, the archaeologist with whom Freya had a long-drawn-out battle at Huraidha in the Hadhramaut in 1938.

Freya published her own highly subjective account of this struggle in A Winter in Arabia (1940). That there was personal rivalry between the two women is obvious but there was also a conflict of principles. Freya believed the archaeologist rode rough-shod over the customs and sensibilities of the Hadhramautis in her pursuit of knowledge. In Freya’s mind, it became a struggle of head versus heart, the goals of Science against the values of Art. During her own, epic struggle with A.T. Wilson, Gertrude Bell had made accusations against him similar to those levelled by Freya against Miss Caton Thompson. Shortly before Wilson’s departure Gertrude Bell wrote: ‘I would rather see the future [of Iraq] in the hands of men of less mental powers and greater human understanding.’ According to Lawrence, Gertrude Bell was guided equally by head and heart. Her apparent aloofness probably owed more to her family background than to intellectual arrogance, and for a very clever woman she was extremely modest about her achievements. Never one to rebel, she remained till her death the dutiful daughter of a father whose approval for her actions she was always anxious to have.

Freya’s character, by contrast, was forged in the heat of the family conflicts so movingly depicted in Traveller’s Prelude. Her parents were first cousins, descended from Devon brewers with stern Nonconformist roots. Her father was a painter and sculptor with enough money not to have to take his profession too seriously; her mother had been brought up in Florence in a polyglot household visited by Trollopes, Landors, Brownings and Thackerays. The Stark parents treated the whole of Europe as their playground, with homes on Dartmoor, rented Italian villas and holidays spent walking in the Alps. The marriage, however, began to break up when Freya’s mother became infatuated with a young Piedmontese count who persuaded her to invest part of their dwindling fortune in his thoroughly unprofitable carpet factory. Freya and her sister spent much of their childhood in neglected isolation. For Freya, injury was added to insult when, at the age of 13, her hair got caught up in the carpet-making machinery, tearing off half her scalp. It was the first of many close encounters with death in the course of her very long life, and left her with permanent regrets about her personal appearance which she tried to allay by indulging a taste for exotic and expensive clothes. Educated by her German grandmother, an Italian governess, family friends and nuns, she grew up to be fluent in four languages, to which later in life she added Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Russian. Her studies at Bedford College were interrupted by the First World War, but not before she had come under the spell of the scholar and critic W.P. Ker, who spotted her talents and encouraged her to write. Abandoning a job as a censor, she joined an ambulance unit bound for Italy in order to get nearer the action, and was present at the famous retreat from Caporetto in 1917. After the war she succeeded in getting her mother away from the count, who had in the meantime married Freya’s younger sister. Trusted by her father who had emigrated to Canada, she took increasing charge of her mother’s affairs and managed, by dint of hard work on the small Italian property he had bought for them, to provide an income adequate for their respective needs. She began studying Arabic in Italy, and would later claim that she had been inspired by the coming importance of oil. Many people have doubted this prescience: at a dinner party in the Sixties, Arthur Koestler told her that she was making it up. ‘She replied,’ according to Caroline Moorehead, that ‘she was not accustomed to being contradicted.’ What emerges from her letters is a desire to escape from the emotional burdens of her family life and the difficulties of her relationship with her mother.

‘Absence is the most useful ingredient of family life,’ she once wrote. The relationship with her mother, so vexatious at home, proved liberating and creative once she had reached Syria and Iraq. She wrote to her mother almost daily, describing her feelings and impressions. Reworked, her letters became the basis for her books of travel and autobiography. She never saw herself as a writer by profession, believing that writing should be done only for pleasure. She once tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade her publisher John Murray to convert all her future royalties into a mink coat.

Freya Stark’s work in wartime was less consequential than Gertrude Bell’s, but considerably more adventurous. She was posted to Aden, to work for the Ministry of Information, and from there was sent on a mission to Yemen (now North Yemen) to counter Italian influence. Her secret weapon was a film projector, an invention of infidels forbidden in the Imam’s religious autocracy. Knowing where influence lies in segregated Islamic societies, she began by giving shows on the sly to the wives of various dignitaries with whom she made friends. Soon the younger and more adventurous princes were demanding a film show, and eventually (so she ascertained, by deliberately blundering into him in the dark) the Imam himself sneaked in for a view. The films, especially those showing the might of the Royal Navy, made a formidable impression. The Italians were furious: they had been trying for months to get permission for a gramophone.

After this success she was transferred to Cairo, where she organised a network of Allied sympathisers, the Brotherhood of Freedom, which could act as a Fifth Column in the event of an Axis invasion. The Brotherhood grew spectacularly, especially after the victories of Alamein and Stalingrad, but it was never put to the test of enemy occupation. She was sent on to Baghdad to set up a similar organisation in Iraq, where the Fascist threat was greater. She was the last person to make it into the British Embassy during the famous siege which followed the pro-Axis coup by Rashid Ali al Gailani and a group of army officers in 1941. The Brotherhood may have contributed to mitigating anti-British feelings after the collapse of the coup and the British occupation of Basra and Baghdad. Freya’s most testing work as a propagandist (she preferred to talk of ‘persuasion’) was to be in the United States, where she was sent in 1943 to explain British Government policy in Palestine to the Americans. Her aim was to encourage moderate American Jews to collaborate with the British against the more militant Zionists. She encountered much hostility, and became robustly anti-American. ‘I feel their civilisation not only alien, but dead,’ she wrote, ‘and also have a horrid fear of it, that we may be infected and let ourselves be carried down this way of mechanical annihilation.’

Nearly half a century later, she still holds to these views. The intervening period was taken up with her short and unsuccessful marriage to Stewart Perowne, and travels, mainly in Turkey, when she became increasingly interested in exploring the traces of Greek and Hellenistic civilisations. Her later books are more erudite and detached than her earlier writings – in some ways, more like the books of Gertrude Bell. They are less books of travel, in the traditional sense, than meditations on landscape and history, and the style is sometimes mannered and self-conscious. It is difficult to know what posterity will make of them, but there can be no doubt that her early books of travel, particularly The Valleys of the Assassins and The Southern Gates of Arabia, are classics of their kind.

[*] Mme de Stäel by Renée Winegarten (133 pp., £8.95 and £3.95, 21 November 1985, 0 907582 87 7) and Emily Dickinson by Donna Dickenson (132 pp., £8.95 and £3.95, 21 November 1985, 0 907582 88 5). Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Freya Stark belongs to another series in the current explosion of brief lives of famous women: Jean Rhys by Carole Angier, Bessie Smith by Elaine Feinstein and Rebecca West by Fay Weldon were also published by Viking/Penguin on 10 October 1985, and Mme Sun Yat-sen by Jung Chang with Jon Halliday (141 pp., £2.95, 0 14 008455 X), Colette by Allan Massie (142 pp., £2.95, 0 14 008160 7) and Hannah Arendt by Derwent May (136 pp., £2.95, 0 14 008116 X) were published on 29 May. On 24 April Virago published the first four volumes in the ‘Pioneers’ series: Vesta Tilley by Sara Maitland (148 pp., £3.50, 0 86068 795 3), Simone de Beauvoir by Judith Okely (162 pp., £3.50, 0 86068 324 9), Julia Margaret Cameron by Amanda Hopkinson (180 pp., £3.95, 0 86068 726 0) and Emily Dickinson by Helen McNeil (200 pp., £3.50, 0 86068 619 1).