Part 1: The Bells, The Bells
Our travels with Gertrude Bell as companion fast forward to April 1892 at London’s Victoria Railway Station and to a First Class train compartments on the 11 a.m. train for Dover; inside sits a group of elegant and intrepid women travellers: Mary, Lady Lascelles, her sixteen-year-old daughter Florence, twenty-three-year-old Gertrude Bell – Mary’s niece, and the enigmatic ‘Miss F’. Safely strapped and stowed aboard are their twenty-four luggage trunks. This is Gertrude’s first journey to the Middle East (Tehran) and was to be life changing in so many ways…

Gertrude’s North of England Quaker forebears shared common attributes of hard-working fortitude and ambition. All four of Gertrude’s grandparents – the Bell, Pattinson, Shield and Barnett families – emerged from deeply rural communities across Cumberland, Northumberland and Ireland to make their mark on the industrial towns and cities of the north-eastern coast of England. Some earned rich rewards from discovering and exploiting the application of innovative science in industrial manufacture; others created successful retail businesses and reputable professional services. For Gertrude, this proved a formidable and intellectually rich heritage.

Tragedy strikes, resulting in serious childhood trauma for Gertrude but some compensation is derived from her new ‘Poky little home’: Red Barns, Redcar, the underrated Arts & Crafts gem designed by architect and aesthete, Philip Webb.


Part 2: Shine Comforts From the East
Our biographical journey follows Gertrude to Oxford and an academic family home, Lady Margaret Hall, where the seventeen year old first arrives in May 1886.
Gertrude grasps this higher education opportunity and amazes the sisterhood of students with her sharp intellect, studious application and charismatic certainty. A ‘free-thinker’ who already carried an ‘excessively insubordinate’ label she bursts in on this staid world being both intimidating and endearing to the older, middling class of women and earnest daughters of the clergy who are her contemporaries. Excavated to a depth of intimacy never before reached, the reader experiences the everyday lives of these women and their surprising encounters with such people as voyeuristic John Ruskin and logic lecturer Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’), who is still hankering after his young female child-friends.

As in Bezique, the card game she plays when en route to exotic Tehran, she has to decide what to discard and what to hold onto with a view to winning the game – winning future happiness. The skill of the card game lies in judging what to hold in one’s hand for future play, what to declare as achieved, and what to discard. The predominance of court cards means that there is an overabundance of riches. Well, destiny had dealt her a fabulous hand – too good in many ways. She holds all the best cards: intelligence, wealth, privilege, status and is an Englishwoman at the apogee of the British Empire. Along life’s way she discards the Muse of lyric poetry and the sisterhood of women, benevolent charity, and ambition in politics and academia. She dutifully chooses to hold close her father and stepmother (especially her father); she chooses to hold tight to history, literature and art, and, later, archaeology; and, again later, again dutifully, she never drops her complete, sometimes blind, loyalty to the British state and its overseas interests.
The months in exotic Persia are her own ‘eager days’ and her new found love in that delicious spring of 1892 was ‘an unusual type of Englishman’, Henry Cadogan. But the cards fall badly; Gertrude returns to England and a veil of silence descends over the affair. She is staying at her Cumbrian ancestral homeland near Penrith when she hears of tragedy in paradise.


Part 3: The Headland
The final Act plunges the reader into a psychological maelstrom of obsessions, fantasies and the afterlife set against the backdrop of war. Returning to the deserts on her most famous journey to remote Arabia, Gertrude is experiencing an acute and unsettling loneliness in the desert – a type of loneliness that had previously given her comfort. She is now motivated not by discovery nor by her usual sense of adventure but by a sense of hopelessness and frustration with the state of her relationship with married man, Dick Doughty-Wylie; the journey is intended to sort things out – one way or another. She returns to England by her own account, with a mind permanently altered.
Brought to the floor of hell by her war work with the Army’s Wounded and Missing Office in Boulogne, Gertrude is privy to some secret intelligence via her own social circles and constructs her own plans and war strategies. These involve a naval attack on Syria (led by her uncle) and the establishment of Palestine Prima – a revival of an ancient Byzantine province. With remarkable audacity, she knocks on Winston Churchill’s door…
Soaked in English history and imbued with the ever-so familiar Burne-Jones imagery of medieval chivalry, Gertrude finally identifies Doughty-Wylie as her own modern-day knight. Bestowing her favours on him as he steams out to the Dardanelles in 1915, he has been reluctant to take anything from her but her words, words with which to feed his ‘dream ecstasies’. Only when he now leaves for battle (for the last time as it happens) was she able to fully drop her guard – despite not having received the longed-for long-term commitment she craved.
The build-up to the fighting at Gallipoli and the ‘V Beach’ landings in particular are described in remarkable and striking detail - as experienced by Doughty-Wylie, a man sent out as an intelligence officer (and spy) but who later voluntarily ‘jumped-ship’ and joined the fighting troops. With the death-threats of two women ringing in his head, he enters the battle unarmed.
Then there is a stream-of-consciousness letter to Dick – a letter he is destined never to read – in which Gertrude writes lyrically about her tormented state of mind: the Headland constantly in sight, she, always too far out at sea to reach it. ‘The Headland’ forms the last chapter of the book.