Monday, 12 November 2007

To Whom The Bell Tolls

Gertrude Bell was a British mountaineer, Orientalist philologist, lover of poetry, a travel writer and a modern stateswoman, who just "happened" to be heavily involved in the drafting of the borders of contemporary Iraq. I'm half-way through reading Georgina Howell's biography of her, Daughter of the Desert (2007). I haven't yet got to the interesting bits, the actual political drama involved, but I've learnt a lot about British imperialist history and the idea of the exceptional woman (unmarried, educated and independent).

It's a gripping story, how someone could become so passionate in the Arabic language and Bedouin lifestyles, and how she could combine her imperialist interests and some aspects of the anthropological "going native" attitude. But no matter what, she would always bring on her travels proper porcelain dinnerware and have her table set in style in every tent.

The biography is carefully researched and vividly written but it bothers me that it doesn't include any theory. This is where the academic perspective becomes a burden: one would expect at least a few references to Edward Said, some aspects of the colonized "talking back" to the representatives of the Empire.

Biography is becoming a difficult genre for me to read. This autumn, I've read less than for ages, and the little value time I have for reading, I prefer to use it on fiction or poetry. Autobiography is another matter, because it rarely involves heavily researched archive materials. I have never thought of writing anyone's biography, so I can't understand the writerly passions involved in it. Georgina Howell is a first-class biographer, with a distinctive voice and determination to make sense of another woman's life, but something is happening inside me - I cannot finish the book right now. If I do, I might write a proper review.

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