Katherine Webb’s latest novel, The English Girl, tells the story of Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, who has fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Arabia by travelling from England to the ancient city of Muscat. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin, and unearth the treasures it is said to conceal.
Katherine joins us to talk about one of history’s unsung heroines who inspired this story.
My unsung heroine is a woman who should be as famous as Lawrence of Arabia — or perhaps even more famous: Gertrude Bell. Born in 1868 to an aristocratic family in the north of England, Gertrude took her position of wealth and privilege, and, perhaps rarely for a woman at that time, did something with it.
Fiercely intelligent, she studied History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, and took first class honours (although women were not actually awarded degrees at that time). Her education didn’t stop there,
She continued to study and learn however she could, teaching herself Latin because she was so frustrated by the ‘blank wall of my ignorance of it’
She began to travel, to study archeology and classical civilisation, and never stopped — she never married, and devoted her life to travel and discovery.
Gertrude soon developed a love of the Middle East, and spent more of the remainder of her life there than at ‘home’ in England — her letters record her delight each time she returned to ‘my east.’ She travelled extensively in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iran and what is now Iraq, becoming fluent in Arabic, writing books and articles on the remains of ancient civilisations she discovered, and the structure of modern life there. She became ‘a personage’ to the sheiks she met — no small feat for a woman, and an infidel to boot. By the time of the First World War, no westerner knew the area, or its people and politics better than Gertrude Bell.