London: William Heinemann, 1897. First edition. Hardcover. This is the elusive first edition of Gertrude Bell’s second published book, the first published under her name and her only published poetical work.
Condition is exceptional, near fine. The publisher’s cloth binding is beautifully clean and unfaded, square and tight with sharp corners, showing only incidental shelf wear to extremities and wrinkling to the spine ends. The contents are notably clean and bright, as are the page edges, including the untrimmed fore edges. The only previous ownership mark is a tiny, illustrated bookplate affixed to the front pastedown. Laid in is a 1927 New York Times article titled “Gertrude Bell in Arabia.”
Published in June 1897, this first edition was the only in Bell’s lifetime, a second edition not appearing until 1928. Of interest, this copy appears to be an unrecorded publisher’s binding variant. The first issue binding is an olive-green buckram (typically found sunned to brown) with gilt-stamped spine and features a 16-page publisher’s catalogue dated 1897 bound in following the text. This copy is bound in a lighter olive-green buckram with identical, distinctive spine print and decoration, though in black rather than gilt. The publisher bound this copy without the 1897 publisher’s catalogue, which would have been sensibly omitted from a later binding state of first edition sheets.
In 1892 Gertrude Bell, a twenty-four-year-old Oxford graduate, traveled to Persia with her Aunt to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, a newly appointed Minister in Teheran. The result of her travels was Safar Nameh, Persian Pictures: A Book of Travel, a slim volume published anonymously in 1894 to little response. This second book, Poems from the Divan of Hafiz, reflects the young Bell’s maturing fascination, knowledge, and settling passion. The book is “a collection of her translations into English of the poems of Hafiz [1320-1389], together with a biography of the Sufi poet set in the context of his contemporary history.”
The book was published in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee “to as large an acclaim as a book of poetry can elicit. Edward G. Browne, the greatest authority on Persian literature of his day, said of her translations: ‘…they are in my opinion the most artistic, and, so far as the spirit of Hafiz is concerned, the most faithful renderings of his poetry’”. Bell retained a lifelong affinity for both classical and modern poets, testified by their presence in her traveling library. In the words of Bell’s stepmother and posthumous editor “The spirit of poetry coloured all her prose descriptions, all the pictures that she herself saw and succeeded in making others see.” (Howell, Daughter of the Desert, pp.69-61)
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (1868-1926) was the intriguing and influential adventurer, scholar, writer, and diplomat who, like her contemporary T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia” did much to frame and shape the Middle East during and after the First World War. Raised amid industrialist family wealth, Bell lost her mother at age three, increasing a “sense of independence and self-reliance” perhaps already inherent to the “physically restless and intellectually gifted” child. By her mid-twenties the unmarried Bell discovered intellectual and emotional fascination with the Middle East.
“Outstanding literary and linguistic skills” coupled with “determination, bravery, physical strength, and endurance” invigorated contributions to travel literature, translation, archaeology, and architecture, eventually evolving into engagement in the region’s socio-political currents. By the First World War, Bell became “a voluntary agent of Britain’s interests in the Middle East” and assumed her defining role – as “a woman trying to break one of the most challenging barriers of her time: the physical conquest of the desert and the decoding of the moral and ethical code of its inhabitants.” (ODNB)
Bell’s linguistic and tribal knowledge made her indispensable to the Arab Bureau (the Cairo intelligence office of the British government during the First World War). She contributed articles to the Arabian Report and the famous Arab Bulletin. After the First World War, Bell remained an influential figure, helping persuade Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to maintain a British presence in Iraq, helping secure the King of Iraq’s throne, and facilitating the Anglo-Iraqi treaty. One of her last accomplishments was to gather funds for a national museum in Baghdad, inaugurated in 1923 and installed in a permanent building in 1926, the year she died. Much like T. E. Lawrence, Bell was disappointed in some of her hopes for the region and died comparatively young. Item #006874