McCord Centre for Landscape

Event items

Between ‘the me that leaves and the me that returns’: Gertrude Bell’s Persian Gateways and Walls

Julia Szołtysek (University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland) explores how Persian Pictures - essays written by Gertrude Bell - can enrich discussions of Western mis/representations of the Orient.

Date/Time: 5 May 2017

Venue: The Armstrong Building, room 2.16.


Scholar, historian, mountaineer, photographer, archaeologist, gardener, cartographer, linguist, British spy, confidante to Arabian princes and kings – by all means was Gertrude Bell a woman of many hats. In 1892, however, when at the age of 24 Gertrude set out on a journey to Teheran, where her uncle had been appointed British Minister, all the glory – and scorn – was yet to come. She had already mastered Persian, though, and her thirst for adventure and knowledge was as insatiable as ever, and she seized on the opportunity to experience an ‘Oriental’ land with all the enthusiasm one could imagine in a young, well-educated and open-minded woman – or not, because at the end of the 19th century Persia was probably as un-common-place for a lady as one could get. During her sojourn, she kept a diary which in 1894 she only reluctantly acquiesced to publish under a nom de plume – and so the first edition of Persian Pictures saw the light of day.

Persian Pictures differs substantially from other works by Bell; critics have accused it of sentimentality, lack of substance – a mere ‘folly’ incommensurable with Bell’s later writings. In the present article, I intend to advocate for Bell, though, proposing to see the supposed faults of Persian Pictures as the work’s greatest strengths which in fact reveal the author’s other, more lyrical and less ‘business-like’, side. By allowing these affects to surface,Persian Pictures shows Gertrude Bell in her youthful naivety which – as it is my stance here – only helps to better understand her devotion and dedication to the Eastern cause characteristic of her more mature years. My analysis will focus on a selection of essays from the collection which best exemplify the criticisms fielded at Persian Pictures. With special emphasis placed on what I read as a discourse of gateways and walls negotiated and manoeuvred by Bell during this particular trip, I will attempt to shed light on how, by traversing and/or transgressing borders of various types and putting herself to a series of identity-forming tests, Persian Pictures – to the contemporary reader – offer insight into the broader apparatus of British (and Western) colonialism.

By linking each of the selected essays with one of John Frederick Lewis’s orientalist paintings, I hope to further strengthen my argument that aspects of Persian Pictures, originally seen as the work’s weaknesses, have the potential to actually enrich discussions of Western mis/representations of the Orient, without compromising its author, and should thus be approached as instances of powerful and vivid responses to the ‘shock of the new,’ as experienced by Gertrude Bell – and, in fact, many other travellers, male and female alike, who ventured into these realms. 

About the speaker

Julia Szołtysek, PhD, defended her doctoral dissertation in 2014 at the University of Wroclaw, Poland. Her academic interests include literary and artistic representations of the Middle East, travel discourses, racial/ethnic theories, and opera studies. She is the recipient of the 2016 Peter Lang Young Scholars Award. Her monograph A Mosaic of Misunderstanding: Occident, Orient, and Facets of Mutual Mis/Construal has been published in 2016 by Peter Lang. She is the co-editor of the monograph Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief published in 2013 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and the collection of articles Faces of Grief (forthcoming in 2017, University of Silesia Press). She currently lectures at the University of Silesia in Poland.