Mabel Bent and Gertrude Bell – two B’s in a pod

Gertrude Bell – a still from the BBC’s publicity.
[Gertrude Bell’s diary, Tuesday, 6 February 1900]: “Rained a little in the morning but cleared after lunch and I went out shopping, and through the town to the Valley of Hinnom. Met Mrs Th. Bent, horrid woman…”

A fascinating profile of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) in Baghdad the other night (December 2019)* on BBC 4 (a re-showing of a progamme from 2017) –unquestionably an important and extraordinary figure – Arabist, archaeologist, diplomat, agent provocatrice: and no match for Mabel Bent (1847-1929), the latter, it seems, giving her short shrift the few occasions they met in the early 1900s, in Palestine and around. Bell, in the bully spectrum, of course took an instant dislike to Mrs Theodore Bent – as much no-nonsense as she was herself.

Mabel Bent and Manthaios Simos, the Bents’ dragoman, on their camels near Mohammad Gul in the Sudan in 1896 (a detail from a rare lantern slide in the RGS, London).

Bell writes to her stepmother Dame Florence Bell, 6 February 1900: ‘I met Mrs. Theodore Bent, but having thrown the Salaam, as we say in my tongue, I rapidly fled, for I do not like her. She is the sort of woman the refrain of whose conversation is: “You see, I have seen things so much more interesting” or “I have seen so many of these, only bigger and older”… I wonder if Theodore Bent liked her.’ He did; very much.

* Randomly repeated it seems; a VPN may help outside the UK.

Bell on Bent: The online ‘Bell Archive’ produces some other fascinating insights:

“[Thursday, 25 January 1900]: Fine morning and wet afternoon. Shopped after lunch. Still slack and miserable. Called on Mrs Dickson and met Mrs Theodore Bent…”

“[Tuesday, 6 February 1900]: Rained a little in the morning but cleared after lunch and I went out shopping, and through the town to the Valley of Hinnom. Met Mrs Th. Bent, horrid woman. Found the last of the starch hyacinths, cyclamen, anemones, and a blue and a yellow flower in the ‘adas fields. Also branches of almond. Met my friend who greeted me kindly and asked me what I was going to do with all that grass.”

“[Friday, 13 April 1900]: Went down to Christ Church at 11 and found the service not nearly over, so I went in and waited. Then Mrs Dickson, Mr Dunn, Baby, Mr Green and I set out to Gethsemane to see the Nebi Musa pilgrims. (I saw Mrs Th. Bent outside the church, she has only been to Mashetta and Bozrah.)”

“[Wednesday, 1 February 1905]: Mr Dunn dined and we talked all the evening. Mrs Bent seems to be making mischief.”

Mabel Bent’s travel Chronicles are available from Archaeopress, Oxford.

Incidentally, the American historian, archaeologist and scholar. Charles Cutler Torrey (1863–1956) also remembers sitting next to Mabel one night at a dinner-party in Jerusalem (Mabel visited Palestine almost annually in the first two decades of the 20th century) – he records finding her “a terror” (B.R. Foster, From New Haven to Nineveh and Beyond; Lockwoood Press, Columbus, GA, 2023, p.151).