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“The Khedive came to lunch.” With just such bland words did Gertrude record her meeting in İstanbul with the late ruler of Egypt, a man who was to stamp his personality firmly on the city in the shape of such spectacular buildings as the Khedive’s Villa at Cubuklu.

What was he like? What did he say? What was he wearing? Did he talk about the building work? These were the questions I longed for her to answer but it was not to be and that one short sentence made plain the shortcomings of private diaries as historical source materials.

Because with the exception of the diaries of politicians such as Tony Benn and Chris Mullin most such documents are written for entirely private purposes, sometimes as substitutes for the confession box but mainly as simple aide memoires. When Gertude scrawled that unenlightening comment in her diary she was not thinking about what I might want to know more than one hundred years later since she would not have expected anyone to be reading her diaries.In her mind’s eye she knew perfectly well what the  Khedive looked like and what he had worn. Perhaps he hadn’t had anything very interesting to say on that particular occasion. As far as she was concerned she was merely making a quick note to herself to help her remember with whom she had dined.

The other snag with diaries as a source is that most diarists use their own private shorthand based on their own private knowledge. In my own diaries, for example, world cities will always be reduced to the three-letter IATA identity codes I learnt in my years as a a travel agent. Gertrude used entirely different abbreviations, some of them hard for an outsider to decode. It’s easy enough to understand that “P.P” refers to the Pera Palace Hotel and that “Sir N O’C” refers to Sir Nicholas O’Conor, the then British Ambassador, but Gertrude also littered her diaries with foreign words, often written down phonetically. So you need to know some Turkish to detect that “euren” means “oren”, the Turkish for ruins, and that cheshme is the phonetic rendering of the Turkish word for fountain. More mysterious is the occasional appearance of the word “Iran” in the Turkish diaries – until you say the word out loud and realise that it is the phonetic rendition of “ayran”, the name for a popular yoghurt drink, then almost certainly auto-capitalised by Word.

Fortunately Gertrude didn’t leave just her diaries. Many of her letters home also survive, and then there are the polished published versions of her stories that appear in her books on Binbirkilise and the Tur Abdin as well as in Persian Pictures, Amurath to Amurath, and The Desert and The Sown.

Not that it always makes much difference. In a letter to her father she is equally unforthcoming about the Khedive (“Today the Khedive lunches here.”). The books have nothing further to say. My questions will just have to remain unanswered.

***Thanks to the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University for making her letters and diaries available online***

 

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