Saturday, March 02, 2019

The Tribulations of T. E. Lawrence

Augustus John: Colonel T.E. Lawrence (1919)

i. m. Jeremy Michael Wilson (1944–2017)

As a kind of add-on to my series of posts about the Garnett family (and, for that matter, as an adjunct to my fascination with polymath poet Robert Graves), I thought I'd write a piece about their mutual friend T. E. Lawrence: a devotee of small-press publishing, and, consequently, something of an idol to book-collectors everywhere.

The portrait above supplies the heroic image of Lawrence we're most familiar with: at the height of his fame, the world at his feet, and his image as the quintessential "desert-mad Englishman" on display front-and-centre in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I.

Lawrence himself appears to have preferred the rather more equivocal and self-doubting version of himself presented in this preliminary sketch by Augustus John:

Augustus John: T.E. Lawrence (1919)

In a strange sense, though, his role had already been prepared for him even before the Allied propaganda machine began to focus on him in 1917 - when there was precious little good news anywhere else in the world.

His exploits as a kind of Arabic version of Zorro or the Swamp Fox were vamped up mercilessly by pioneering American film-maker Lowell Thomas after their meeting in Jerusalem in 1918, culminating in his travelling show "With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia" (1919).

But even before that, in 1916, Jingoistic author John Buchan had created a kind of Lawrence avatar in the form of "Sandy Arbuthnot," one of the protagonists of his novel Greenmantle, an exciting tale of a religious revolt against the Turks and their German allies, led by the eponymous prophet "Greenmantle," eventually impersonated by Sandy himself.

John Buchan: Greenmantle (1916)

Greatly though Buchan subsequently came to admire Lawrence - "I am not much of a hero-worshipper, but I could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world" - it's not really possible that he could have known enough about him at this stage to base his hero on him.

Instead, it's thought that the model for Sandy Arbuthnot was his friend Aubrey Herbert, the half-brother of Lord Carnarvon (of Tutankhamun fame), and a colleague of Lawrence's in the intelligence war in the Middle East.

So much for the foundations of the myth. Wherever it came from, and whatever its ingredients, it grew far beyond any expectations of wartime propaganda. Nor was this hindered by the immensely complex way in which Lawrence backed his war reminiscences into print. The story is best told by Jeremy Wilson, his authorised biographer:
In 1922 T. E. Lawrence finished work on the third draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The first, written during 1919, had been incomplete when it was stolen from him at Reading station. The second had been a hurried re-write, dashed-off from memory. Using this as a basis, Lawrence worked for many months on a third version, which he corrected and polished. There were probably intermediate drafts of most chapters, because what finally emerged was a fair-copy manuscript. This, the earliest surviving complete text, is nearly 84,000 words longer than the version he later issued to subscribers.
This theft of the original, 1919 version has gone into folklore. Many have dreamed of locating that first, scrawled manuscript of what would become an immensely controversial book. What extra secrets did it contain? What indiscretions led to its being stolen - by the British secret service, perhaps? Or was it, as Lawrence himself intimated, simply mislaid?

The new, 1922 draft was printed and bound up in eight copies, which were distributed to a number of influential literary friends: E. M. Forster, Edward Garnett, Robert Graves and George Bernard Shaw among them. As Wilson rather coyly remarks: "It was this 1922 text which convinced readers that Lawrence had written a masterpiece." There was immense interest from publishers, and Edward Garnett offered to make an abridgement if its author still had misgivings about issuing the full text.

On 16 August 1922 Lawrence enlisted in the RAF under the pseudonym of "J. H. Ross." This attempted act of self-abnegation was, however, stymied by press attention, and he was forced to resign in January 1923. A couple of months later, a certain "T. E. Shaw" enlisted as a private in the Tank Corps, which was far less congenial to him. He was able to negotiate a transfer back to the RAF in 1925, however.

Through all these shenanigans, one of the few things keeping him afloat was his work on revising and tightening the text of this (so-called) 'Oxford' version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which eventually resulted in the very expensive, full illustrated subscriber's edition of 100 copies in 1926.

Lawrence was careful to receive no profit from this publication. The production costs (especially the reproduction of the illustrations) were so high that he actually ended up in deficit. He did, however, allow Jonathan Cape to issue a shorter version, Revolt in the Desert, abridged by Edward Garnett, in 1927.

T. E. Lawrence: Revolt in the Desert (1927)

After Lawrence's death in 1935, his brother A. W. Lawrence, who had been named as his literary executor, decided to reprint the subscriber's edition for the general public. The rest is history. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom has probably never been out of print since. The longer 1922 version was not, however, reprinted until 1997.

As far as the differences between the two texts go, Robert Graves, who published a popular biography of Lawrence in 1927, gave his views as follows:
There is such a thing as a book being too well written, too much a part of literature ... It should somehow, one feels, have been a little more casual, for the nervous strain of its ideal of faultlessness is almost oppressive ... On the whole I prefer the earliest surviving version, the so-called Oxford text, to the final printed text.
Lawrence laughed this off as proof that Graves wanted to assert his superior knowledge by revealing in this offhand way that he'd actually been allowed to see the earlier version. It must have rankled, though (as did Leonard Woolf's comment, in a review of Revolt in the Desert, that "every sentence begins again with a full breath and ends with a really full stop"). A few years later he asked E. M. Forster to read and compare the two texts. Forster's judgement was, when it came, just as equivocal:
I had to admit that the sentences in the revision were more concise and showed a superior sense for the functions, and incidentally for the etymology, of the words employed in them. But the relation between the sentences seemed to me a little impaired: the connection, though logical, wasn't always easy.
Later, after Lawrence's death, when the question of which version to reprint arose, Forster responded more straightforwardly:
the Oxford is in the judgment of several critics even superior to the version offered now, and it is good news that a reprint of it may eventually be made.
That didn't happen in A. W. Lawrence's lifetime (he died in 1991), but when, a few years later, the 1922 text was finally published, the comparison could finally be made by anyone - not simply a few privileged scholars and friends.

T. E. Lawrence: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (2014)

Does it matter? Not as much as you'd think, I'm sorry to say. Lawrence's legend has always shone brighter in the writings of others than in his own work. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I think most of us who've actually read it can attest, is overwritten and difficult to follow. Not so his letters, which are clear, informal and fascinating. But it's as a character - the star of a series of warring biographies, as well as conflicting betrayals on stage and screen - that he's come down to us most vividly.

Michael Goldberg, dir.: The Ascent of F6 (Northern Illinois University)

This began early, in masked form, in W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood's play The Ascent of F6 (1936). The latter's autobiography Christopher and His Kind (1976) lays out the dichotomy the two had evolved between the 'truly strong' and the 'truly weak' man:
The truly strong man, calm, balanced, aware of his strength, sits drinking quietly in the bar; it is not necessary for him to try and prove to himself that he is not afraid, by joining the Foreign Legion ... leaving his comfortable home in a snowstorm to climb the impossible glacier ... [192]
"From Christopher and Wystan's point of view, the Truly Weak Man was represented by Lawrence of Arabia, and hence by their character Michael Ransom in F.6."

This was, however, during the period when the Lord Chancellor still had to licence all new plays in Britain, and amongst his prerogatives was preventing the portrayal of public figures on stage in any but flattering guises. This power weakened over the years, and even before the abolition of state censorship of theatre in 1968, a number of attempts had been made to subvert this principle.

Terence Rattigan: Alec Guinness as Lawrence/Ross (1960)

Among these was Ross - a play by immensely popular dramatist Terence Rattigan (author of The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and French without Tears).

The play concerns blackmail. It's based on a rumour Rattigan (himself a very closeted homosexual) had heard that a man called Dickinson had threatened to "out" Lawrence while he was hiding under a pseudonym in the RAF. Alec Guinness played Lawrence, and - it is alleged - made the homosexual undertones of the play more apparent in performance than in the published text. Wikipedia adds that:
Ross was originally written as a film script for the Rank Organization, with Dirk Bogarde cast as Lawrence. The project fell through due to a combination of financial difficulties and political turmoil in Iraq, where it was to be filmed. A later attempt to adapt the play, with Laurence Harvey as Lawrence, was scrapped when David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia went into production.

David Lean / Robert Bolt: Peter O'Toole as Lawrence (1962)

Which is where we re-enter history. Who has not seen, and marvelled at, Lawrence of Arabia? It must be one of the single most influential films of modern times. The sweep of it, the epic scope, the cinematography - on and on we rave.

A. W. Lawrence hated it. And it did have the effect of eclipsing the private, scholarly Lawrence he'd been quietly constructing off on his own all those years, and turning his brother into a preening egomaniac, a poseur, a victim - anything but the scholar and gentleman he was (or at least may much of the time have wanted to be).

Christopher Menaul / Tim Rose Price: Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence (1992)

There've been other attempts to resurrect Lawrence since. One of the most creditable is recorded above. But it's rather like trying to rewrite Hamlet. It can be done, of course, but the mould has really been set once and for all. Robert Bolt, David Lean, Peter O'Toole and T. E. Lawrence can never now be seen entirely separately again.

But that's not to say that the battle of the books didn't continue. One thing about writers is that they never allow somebody else the last word. The saga of Lawrence's biographers is perhaps even more interesting - and certainly more complex and involved - that that of his dramatic incarnations.

Lowell Thomas: With Lawrence in Arabia (1924)

Robert Graves: Lawrence and the Arabs (1927)

Basil Liddell Hart: 'T. E. Lawrence': In Arabia and After (1934)

It began - after the Lowell Thomas farrago - with subtly modulated hagiography, under the close supervision of (first) Lawrence himself, and then his beloved brother. First Robert Graves, then Basil Liddell Hart, and finally A. W. Lawrence himself had a go at constructing a suitable memorial frieze:

A. W. Lawrence, ed.: T. E. Lawrence by His Friends (1937)

As you can see from the above, Lawrence was not exactly bashful about supplying his biographers with answers to faqs. But you can't really keep a lid on things forever, however assiduous a literary executor you are.

In 1955 war poet and novelist (and ex-husband of American poet H. D.) Richard Aldington published possibly the most concerted attack on Lawrence and the Lawrence myth ever penned.

I think the true nature of Aldington's work only struck me when I read a passage where he quotes someone's anecdote about how the Lawrence boys used to cycle to school in single file, one after the other, in order of age. "I don't know what this proves," quips Aldington, "except that a talent for posing manifested in him at an early age."

And so he continues. Oceans of bile are poured over poor Lawrence's head, and the gripes and dissatisfactions of a lifetime (Aldington's) are all attributed to him. This is not to say that the Lawrence legend didn't deserve some debunking, but one can't quite feel that Aldington had the temperament to do a really effective job.

A rather better attempt was made John Mack in his wonderfully titled (and Pulitzer prize-winning) psychological biography A Prince of Our Disorder:

Just what was wrong with Lawrence? Why did he behave so strangely? Why did he pay a man to come and beat him in his later years in London? Was he a sado-masochist? Was he gay? Was he impotent? Few stones are left unturned in the course of the questioning.

After which, I suppose, a few people thought the poor fellow might be left to lie in his grave undisturbed for a while. It was not to be. The final tombstone of an 'authorised biography' still awaited him:

Opinions on Jeremy Wilson's magnum opus differ greatly. It was selected by The New York Times as one of the six best nonfiction books of 1990, while the Toronto Star described it as "an unremarkable book." It all depends on what you're looking for, I suppose.

For myself, I found that it answered almost all of the nagging questions I had about Lawrence: and that its depth and weight of research did have the effect of wiping other, competing attempts at biography (including, I'm afraid, Mack's) out of the field.

Was Lawrence a pathological liar, who shifted and invented things in his own account of his wartime exploits? The apparent inconsistencies in his text had led earlier commentators to assume so, but Wilson makes a surprisingly strong case for the proposition that Lawrence was actually remarkably accurate and truthful: not only about impressions, but also about the recorded facts of events.

Again and again "errors" in Lawrence's book turn out to be backed up by contemporary documents. Before Wilson, it seems that nobody really bothered to check. The website for Wilson's private press Castle Hill Books reveals just how much he's gone on to do for Lawrence's posthumous reputation. This includes a massive, multi-volumed edition of Lawrence's surviving correspondence, and - perhaps most importantly of all - the republication of the 1922 text of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I can't help feeling that many of the sneers (or yawns) that have been directed at his great biography of his hero come either from people who haven't read it, or - even more likely - haven't read any of its forest of predecessors. If you really want to know the facts about T. E. Lawrence, admittedly from a very favourable viewpoint, there's really no alternative to reading Wilson: the full 1989 text, mind you, not the 1992 abridgement.

Here's a list of the Lawrence-iana in my own collection. As you'll see, it's quite extensive, but by no means complete. For a man who published so little in his own lifetime, Lawrence casts a surprisingly long shadow for subsequent bibliographers:

T. E. Lawrence at Miranshah (1928)

Thomas Edward Lawrence

    T. E. Lawrence: Works (1910-35)


  1. Lawrence, T. E. Crusader Castles. 1910. Ed. A. W. Lawrence. 1936. Introduction by Mark Bostridge. London: The Folio Society, 2010.

  2. Lawrence, T. E. The Complete 1922 Seven Pillars of Wisdom: The 'Oxford' Text. 1922. Ed. Jeremy Michael Wilson. 1997. 2nd ed. 2003-4. 3rd. ed. 2 vols. Salisbury, England: Castle Hill Press, 2014.

  3. Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. 1926. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1946.

  4. Lawrence, T. E. Revolt in the Desert. New York: Garden City Publishing Company Inc., 1927.

  5. Lawrence, T. E. The Mint: The Complete Unexpurgated Text. Ed. A. W. Lawrence. 1936. Preface by J. M. Wilson. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  6. Lawrence, T. E. Oriental Assembly. With Photographs by the Author. Ed. A. W. Lawrence. 1939. London: Williams and Norgate Ltd., 1939.

  7. Garnett, David, ed. The Essential T. E. Lawrence. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

  8. Garnett, David, ed. The Essential T. E. Lawrence: A Selection of His Finest Writings. 1951. Introduction by Malcolm Brown. Oxford Paperbacks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

  9. Edited:

  10. Lawrence, T. E., ed. Minorities. Ed. J. M. Wilson. Preface by C. Day Lewis. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.

  11. T. E. Shaw: The Odyssey (1932)


  12. Shaw, T. E. (Colonel T. E. Lawrence), trans. The Odyssey of Homer: Translated into English Prose. 1932. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

  13. T. E. Lawrence: Letters (c.1900-35)


  14. Garnett, David, ed. The Letters of T. E. Lawrence. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1938.

  15. Lawrence, M. R., ed. The Home Letters of T. E. Lawrence and His Brothers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954.

  16. Lawrence, A. W., ed. Letters to T. E. Lawrence. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1962.

  17. T. E. Lawrence: Biographies (1924-89)


  18. Thomas, Lowell. With Lawrence in Arabia. London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers), Ltd., 1924.

  19. Graves, Robert. Lawrence and the Arabs. Illustrations ed. Eric Kennington. Maps by Herry Perry. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1927.

  20. Liddell Hart, B. H. ‘T. E. Lawrence’: In Arabia and After. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1934.

  21. Lawrence, A. W., ed. T. E. Lawrence by His Friends. 1937. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1938.

  22. Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. London: Collins, 1955.

  23. Mack, John E. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence. 1976. New Preface by the Author. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

  24. Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorised Biography of T. E. Lawrence. 1989. Minerva. London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1990.

  25. Howard Brenton: Lawrence after Arabia (2016)

    Dramatic versions:

  26. Plays of the Sixties. Volume One: Ross, by Terence Rattigan; The Royal Hunt of the Sun, by Peter Shaffer; Billy Liar, by Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall; Play with a Tiger, by Doris Lessing. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1966.

  27. Lawrence Of Arabia, dir. David Lean, writ. Robert Bolt – with Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle – (USA, 1962)

  28. Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. Research Associate: Cy Young. 1996. A Wyatt Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

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