In the course of writing a college paper on the film Lawrence of Arabia, I picked up a number of Lawrence-related books - relating to both the film and the man. One of them was Richard Aldington's Biographical Inquiry (1955), infamous for being the first overtly anti-Lawrence biography. As one who falls resolutely in the pro-Lawrence camp (having read Seven Pillars, Revolt in the Desert, Jeremy Wilson's authorized bio and several other works), I decided, in the interest of fairness, to give Aldington a try.
If Aldington's book has any relevance or importance, it's in providing something of a corrective to the admittedly-hagiographic portrayal of Lawrence that prevailed up to then. The hyperbolic adulation of someone like Lowell Thomas is pretty hard to swallow, even if it makes a great story, and a counter-view was probably needed. Unfortunately, Aldington's book is a pretty nasty piece of work, a highly scurrilous, vitriolic and insulting screed that goes out of its way to demonize Lawrence.
The most unattractive thing about the book is Aldington's tone. The text is dripping with sarcasm, full of acidic parenthetical commentary on Lawrence's every word and action. At times, Aldington comes up with modestly clever asides and bon mots, but at other times he just seems to be childishly hateful. One example: noting a descrepancy over dates in Lawrence's demobilization (p. 296), he remarks that "it illustrates so well Lawrence's modest confession 'that... he could recall any date.'" As this is, by Aldington's own account, a trivial detail, such an insulting comment is completely uncalled for. He repeatedly parrots lines that are less-than-flattering to Lawrence or his associates - for instance, he repeats Lloyd George's comment on denying "agnostic, atheistic France" a mandate in Syria three times. After the first few chapters, Aldington's condescending mockery becomes tiresome, and he generally comes off as a playground bully picking on a popular kid.
Another problem is Aldington's lack of scholarship. Aldington's method of research consists of comparing Lawrence's own account of said incidents with those of his biographers (specifically Robert Graves, Basil Liddel Hart, and Lowell Thomas), and accounts of others. There is some value in this, but the problem here is that Aldington *always* assumes that: a) Lawrence is the one fibbing, b) Lawrence's biographers cannot be blamed for the discrepancies (highly suspect in Thomas's case), and c) Lawrence is *deliberately* lying in *all* cases. That Lawrence may have somewhat embellished facts, or perhaps, more mundanely, misremembered them, is a valid point, but to go a step further and claim him a pathological liar is something else entirely. Aldington's disuse of primary documents - for instance, government reports - can be somewhat, but not entirely, excused, and this certainly hurts his case and claimed authority.
Aldington also makes heavy use of strawman arguments. He says that Lawrence claimed his own responsibility for creating the idea of the Arab Revolt, and inventing the campaign against the Hejaz Railway. In Seven Pillars, I find no indication of such grandiose claims. He also claims that Lawrence's subtitling of Seven Pillars as "a triumph" is vanity or egoism rather than irony over the ultimate failure of the Arab Movement. To be fair, Lawrence took undue credit for certain aspects of the campaign, particularly the raid on Aqaba, and Aldington is right to point this out. It's something else, however, to use this as proof that Lawrence lied about *everything*.
It also seems that Aldington's motives are highly suspect. He had his own traumatic experiences in France during World War I, where he was wounded. Obviously this affected him a great deal, as evidenced by his body of work and troubled life. The overall tone of the book seems to be of a man who fought in France, the decisive theater in the war, angry that someone from "the sideshow of a sideshow" got all the glory. Aldington even more or less admits this, particularly in this explicit and revealing passage (p. 381):
"I have tried, but perhaps not always successfully, to give evidence... fairly and in such away that it can be instantly verified, though not without some indigination that *such a man should have been given the fame and glory of the real heroes of 1914-1918"* (emphasis added)
Ergo, Aldington's motives as suspect if not moreso than what he claims of his subject. Apparently Lawrence's hardships in the desert, helping to unite disaparate Arab tribes and providing a front that, at the very least, proved a useful "sideshow" to the British war effort, while under extremely harsh and trying conditions, is nothing compared to Aldington's own contribution, because Lawrence did not serve in France. To which I say, phooey. Even if we accept that Lawrence gilded the lily in Seven Pillars, Aldington's self-righteous chauvinism is obnoxious and uncalled for, and insults far more people than Lawrence.
I might also suggest, if only parenthetically, that Aldington, already disenchanted with British society, wanted to bring the depised British Establishment down a peg by attacking one of their cherished heroes. The final line of the book, "Lawrence was the appropriate hero for his class and epoch," is highly suggestive of this.
In search of ways to demonize Lawrence, Aldington creates the playbook for what Robert Bolt called the "facile Lawrence denigrators". Everything is here: emphasis on Lawrence's illegitimacy, the downplaying of the Arab Revolt's importance, the downplaying within that of Lawrence's own contribution, the treatment of Lawrence as pathological liar and egomaniac, etc. Just about the only thing that later biographers would differ on is his acceptance of the Deraa Incident as fact; so far as I know, it wouldn't be until Suleiman Mousa's T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View that a biography strongly questioned the incident.
For all discussions of Lawrence's sexuality, I think it's key that Aldington is the first major biographer to strongly assert Lawrence as homosexual; this discussion seems tacked on as a kick in the teeth, with an absurd suggestion that Lawrence's evil mother warped his personality (!!!). Without expanding into a full-blown discussion, I don't think it's a coincidence that allegations of Lawrence's homosexuality originated here, and has largely been parrotted by Lawrence detractors since.
All in all, Aldington's book is a bloody-minded, foul and dishonest hatchet job, saved only by virtue of being reasonably well-written. Any value it has as a corrective to what he calls "the Lawrence Bureau" is undermined by its overall smuttiness. This wouldn't be so much a problem if many people, unwilling to concede that old-fashioned heroes may have a grain of genuine honor to their name, take Aldington and his successors at face value. There's room for debate in any area of history, but vitriol and dishonest scholarship is something be discouraged.