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I started reading the concise paperback edition of Wilson’s ‘authorised’ biography, an edition that omits the “study of Middle Eastern history” from the full 1200-page hardback edition. The paperback is tightly-packed and densely-printed, but I did not feel it of much use to be without the wider context in which Lawrence lived.

Therefore, the large hardback edition was purchased, its forty-five chapters replacing the ‘mere’ twenty-six of the paperback. There are five very useful appendices instead of the two in the paperback, and seven maps instead of five. There is the same amount of plates, but the greater size of the hardback allows for greater detail to be seen. Endnotes are, as one would expect, much more detailed, running to almost two hundred pages; in the paperback, they are mere references. What is missing, however, from the hardback is an appendix that comments on new evidence that had been published between the two editions.

As a further comparison, the first chapter (in both editions it covers the same period of Lawrence’s life), the hardback has an additional four or so paragraphs. Chapter two meanwhile includes much greater detail of Lawrence’s cycle tour of France’s medieval castles when he was nineteen. In addition, the paperback does not reproduce Lawrence’s earliest published letter to ‘The Times’ or his earliest surviving literary essay.

The greater emphasis on context in the hardback means that in some chapters prior to the Arab Revolt, Lawrence barely appears at all, such as chapter twelve on the negotiations and manoeuvrings between the British, French, and Arabs. Wilson comments in a footnote here how “This is one of several wartime and political documents by Lawrence which biographers have misconstrued. By quoting such material entirely out of context, they have suggested that he was wholly cynical in his attitude towards the Arabs. This illustrates the danger of research which focuses too narrowly on Lawrence without seeking a fuller understanding of contemporary events.” This last sentence justifies my recommending the hardback edition.

What of the book, then? I knew of Lawrence largely from David lean’s film. (After reading this book I now realise how much in the film was factually wrong, although Wilson himself barely ever refers to it.) I had also recently visited Clouds Hill but felt that I wanted to know more about the man, to see whether his life was as significant as some claim, or as controversial. This ambiguity for Lawrence’s place in his times and today is picked up in Wilson’s preface, where he asserts that “The improbable figure presented in some recent biographies lacks almost all the qualities that made Lawrence fascinating to his contemporaries.” As Lawrence himself wrote to Robert Graves, “I’m rather a complicated person, and that’s bad for a simple biography.”

Wilson splits his chronological narrative into three parts: eight chapters cover his first twenty-six years; part two, covering his famed fighting in Arabia and the aftermath, merit twenty-three chapter for eight years; whilst his ‘quiet’ thirteen-year ‘retirement’ is covered in fourteen chapters.

Part one takes us up to the eve of the First World War, concentrating in some detail on his subject’s archaeological work at Carchemish, work that also forged other skills – speaking Arabic, learning how to shoot, learning how to survey. There is perhaps not enough on his earlier years. For example I found it strange that Lawrence ran away from home and joined the Royal Artillery, yet this occurred “probably in the autumn of 1905.” That Lawrence learned early to tolerate privation and have respect for other cultures is also made plain, and one senses that if there had not been a war, the man would still have found some kind of fame.

Part two – the bulk of the book – covers the period 1914 to 1922. It is interesting that in early 1918, with Jerusalem now captured by General Allenby, the latter, who greatly admired Lawrence, exerted more control. Lawrence wrote, “His taking charge of us was a revolution in our history. Hitherto the Arab movement had lived as a one-wild-man show”, but now “forfeit for our failure would be paid in his soldiers’ lives” and this no longer made the life a “sphere of joyous adventure.” Yet a month later, Lawrence stated he was “surfeited, tired to death of free-will.”

Wilson goes into immense detail about the Lawrence’s campaigns, also highlighting significant differences between early drafts of Lawrence’s memoirs and the final published edition. Wilson also catalogues Lawrence’s prescience about how Britain and France would sell out the Arabs. It is occasionally alarming to read Lawrence’s own words that still have a powerful resonance one hundred years later, such as his report in 1915 on the difficulties of governing Syria. Wilson claims, though, that “The greatest obstacles to success had often been created by the Arabs themselves, rather than the Turks.” (It is a shame that Wilson, throughout his book, refers to ‘the Turks’ rather than ‘the Ottomans’.)

With Wilson taking us through the campaigns and their aftermath in such detail, we can perhaps, if only from a distance, understand Lawrence’s personal and professional dilemmas in the anticlimax of the years that followed. But in part three, the more one reads of Lawrence in the twenties, the less sympathy this reader had for his character and his lack of direction.

In part three Wilson also addresses the vexed issue of Lawrence’s sexuality, arguing he was not gay, but that he “felt a deep repulsion towards the physical aspects of sex.” And of the beatings he asked young men to give him? “The matter is clearly very complex,” says the author. And just what were those curiously undescribed “RAF duties in London” that seemed often to call for his absence from RAF Mount Batten?

In summary, after reading Wilson’s biography I conclude that Lawrence the man was not as significant as some claim, or as controversial. In a 1927 letter the man himself has written, “And in the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.” He was wrong; rather, it is Lawrence as myth and symbol that has acquired significance. Did reading this book bring me closer to the real Lawrence? There is much fact, much detail, but Wilson eschews psychological insight, leaving Lawrence’s own actions, thoughts and writings to stand for themselves. As such, the book is a magnificent achievement, but the man still eludes.
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I started reading the concise paperback edition of Wilson’s ‘authorised’ biography, an edition that omits the “study of Middle Eastern history” from the full 1200-page hardback edition. The paperback is tightly-packed and densely-printed, but I did not feel it of much use to be without the wider context in which Lawrence lived.

Therefore, the large hardback edition was purchased, its forty-five chapters replacing the ‘mere’ twenty-six of the paperback. There are five very useful appendices instead of the two in the paperback, and seven maps instead of five. There is the same amount of plates, but the greater size of the hardback allows for greater detail to be seen. Endnotes are, as one would expect, much more detailed, running to almost two hundred pages; in the paperback, they are mere references. What is missing, however, from the hardback is an appendix that comments on new evidence that had been published between the two editions.

As a further comparison, the first chapter (in both editions it covers the same period of Lawrence’s life), the hardback has an additional four or so paragraphs. Chapter two meanwhile includes much greater detail of Lawrence’s cycle tour of France’s medieval castles when he was nineteen. In addition, the paperback does not reproduce Lawrence’s earliest published letter to ‘The Times’ or his earliest surviving literary essay.

The greater emphasis on context in the hardback means that in some chapters prior to the Arab Revolt, Lawrence barely appears at all, such as chapter twelve on the negotiations and manoeuvrings between the British, French, and Arabs. Wilson comments in a footnote here how “This is one of several wartime and political documents by Lawrence which biographers have misconstrued. By quoting such material entirely out of context, they have suggested that he was wholly cynical in his attitude towards the Arabs. This illustrates the danger of research which focuses too narrowly on Lawrence without seeking a fuller understanding of contemporary events.” This last sentence justifies my recommending the hardback edition.

What of the book, then? I knew of Lawrence largely from David lean’s film. (After reading this book I now realise how much in the film was factually wrong, although Wilson himself barely ever refers to it.) I had also recently visited Clouds Hill but felt that I wanted to know more about the man, to see whether his life was as significant as some claim, or as controversial. This ambiguity for Lawrence’s place in his times and today is picked up in Wilson’s preface, where he asserts that “The improbable figure presented in some recent biographies lacks almost all the qualities that made Lawrence fascinating to his contemporaries.” As Lawrence himself wrote to Robert Graves, “I’m rather a complicated person, and that’s bad for a simple biography.”

Wilson splits his chronological narrative into three parts: eight chapters cover his first twenty-six years; part two, covering his famed fighting in Arabia and the aftermath, merit twenty-three chapter for eight years; whilst his ‘quiet’ thirteen-year ‘retirement’ is covered in fourteen chapters.

Part one takes us up to the eve of the First World War, concentrating in some detail on his subject’s archaeological work at Carchemish, work that also forged other skills – speaking Arabic, learning how to shoot, learning how to survey. There is perhaps not enough on his earlier years. For example I found it strange that Lawrence ran away from home and joined the Royal Artillery, yet this occurred “probably in the autumn of 1905.” That Lawrence learned early to tolerate privation and have respect for other cultures is also made plain, and one senses that if there had not been a war, the man would still have found some kind of fame.

Part two – the bulk of the book – covers the period 1914 to 1922. It is interesting that in early 1918, with Jerusalem now captured by General Allenby, the latter, who greatly admired Lawrence, exerted more control. Lawrence wrote, “His taking charge of us was a revolution in our history. Hitherto the Arab movement had lived as a one-wild-man show”, but now “forfeit for our failure would be paid in his soldiers’ lives” and this no longer made the life a “sphere of joyous adventure.” Yet a month later, Lawrence stated he was “surfeited, tired to death of free-will.”

Wilson goes into immense detail about the Lawrence’s campaigns, also highlighting significant differences between early drafts of Lawrence’s memoirs and the final published edition. Wilson also catalogues Lawrence’s prescience about how Britain and France would sell out the Arabs. It is occasionally alarming to read Lawrence’s own words that still have a powerful resonance one hundred years later, such as his report in 1915 on the difficulties of governing Syria. Wilson claims, though, that “The greatest obstacles to success had often been created by the Arabs themselves, rather than the Turks.” (It is a shame that Wilson, throughout his book, refers to ‘the Turks’ rather than ‘the Ottomans’.)

With Wilson taking us through the campaigns and their aftermath in such detail, we can perhaps, if only from a distance, understand Lawrence’s personal and professional dilemmas in the anticlimax of the years that followed. But in part three, the more one reads of Lawrence in the twenties, the less sympathy this reader had for his character and his lack of direction.

In part three Wilson also addresses the vexed issue of Lawrence’s sexuality, arguing he was not gay, but that he “felt a deep repulsion towards the physical aspects of sex.” And of the beatings he asked young men to give him? “The matter is clearly very complex,” says the author. And just what were those curiously undescribed “RAF duties in London” that seemed often to call for his absence from RAF Mount Batten?

In summary, after reading Wilson’s biography I conclude that Lawrence the man was not as significant as some claim, or as controversial. In a 1927 letter the man himself has written, “And in the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.” He was wrong; rather, it is Lawrence as myth and symbol that has acquired significance. Did reading this book bring me closer to the real Lawrence? There is much fact, much detail, but Wilson eschews psychological insight, leaving Lawrence’s own actions, thoughts and writings to stand for themselves. As such, the book is a magnificent achievement, but the man still eludes.
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on 1 December 2008
Of the many words that come to mind after reading the `review' of A Customer, distortion is the one that I believe sums up most succinctly this persons contribution. From the volume, vacuous though it is, of the writing I can only surmise that this is cultural spin, intended to direct the reader's gaze towards, in my opinion, lesser works.

This biography is lucidly written and mercifully, devoid of much mythological sentimentality surrounding Lawrence. An immensely rewarding read, especially to those seeking a better understanding of the roots of today's Middle Eastern woes. `The proof of the pudding...'
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on 11 May 2002
Jeremy Wilson has performed a great service to posterity in bringing together almost all available information on T.E.Lawrence. There is no other biography with such a comprehensive range of references. Wilson has written what he calls a 'historical biography' based almost entirely on written sources, where possible external to Lawrence's own records. His account of Lawrence's part in the Arab Revolt, for example, he claims, no longer relies on Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Wilson also believes that equal weight should be given to every part of Lawrence's life - not just to the years in which he was a mover and shaker with the Arabs. Lawrence was also important, he tells us, as a printer, an author, a translator, a mechanic and a friend of important people.
Unfortunately what Jeremy Wilson has not done is produced a good biography. Biography is not merely laying out documents from end to end and saying "There, that is what happened, see for yourself", it is a craft, a literary genre, literally the 'story of a life.' What makes biography interesting is not the dry facts, but the way such facts are seen and interpreted through the eyes of the biographer. There can be no such thing as definitive biography, any more than there can be definitive history. History, as Graham Swift wrote, is ‘that impossible thing : an attempt to give an account – with incomplete knowledge – of actions themselves taken with incomplete knowledge.’ Biography like all art, is a selection from the broad posibilities of human perspective and human perspective is itself a limited selection from reality. Wilson’s ‘promised land’ of definitive biography cannot be found in contemporary documents, because these documents were themselves produced by human beings who were no more objective or omniscient than the rest of us.
Wilson, if you like, has produced the life but lost the story - by giving each part of Lawrence's experience the same emphasis he has turned what was an exciting and dramatic tale into a monotonous, 1000-page grind. This might be acceptable if Wilson's claim to have written an 'objective' biography were justified (or indeed possible). Alas it is not. Whenever we come to the truly problematical incidents of Lawrence's part in the Arab Revolt - his alleged shooting of a Moorish servant, his alleged capture, torture and rape by the Turks, his claim to have had a 90 strong bodyguard of cut-throats, his claim to have shot a wounded companion to prevent him being captured, for example - incidents for which there is no external evidence whatsoever - what do we find? That Wilson simply turns to Seven Pillars of Wisdom and says 'Lawrence was an honest man and would not have lied'. Hardly the spirit of detached scholarship one has been led to expect by his rather haughty introduction, and indeed, a contradiction of his own claim. And not true, anyway, since it is clear that Lawrence did lie when it suited him - for example when he claimed to have crossed Sinai in a 49 hour non-stop camel ride (it was 72 hours and he slept on the way). Similarly there is no real attempt to understand why Lawrence paid a man to thrash him periodically with a birch over the last 13 years of his life. Wilson says prudishly that we must not inquire into such things, despite the fact that we now have a century of respectable studies of paraphilia from such giants as Freud and Jung. This is at least one aspect of his subject’s life that obviously does not fit into Wilson’s category of activities that ought to be accorded ‘equal weight’. Indeed one has the feeling that the supposedly ‘detached’ biographer would have preferred Lawrence’s masochism to simply disappear.
His spirit of inquiry seems to have been similarly truncated when it came to looking beyond the library shelves, to the desert battlefields where a significant part of Lawrence’s life was acted out. Wilson visited none of them, does not speak Arabic and does not know the Arabs. One would have thought that some experience in this field was essential to understanding Lawrence’s milieu. The truth, Wilson seems to be telling us, lies in the documents – it is irrelevent to consider what conditions were actually like ‘out there.’
And whether Lawrence’s activities in printing, mechanics, handicrafts and even writing are truly as significant as his years with the Arabs can easily be determined by asking whether, without Arabia, there would have been a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in the first place. ‘Lawrence of the Handicrafts’ does not have quite the same ring.
Despite the pretensions expressed in his introduction, therefore, Wilson’s approach to Lawrence is neither truly scholarly nor analytical. Few of Lawrence’s own statements are ever contested, and almost anything that might be construed as even remotely critical to him is cunningly omitted. At the same time the author has the gall to assure us continually that his perspective is ‘historical’. It is, in short, a whitewash job – an attempt to retell the ‘Lawrence legend’ without unequivocal supporting evidence and without a compensatory feel for the epic nature the tale itself. Again, all might have been well had the author not spent several pages in his introduction deriding and denigrating the works of other serious Lawrence scholars – an astonishing display of hubris which is to my knowledge unprecedented in the genre. One would have thought that at least he would have got the beam out of his own eye first.
If it is a ‘good read’ you are looking for, you will not find it in this biography, but neither will you find a refreshingly revisionist approach. It is an attempt to revive the same tired old story, an encyclopedic mass of documentary sources which fail in many cases to bring home the bacon when it counts. It is neither a quest for insights into Lawrence’s character, nor a riveting retelling of the legend. It is, quite simply, dull.
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on 1 July 2016
Condition of book was exactly how described. Great value and speedy delivery. Thank you.
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on 25 August 2011
Quick delivery. The condition of the book was excellent and good value. Good Seller that I will use again. Thanks.
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