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The Elusive Lawrence – in Paperback or Hardback?
on 2 April 2014
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.