Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia Hardcover – 1 Sep 1969
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The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia
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T.E. Lawrence was a complicated man, gifted, charismatic, and enigmatic. Knightley and Simpson have documented that for much of his adult life, he was an official and unofficial agent of the British government, who spied out the lay of the land in the Middle East prior to World War I and was a highly successful agent of influence with the Arab tribes during the war. In the post-war years, he enjoyed remarkable access to movers and shakers in and out of government on a variety of causes.
Lawrence was also a troubled man, who felt some shame over his illegitimate birth and who never quite got over his experiences in the desert, whatever they were. He was badly conflicted over the official deception of the Arabs, and as Knightley and Simpson document, he likely suffered after the war from what we would now term post-traumatic stress syndrome. Again as Knightley and Simpson document, analysis of the man has been complicated by the tendency of Lawrence himself and others to weave legend around the events of his life.
Knightley and Simpson utilized both chronological and topical approaches to Lawrence; the result includes a certain amount of dry repetition. The reader will share the authors' periodic frustration at not being quite able to pin down Lawrence's activities or his elusive innner workings. However, the end result adds necessary depth to the portrait of "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" as well as remarkable insight into the workings of British diplomacy during and after the First World War.
"The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia" is highly recommended to students of the Arab Revolt and of T.E. Lawrence as a detailed exploration of a remarkable man who made a difference. The book includes a nice selection of photographs and maps.
Secret Lives primarily focuses on Lawrence's personal life, and political role in the Middle East. Unlike most Lawrence bios, Lawrence's exploits in the Arab Revolt are a relatively minor (if still important) part of the story. His closest relationships (especially those with D.G. Hogarth, John Bruce and Charlotte Shaw) are carefully scrutinized. Its portrait of Lawrence as a person (rather than a public figure) is quite interesting, arguing that he relied on intellectual connections to replace sexual longings, and there's not much to quibble with.
Two major bits of research are particularly interesting. First, the authors spoke with the relatives of Hajim Bey, the Turkish commander at Deraa who supposedly buggered Lawrence. We learn that Hajim, while hardly a model soldier, was a womanizer and highly unlikely to have engaged in compulsory homosexuality. Knightley and Simpson argue that perhaps Lawrence mistook Hajim for another officer, but seem skeptical of the whole incident. Nonetheless, the authors fail (as Mousa had) to provide an adequate explanation of what *did* happen to Lawrence at Deraa; perhaps this is why Desmond Stewart later felt compelled to concoct his absurd story of a gay liaison with Sherif Ali.
Second is the testimony of John Bruce, who served with Lawrence in the RAF and Tank Corps during the '20s and became an intimate friend. Bruce's shocking story - that Lawrence compelled Bruce to flog him at the instructions of a likely-nonexistent "old man" - confirmed long-standing speculation that Lawrence was a masochist, though Bruce himself seemed to believe Lawrence's story. While latter biographers have quibbled over the details, most do accept the gist of Bruce's testimony, adding a darker, more disturbing shade to his heroic reputation.
Other analyses are equally valuable. Knightley and Simpson provide an in-depth analysis of the famous "S.A." poem that prefaced Seven Pillars, determining that Lawrence's pre-war friend Dahoum (Selim Ahmed) was the only viable candidate. Other candidates, including British spy Sarah Aaronsohn (an absurd theory recently revived in Florence's Lawrence and Aaronsohn) and Feisal's brother Sherif Ali, are neatly tossed aside. (At the same time, they convincingly debunk claims that Lawrence was gay.) The authors also debunk, at length, conspiracy theories surrounding Lawrence's death, arguing mainly that "romantic minds find it hard to accept that... Lawrence of Arabia could die in such an ordinary manner" (p. 274). These are penetrating, well-argued and reasonable analyses, and show their authors as responsible researchers.
Perhaps because of this new information and research, Knightley and Simpson felt compelled to definitively "solve" the Lawrence riddle. Certainly the documentation and original research gives them significant authority, leading many readers to uncritically swallow their conclusions. Knightley and Simpson replicate Mousa's idea that Lawrence was nothing more than an especially skilled and shrewd intelligence officer, with no feelings towards the Arabs. Lawrence's inability to secure Arab independence is not a failure, but part of a grand, Machiavellian design.
Knightley and Simpson dwell at length on Lawrence's supposed connection to the Round Table, a study group headed by Lionel Curtis that argued strongly for British imperialism and world hegemony. Knightley and Simpson make an interesting case that this group exercised a disproportionate influence on British policy in the early 20th Century due to "the wealth, scholarship, patronage and class consciousness of... its disciples" (p. 24). What they don't do, however, is adequately connect Lawrence to this group, aside from showing that friends like Hogarth and Ronald Storrs had some interest in it, and that Lawrence "absorbed, via Hogarth, some of the precepts of the Round Table" (25). Further, they try to argue that Lawrence was recruited at Oxford, and that his pre-war archaeological work was merely a cover for espionage.
Knightley in particular, due to his experience covering Cold War espionage, may have been drawn to the idea of Lawrence as Secret Agent Man, but it doesn't really hold water. Lawrence's Carchemesh expedition of 1913 was purely academic in nature, and no evidence to the contrary has surfaced. He did engage in a geographic survey of the Sinai just before the war, but this came after spending time in the Middle East in a civilian capacity. Had Knightley and Simpson argued that Lawrence was recruited while at Carchemesh, they might have a case, but their theory bites off more than they can chew. There is too much supposition from scanty documentation in these sections, and it seems that here, the mostly-responsible authors opt for a sensationalist "scoop."
Similarly, the authors pepper the text with comments from Lawrence that are derisive towards Arabs, and seem to support British imperial goals. This quote-mining supports the conceit that Lawrence was "a political officer.. with the object of... ensuring the success of British policy" (p. 4) but is highly incomplete. Gone are the agonizing quotes of Seven Pillars and private correspondence (which the authors must have had access to), with Lawrence equivocating over his role in the "fraud" against the Arab cause, or his oft-expressed hope that the Arabs would earn their independence through revolt. Lawrence's determined efforts at Versailles are none-too-convincingly presented as an attempt to block French interests in Syria. If so, why so publicly side with the Arabs after the main work was over? As with Mousa, they see Lawrence's involvement in the Colonial Office, and post-war plans for the Middle East, as evidence of his complicity in betraying the Arabs, as opposed to a tortured, self-crafted compromise between British, French and Arab interests.
Yet again, a very selective reading of Lawrence's writings and work results in a flawed thesis. No doubt Lawrence was officially an imperial agent. No doubt that he played no small part in shaping the post-war Middle East, at the expense of his Arab allies (but what was he supposed to have done?). But trying to argue that this was the whole of his character is simplistic. It brings to mind Graves's admonition that "there are many thousands of Lawrences, each one a facet of the Lawrence crystal" (Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure, p. 40): i.e., that Knightley and Simpson saw what they wished to see. Focusing on Lawrence's writings for the Arab Bulletin and official reports, where endorsing Arab nationalism for its own sake would not go over well, is a that ignores Lawrence's more private writings (such as his wartime diary), and inner thoughts, let alone memoirs.
Despite these failings, I do recommend The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia. There is a lot of important research therein, and many of its analyses and conclusions remain unchallenged. It's unfortunate that Knightley and Simpson decided that a simplistic solution to the Lawrence legend was in order, but they're far from the only ones to make that mistake.
I was always fascinated by people (men) like Lawrence. Today we have a vast array of books on more information on Lawrence than before. My original copy was stolen with all my notes a few years ago. I wanted to replace it and it took awhile before I found this copy here. Since first reading it, I joined the military and experienced some of the things he wrote about and spoke of,
It makes you see things as they were and how changes came about. He was one of the reasons why Arabia is what we become to know it today.(not in a negative or bad sense either) A book well worth having and reading. Highly recommend anyone reading this book to read his book THE 7 PILLARS OF WISDOM about the revolt in the desert.
All that changed in 1968 when Professor A W Lawrence ( T E brother) allowed Phillip Knightly and Colin Simpsom access to previously private information and papers.
While Lawrence will always best be remebered for the revolt in the desert, his subsquent life is equally fasinating, An Oxford Don, adviser to Feisel and Churchill, poet, translater, RAF, private Shaw or the Tank Corps, and back to the RAF, where he was involved with many interesting projects such as the Schnieder Trophy races, setting up the Air Sea Rescue Service and hovercraft.
This book ignighted the Lawrence industry that in the 1970s and 80s produced a pletherer of excellent books on his life, the only one of which I can currently recallwas, 'A Prince of Our Disorder', but read this one first, it's the shortest and the simplist, and gives a great overview that sets the stage for those that followed.
I originally read 'The Secret Lives' when it was first published in 1970 and have read most of those that followed. It was one of the most influencial and facinating books I had ever read and in 2014 felt the nead to have a hard cover in my libary. Also both my sons and their friends want to read it.
Yes I do have a copy of "The Mint". It's a horrible book and easy to see why Trechard would not allow its publication until 50 years after Lawrences death. However it does give a good description of the life of new recruits to the RAF in the 1920's and does have a happy ending. Worth collecting if you can find a copy.