Research & Discussion
Sense and Nonsense in the biography of T.E. Lawrence
Prologue to Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography
(London, Heinemann, 1989, pp. 1-17)
Romance and enigma seem to have become an inseparable part of T. E. Lawrence's reputation. When I began research specifically for this book, in the mid-1970s, I was often told that my task was hopeless. At this distance in time no one could solve the biographical riddles.
This had indeed been the case as long as the official archives relating to Lawrence's military and political career remained under embargo, and biographers were denied access to essential material for the period between 1914 and 1922. While this was so, no final judgment of his role during the Arab Revolt was possible, and very little information at all was available concerning either his work in Cairo during 1915-16 or his involvement in British diplomacy after the war.
In 1968, however, the great majority of these Government papers suddenly became available. At any time thereafter, an authoritative reassessment of this much-debated figure should have been possible - but for various reasons none was forthcoming. Biographers dipped into the official archives in search of previously unpublished material, but none of them attempted a systematic investigation. One scholar did carry out a serious study of Lawrence's part in the Arab Revolt, but his book was published only in German, and has been ignored by British biographers.1 Twenty years later, in Lawrence's centenary year, his reputation in the English-speaking world seemed little affected by the release of the archives. This was regrettable, since a proper assessment of his career was long overdue.
In the mind of the general public, both in Britain and abroad, he remains one of the most famous Englishmen of his generation. Yet ever since the 1950s, doubts have been expressed about his real achievement, and some writers have challenged the whole basis of his reputation. In 1962 the popular image of Lawrence was radically changed by David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia, and the process has since been continued by a number of sensational biographies. Many of these have been highly speculative, yet subsequent writers have treated unproven suggestion as historical fact, and added further speculation of their own. In this way layer upon layer of invention has accumulated, leaving a grotesque impression of Lawrence's career. Its outline (with variants) runs something like this:
Illegitimate son of a religious maniac mother who dominates her children by flogging them - is taken up in early childhood by an unscrupulous 'mentor', D. G. Hogarth, and indoctrinated with imperialist views - is sent to Carchemish for training as a spy while pretending to be an archaeologist - goes to Cairo at the outbreak of war as a spy-master - gets involved in the Arab Revolt - is motivated by virulent imperialist (or perhaps pro-Arab, or pro-Zionist) feelings - is sodomised at Deraa (or invents the whole story) - is carried away by blood-lust at Tafas - is involved in treacherous diplomacy at the Peace Conference and under Churchill at the Colonial Office, during which he deceives everyone (or perhaps is manipulated by everyone) - enlists to get away from it all - indulges in masochistic floggings - has debatable sexual inclinations - seeks a substitute mother in Mrs Bernard Shaw - and is finally murdered by the secret service for reasons that can only be hinted at.
The errors of fact and interpretation in these accounts ought to have been plain to anyone familiar with the source materials available in print; but apart from a handful of protests by specialist reviewers, the sensational fictions have rarely been challenged. It seems that ordinary human scepticism has been numbed by the sheer quantity of bizarre claims. The public no longer knows what should be believed and what should be denied and, as a result, many serious-minded people have come to regard the subject of T. E. Lawrence with caution, if not distaste.
Such a state of affairs might be tolerable if Lawrence had accomplished nothing and if his career had lacked any lasting historical significance. But despite his detractors' claims, this is not the case: even at their irreducible minimum, Lawrence's achievements cannot lightly be dismissed. His most severe critics have to admit that he played a role of some importance while serving as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt. After the war, fellow-officers who had seen his work at first-hand said that his contribution had been outstanding. Although some of these witnesses may have exaggerated, others were men of high integrity. Their testimony cannot be entirely groundless. He was also involved in diplomatic negotiations which reshaped the Middle East, first during the war itself, then at the Paris Peace Conference, and finally while working in the Colonial Office. There is ample evidence that he played an influential role, particularly in the Cairo Conference settlement of March 1921.
Next, his literary achievement: Lawrence had hoped since childhood to become a writer, and according to his own statements this remained his strongest ambition. Three of his works have been very successful. Seven Pillars of Wisdom has sold more than a million copies and has been widely translated. The continuing popularity of this long and relatively expensive book about a First World War campaign is surely remarkable. Barrack-room life in the RAF, the subject matter of his second book, The Mint, might seem to have still less appeal. Yet this work too has been translated into several languages, and from 1978 until the turn of the century was reprinted regularly in Penguin Modern Classics. Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey has also earned a place in English literature, as one of the most successful renderings addressed to the general public. It has run through many editions, and is still available in bookshops after more than fifty years. Finally, Lawrence was a prolific letter-writer, and editions of his correspondence have been widely read.
Even on this minimal reckoning, Lawrence's military, diplomatic and literary achievements merit biographical investigation. But his life is interesting for another reason as well. He knew and corresponded with many of the leading figures of his time. These included archaeologists such as D.G. Hogarth and Leonard Woolley; military leaders such as Allenby, Trenchard and Wavell; diplomats and politicians such as Nancy Astor, Gertrude Bell, Churchill, Curzon, and Lloyd George; and writers such as Buchan, Conrad, Doughty, Flecker, Forster, Graves, Hardy, Sassoon, and Shaw, to name only a selection. Then there were friends in the world of art: Eric Kennington, Augustus John, Paul Nash, William Roberts, and William Rothenstein; the architect Sir Herbert Baker, and H.S. Ede of the Tate Gallery. As long as historians are interested in figures such as these, they will also seek information about Lawrence.
One reason for this
curiosity will be that Lawrence's personality and career provoked
extreme reactions among his contemporaries, often of passionate loyalty,
occasionally of bitter antagonism. Few were able to write about him
without revealing something of their own values and prejudices. Yet it
is impossible to make sense of these attitudes while the truth about
Lawrence is obscured by sensational claim and counter-claim.
In the future, the 'Lawrence of Arabia' legend will itself interest social historians. Public enthusiasm for media idols is usually short-lived, but in Lawrence's case it has endured for more than sixty-five years [written in 1989]. Instead of fading, the legend has evolved, keeping pace with changing popular interests. In 1919, Lowell Thomas gave Britain a romantic military hero unsullied by the horrors of the Western Front. Afterwards, when Lawrence wrote Seven Pillars, he was thought to exemplify the 'intellectual man of action'. During the Second World War his reputation as a leader again came to the fore, and Seven Pillars was included in the standard library issued to British fighting units. By the 1950s, the intense patriotism of the war period was fading, and attacks on conventional values became commonplace (Lord Altrincham, for example, made social history by daring to criticise the Queen's speeches). Predictably, the accumulated Lawrence legend came under attack. Then, in the early 1960s, Lawrence became fair game for amateur psychologists, and when the 'permissive society' focused public attention on private lives there was a glut of salacious allegations. During the 1970s and 1980s the vogue has been for espionage, and it has been claimed that Lawrence became a clandestine 'intelligence operative' before the First World War.
The development of this Lawrence legend shows how a popular topic can take on a life of its own as a result of continuing exposure. Successive accounts alter, as writers vie with one another to say something new. In this process, however, stories are not necessarily improved. It is not just the truth which suffers: often the ingredients which originally made an event worth reporting are sacrificed as well. The improbable figure presented in some recent biographies lacks almost all the qualities that made Lawrence fascinating to his contemporaries.
In reality, his biography has no need of such embellishments. His experiences in the Arab Revolt contained an extraordinary degree of drama: as he said himself, the story he had to tell in Seven Pillars was 'one of the most splendid ever given a man for writing.'2 The renunciations of his later career are hardly less intriguing. In Churchill's words: 'The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is some one outside its jurisdiction; some one before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; some one strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independently of the ordinary currents of human action'.3
The sensational treatment of Lawrence's life, however entertaining, has helped to conceal his true development and motivation. For example, writers seeking an excuse to dwell on his maltreatment by the Turks at Deraa in November 1917 have suggested that this experience was responsible for the profound depression he felt during the later stages of the war. It would have been more rewarding to admit that this depression was evident several months before the Deraa incident. By placing such emphasis on the events at Deraa, even at the expense of chronology, these writers have been led to discount early evidence of the central dilemma in his wartime career.
Likewise, the claim that Lawrence began working for British Intelligence at Carchemish before the First World War provided biographers with a dramatic new angle on the early years of his adult life. It also supplied an explanation, deus ex machina, for his elevation by October 1916 to an influential position in the Cairo Intelligence Department. The result, however, is that attention has been distracted both from his achievements as an archaeologist at Carchemish and from the merit of two years' hard work in Cairo Intelligence during 1915 and 1916. Thus a single biographical fiction makes a nonsense of Lawrence's development during six important years.
No serious historical study of Lawrence could have been attempted before the embargo on Government papers began to expire. The idea of taking on the official biography was first put to me by a publisher three years later, in 1971. Having already edited Lawrence's commonplace-book Minorities, I could foresee the time and very costly research that would be needed. For this reason, I turned the proposal down. During the next three years, however, no other strongly qualified biographer came forward, and finally, in the autumn of 1974, I decided to accept the commission.4
This dearth of candidates illustrates another of the central problems in tackling Lawrence's life. As he warned Robert Graves in 1927, 'I'm rather a complicated person, and that's bad for a simple biography.'5 Obvious among these complications is the sheer diversity of his career. Normally a figure of such stature would be subject to exhaustive study in university departments, but Lawrence's life was too varied to fit in neatly with modern academic demarcations. As a result, no faculty is really interested in more than a small fraction of his life. Holders of university posts are obliged to work mainly in their own fields, and are naturally unwilling to trespass widely into other academic provinces. Thus while individual scholars may be expert in one aspect of Lawrence's career, they are likely to know little about large parts of his life. A specialist in medieval military architecture would not normally want to pass judgment on twentieth-century diplomatic history. Likewise, there are few archaeologists with knowledge of the Hittite period who could write with any proficiency about the development of high-speed motorboats. How many guerilla leaders have successfully translated the Odyssey, or set up a private printing press? The diversity of Lawrence's activities and interests has prevented anything but piecemeal academic research. It has also presented a special challenge to his official biographer: the need to meet high standards of historical scholarship in many different fields.
While this problem has discouraged academic attention, it cannot, on its own, account for the wary attitude towards Lawrence found in British universities. The situation abroad is different: major historical theses have been published in France and Germany, and there have been several American studies of Lawrence's writing.6 Caution about him in Britain seems to stem from two causes. First, all scholars prefer to deal with evidence and reasoning, while the Lawrence literature in this country has been saturated with myth and enigma. The view elsewhere has been more sober.7 Secondly, attacks on his integrity have raised far stronger passions in Britain than abroad. British scholars, bombarded by allegations that he was a dishonest eccentric, cannot be blamed for choosing some other subject for research.
Much of this hostility
towards Lawrence is rooted in aspects of British culture and history. At
different times, his reputation has been savagely attacked by
well-defined interest groups in Britain. The first of these to speak out
was one associated with the Anglo-Indian administration in Mesopotamia.
In 1921, Churchill adopted Lawrence's policy for this region and swept
away years of painstaking effort by ambitious imperialists. Lawrence's
responsibility for this public humiliation was never forgiven. As a
result, thousands of Englishmen regarded him with a deep antagonism
(passed down, in some families, to the present generation).
Lawrence also offended a second group. At a time when society was far more rigid than it is today, he rejected his 'proper' place in
the social order and chose to enlist. Military rank was then a potent sign of social status, and after the First World War a great many ex-officers continued to use their military titles in civilian life. They were bitterly angry when it was revealed that the famous Colonel Lawrence had joined the ranks of the RAF as A/c Ross. His action seemed to undermine the respect which they considered due to the officer class. The depth of feeling on this issue is difficult to understand today, and has surprised me more than once when talking about Lawrence to people of that generation. Naturally, those who felt threatened by his unconventional attitude took action to defend themselves: in no time, uncomplimentary gossip began to circulate about his social eccentricity. The stories usually included some incident in which, while attempting to be 'clever,' he had behaved with appalling rudeness. I have never been able to substantiate any of these tales: no one seems actually to have witnessed an incident of this kind. Yet the gossip is often repeated, sometimes by biographers who do not realise that its original purpose was derogatory. There is a flagrant example in Henry Williamson's book Genius of Friendship,8 describing how Lawrence had snubbed a social-climbing hostess. The story is told as though Williamson had heard it from the victim. Years later, when I asked him for his source, he admitted that it had come from an Air Force officer who did not like Lawrence.
More recently, there has been vociferous criticism of Lawrence from British pressure groups associated with the Middle East. Although his true role has been little understood, he clearly occupied a position of some influence in Britain's policy towards the Arabs between 1914 and 1922. This episode in British diplomacy has proved to be extremely contentious, and Lawrence's reputation has been attacked virulently by some pro-Arab and some pro-Zionist writers. In many cases, polemicists have used his name simply to attract attention to their views about much wider issues. As the debate is directly related to the modern conflict over Palestine, there has been far too little disinterested scholarship. Historical interpretations are sharply divided, and Lawrence's biographers have been faced with opposing and incompatible statements by writers whose expertise in these questions is widely acknowledged. In order to resolve this problem I was obliged to go back to the contemporary documents. In the process, a fresh view has emerged, not only of Lawrence, but of the events themselves.
Much of the controversy
about Lawrence in Britain can be traced to these differing viewpoints,
and it is essential to be aware of them. In almost every case the
hostility stems from an emotional allegiance rather than research and
analysis. As a result the criticism has often taken the form of abuse or
innuendo instead of reasoned argument.
It has also been claimed that veterans of the Western Front felt slighted by the blaze of publicity given to Lawrence (and to Allenby's Palestine campaigns). Individuals may have had such feelings, but the records suggest no general resentment: the fault clearly lay with the publicists and not with those who had fought in the Middle East. A grudge of this kind may nevertheless have prompted Richard Aldington's vehement attack on the popular Lawrence legend. Aldington was a passionately embittered writer who had suffered deeply as a result of war service on the Western Front. By the 1950s he was living abroad, in self-imposed exile, and he had come to see Lawrence as the hero of a decadent society which he detested. He seems to have believed that if he could destroy Lawrence's reputation, this would in some way deeply wound the British establishment.9
In his researches,
Aldington compared statements made by Lawrence at different times and to
different people with those made by three contemporary biographers. He
found many discrepancies between these sources, and presented the
variants as evidence that Lawrence had told vainglorious lies. The
obvious flaw in this argument was the assumption that Lawrence, rather
than his three biographers, was responsible for the anomalies. This was
extremely nave. The earliest biographer, Lowell Thomas, was a popular
journalist whose work brimmed over with romantic exaggerations. Lawrence
was able to influence the text very little, but thought he could safely
assume that intelligent readers would recognise it for what it was; his
policy was therefore to refrain from comment. The second biographer,
Robert Graves, was a poet and novelist whose book was written very
hurriedly under pressure from his publishers. Although Lawrence saw the
draft, he warned Graves that he had not had the time to correct all the
mistakes. Only the third biographer, Liddell Hart, made any attempt at a
scholarly treatment, and it was his project which received the greatest
help from Lawrence. Given the differing qualities and aims of these
authors, it would be amazing if their accounts agreed in every detail.
Conflicting evidence, as Aldington must have known, is a common problem for historians. Even after a short time-span, remembered versions of an incident hardly ever correspond exactly. Moreover, retrospective accounts are often coloured by self-justification and by wisdom after the event. Material gathered from autobiographies or interviews rarely turns out to be wholly consistent with contemporary sources.10
In Lawrence's case, special factors have helped to generate conflicting evidence. First, those who knew him were inevitably exposed to the popular legend; many found it impossible to distinguish this from their own recollections. Interviews and published reminiscences often contain inaccuracies which are difficult to explain in any other way.
Secondly, Lawrence's career brought him into contact with people from all ranks of society. To the public at large, the only remarkable thing about some of his acquaintances was the fact that they had known him. Most of his close friends, particularly those in the RAF and Tank Corps, refused to capitalise on this public interest; but there were a few who traded on it and fabricated incidents and anecdotes to bolster their apparent importance in his life.
Thirdly, even greater
distortions occur when people are encouraged to recall something 'new'
about Lawrence. No interviewee likes to be found wanting, and wholesale
fiction is amazingly common. Sometimes, the details have been very
ingeniously worked out to tie in with known events. Fortunately,
however, these yarn-spinners have rarely had access to Lawrence's vast
unpublished correspondence. While their statements may tally with
readily available sources, lesser-known material will usually expose
enough invention to cast doubt on everything they have said.
It is curious that while such people will take immense care over a central fiction, they often give themselves away in minor details. This is the case with the much-publicised reminiscences of John Bruce. In pursuit of cash rewards for his story, Bruce embroidered it considerably. Thus in 1938 he sold an article to the Scottish Field11 in which he claimed to have been in India on spying expeditions with Lawrence, who dressed like a native and spoke the local language. The story was a complete falsehood, but Bruce thought it safe because ten years earlier there had been press reports that Lawrence was spying in India. As Bruce had not actually been in India with Lawrence, he had no idea that the press rumours were untrue. He said many other things about his relationship with Lawrence, and could have been an important biographical witness. As it is, however, his testimony can be faulted on so many points that every uncorroborated statement must be regarded with extreme caution.
Bruce's Indian spy 'revelations' also demonstrate how a popular myth can inspire what appears to be substantiating evidence. If there were no reliable contemporary documents to show that the 1928 press stories were false, Bruce's account might be accepted as proof that they were true.
Lastly, accounts of
Lawrence's life have often been distorted in order to fit a preconceived
theory (for instance that he exemplified some archetype such as the
'romantic hero who rejected worldly rewards'). These oversimplified
interpretations rarely stand up to close examination, and usually
obscure more than they illuminate.
I have tried very hard to avoid such pitfalls. The surest way to do so was to base my account of Lawrence's career on contemporary documents, using later statements only when they were consistent with these sources. Fortunately, an enormous amount of contemporary evidence has survived, relating to every stage in his life. The documents now available in public and private archives fully justify the claim made some years ago by Paul Adam, one of several French intellectuals who have written on Lawrence: 'By a paradox which is not without logic, the very mystery of Lawrence's case has provoked both research and testimony. As a result we know far more about him than we do about people who were never thought to be mysterious.'12
The extent of this
source material is so great that it is impossible to include a
satisfactory account of it in this book. I have therefore compiled a
separate annotated reference work: T.E. Lawrence: a Guide to Printed and
The first object of my research was to collect as much of this contemporary information as possible. I soon found that it was better to copy entire documents than to work from notes. Very often a statement which seemed insignificant on its own turned out to be important when set alongside other material from the same period. Relevant documents are scattered throughout the world and, unless transcripts are brought together in one place, all but the most obvious interrelated statements will be overlooked. Even where a single institution holds many documents, it can be impossible to examine them in the proper sequence. For example, there is a great deal of transcribed correspondence among the T.E. Lawrence papers at the Bodleian Library, but the letters to each recipient are grouped separately and bound in a series of alphabetical volumes. Library rules and practical considerations make it impossible to use all these volumes at once, yet that would be the only way to read the letters in chronological order.
This is a minor problem compared with the situation at the Public Record Office [now The National Archives], where information is scattered through countless files. It can be extremely difficult to locate specific documents in the maze of departmental records. Thousands of hours were spent working through these official papers; the time involved probably explains why biographers have hitherto made so little use of this material.
The task of gathering photocopies and transcripts of contemporary documents continued during ten years. At the core of the chronological archive thus formed was Lawrence's own correspondence. He once wrote: 'of course somebody will want to write a life of me some day, and his only source will be such letters as chance has preserved. Had they been all kept, there would be a pretty complete history of events since 1910: volumes of stuff enough to discourage any historian: but chance will narrow his pile down.'14 Lawrence was wrong in thinking that his letters would be discarded. At that time many people retained correspondence as a matter of course, and in his case the letters had a financial value. Comparing his address book with groups of surviving letters, it seems unlikely that much has been lost. More than four thousand letters, telegrams, official memoranda, and minutes written by Lawrence, and about twelve hundred letters and telegrams addressed to him, are now preserved in libraries or private collections. I was able to copy the vast majority of these documents, thanks to their owners and to a request for such co-operation made on my behalf by Lawrence's youngest brother and literary executor, A. W. Lawrence.
Copies of many other relevant documents have been added to the archive, especially for the war and diplomatic periods. This material was essential if Lawrence's contribution was to be seen in its proper context. I particularly wanted to discover contemporary opinions about him exchanged between third parties who were in a position to judge his work.
By the time the biography had been completed, the archive formed a sequence of day-to-day records running to about four million words (around ten times the length of the book). Some of the material it contains had not been available to other biographers; a great deal more, though available, seems not to have been consulted. While many of the documents were individually informative, the most valuable conclusions often came through juxtaposition. Even the most familiar letters have taken on a new significance when put alongside other material from the same period. For example, the letters Bernard Shaw wrote to Lawrence during the winter of 1922-3 are well known and often admiringly quoted. However, when read in sequence with other documents in the archive, their advice appears to be very ill-considered, and Shaw's motives seem questionable. His irresponsible counsel was to have a far-reaching effect on Lawrence's life.
The archive records in minute detail Lawrence's military activities, diplomatic negotiations, service work, and writing. This incontestable primary evidence made it possible to write the biography with little recourse to later reminiscences. One important result is that the account of his role in the Arab Revolt no longer relies entirely on Seven Pillars. I have quoted contemporary documents in preference to Lawrence's book, even though that has proved to be remarkably accurate on questions of fact. In some instances, however, passages from Seven Pillars have been included because they have assumed a new significance in the light of contemporary materials. I have also quoted Lawrence's explanations of his own thinking and, less frequently, descriptions which help to convey the atmosphere of the Revolt.
Research established the factual record, but the content, approach, and style of this biography remained to be decided when I began writing in the autumn of 1986.
The term 'biography' covers two very different types of work, both equally legitimate. The first seeks primarily to give a factual narrative, together with the most objective account possible of the subject's personality and opinions. One might call this 'historical biography'. The second type also includes a biographical narrative, but makes this the basis for subjective interpretation. The very raison d'tre of such works lies in the author's analysis and value judgments, and it is this subjective content, rather than the historical record, which gives these studies their novelty and interest. One might call them 'critical biographies'.
A critical biography written with intelligence and perception can be extremely rewarding. I myself have enjoyed the studies of Lawrence by Paul Adam, Andr Malraux and Victoria Ocampo.15 It has to be said, however, that the knowledge, calibre and diligence of a critical biographer are all-important. In my judgment, the great majority of Lawrence biographies belonging to this genre are of mediocre quality.
In many cases their argument is invalid because of factual errors or premature conclusions. For example, it is often claimed that because Lawrence posed for so many portraits, he must have been exceedingly vain. Deeper investigation does not support this conclusion. There is no record that Lawrence ever actually asked anyone to paint his portrait or to photograph him, and in the overwhelming majority of cases there is positive evidence that the request came from the artist or photographer.16 On reflection, this does not seem very surprising, since portraits of Lawrence were extremely saleable. However, this entirely changes the inference that can be drawn from the number of portraits. The biographer must now ask whether or not it was reasonable for Lawrence to agree to be painted, free of charge, by some of the most talented artists of the day. The answer is so obvious that the question is not even interesting: indeed, the position would only have been intriguing if Lawrence had refused.
In other cases, critical biographers have presented highly tendentious interpretations of Lawrence's life without any supporting analysis whatsoever. This is impossible to justify, but it seems that the controversy over his career has left the truth in so much doubt that writers have felt free to indulge in pure speculation. In a similar fashion, psychological comment has been flawed by dramatic and grossly over-simplified statements about motivation, ignoring the elementary principle that human decisions are almost always influenced by a complex range of factors. Moreover, few of these 'critical' studies display any depth of research. At best, the results have been misleading because they focus too narrowly on Lawrence's life with disregard for the historical context; at worst, these authors have ignored, distorted, or suppressed large parts of the evidence in order to give their preconceived theories an illusion of credibility.
One difficulty with such books is that the abuse of evidence is rarely obvious except to someone with a detailed and comprehensive knowledge of the subject. A biography which is readable and superficially plausible may, unknown to the critic, be more a work of fiction than a historical study. Worthless and untenable theories, like some of those put forward in T.E. Lawrence by Desmond Stewart,17 have often been praised by non-specialist reviewers.
Although I know that many people would have preferred my own biography to be an 'interpretation', there was an overwhelming case for a carefully researched historical study, and that is the approach I decided to take. As a general principle, I have restricted critical judgments to straightforward issues where the comment is unquestionably valid. For example, in April 1929, Lawrence made a great fuss about newspaper revelations that he was anonymously translating the Odyssey. His astonished indignation was clearly absurd, since for several months previously he himself had been telling friends and acquaintances about his work on this project.
There were several instances, however, in which I thought it necessary to state my personal conclusions even though the issues were much more complex. Where the subject (e.g. Lawrence's sexuality) was of great biographical significance, the discussion has been placed in the main text. In less important cases (e.g. Lawrence's reaction to RAF discipline) my own conclusions have been placed in the endnotes. I have used these notes extensively to deal with matters that are not central to the narrative.
A biography such as this must not merely be accurate; it must be seen to be accurate. At the end of my research I could have written a narrative of Lawrence's life in which my conclusions were expressed entirely in my own words. This, however, would have required the reader to place total trust in my reliability, and it would have been only too easy for future writers to challenge my account in order to suggest alternatives. I have therefore adopted the principles set out in Winston Churchill's biography of his father. In the introduction he wrote: 'The style and ideas of the writer must throughout be subordinated to the necessity of embracing in the text those documentary proofs upon which the story depends. Letters, memoranda, and extracts from speeches, which inevitably and rightly interrupt the sequence of his narrative, must be pieced together upon some consistent and harmonious plan. It is not by the soft touches of a picture, but in hard mosaic or tessellated pavement, that a man's life and fortunes must be presented in all their reality and romance. I have thought it my duty, so far as possible, to assemble once and for all the whole body of historical evidence required for the understanding of Lord Randolph Churchill's career . . . Scarcely any statement of importance lacks documentary proof'.18
I too have used
extensive quotation, and the essential points can be seen to rest
everywhere on contemporary evidence rather than on some theory of my
own. Individual extracts were chosen for a number of different reasons.
The first was to give authority to the factual record: in many important
instances the truth about events was not clear from evidence commonly
available, and this had led some biographers to false conclusions. I
thought it necessary to set out the new information which lay behind my
own deductions. Secondly, I used quotation to illustrate Lawrence's
values, aims, motivation and critical judgment, and to show how he was
assessed by his contemporaries. Lastly, there can be more subtle
benefits in the use of quotation. Those who have never carried out
research in historical archives can have little idea of the human
interest to be found in letters, telegrams, and notes written down while
the events were still unfolding. There is often a fascinating interplay
of personalities, and the documents can be alive with ambition and
jealousy, generosity and humour. It is virtually impossible to retain
these qualities in paraphrase: however brilliant the historian, accounts
which summarise the documents almost invariably make duller reading than
the documents themselves. In many cases, therefore, I have used
quotation simply to preserve the drama that was so vividly present in
the source materials; and also on occasion to illustrate attitudes which
are very distant from those held today. Examples are the messages which
passed back and forth during the siege at Kut, and the kind of
statements made by the French and Anglo-Indian imperialists.
Most of the passages quoted contain a narrative element, but they have not been selected for that reason. I have in no sense attempted to 'tell Lawrence's story in his own words.'
In a work which had to deal with complex historical events, studious attention to chronology was essential. But there are at least three circumstances in which non-chronological presentation can seem useful in a biography. First, it is often necessary to explain the background to some new field of the subject's activity. In such cases historical recapitulation is usually unavoidable. Secondly, events which form part of the story may have occurred simultaneously in different places. A rigorously chronological treatment, even if possible, would be very confusing, but it is important not to let the time-sequence get too far out of phase. Related to this is a third problem: it can be difficult to keep track of the subject's involvement in different spheres of activity over a long period. The temptation is to describe these independently - in Lawrence's case, for example, dealing separately with his service life and his work on the subscribers' edition of Seven Pillars. It is without question easier to give the reader a clear understanding of individual topics in this way; but the logical outcome of such a treatment would be a series of essays, not a biography. Even where spheres of activity seem completely unconnected, they are related, from a biographer's point of view, because the subject divided his time between them and they had a simultaneous influence on his life. The danger of non-chronological treatment in such cases is that influences which cross over from one sphere into another are overlooked. How many biographers, for example, have realised that Lawrence's state of depression while serving in the Tank Corps during the summer of 1925 corresponds exactly with a period of anxiety arising from financial and technical difficulties in the production of Seven Pillars?
Incomplete treatment can be equally damaging. Lawrence's development has rarely been very clear in biographies. Many have concentrated almost entirely on the Arab Revolt, saying little to explain how this man came to find himself in Arabia in October 1916, endowed with a most unusual combination of personality and accomplishments. Others have focused on certain topics and periods without providing an adequate linking account. This means that there is little sense of continuity: Lawrence's moods and ambitions seem to change abruptly and without explanation. The source materials, unlike these biographies, show his career to have been a sequence of natural and considered steps. I have tried to bring out this continuity while treating each period in a manner which reflects its historical and biographical interest.
Another aim has been to place Lawrence's public career in its political and military setting. His activities during and after the First World War formed part of important, complex, and much-debated historical events. In many instances it is impossible to understand his motivation and achievements without a knowledge of their wider context, and I have therefore included much background information. Priority has been given to material which sheds light on Lawrence's career. Thus I have given far more space to the McMahon-Hussein and Sykes-Picot negotiations of 1915-16 than to the post-war conferences in Paris and in Cairo, even though Lawrence was more deeply involved in the latter than in the former. The reason is that the earlier negotiations set up a framework of diplomatic commitments which deeply influenced his decisions for several years. By contrast, it is not necessary to know about the post-war conferences in great detail in order to understand their effect on his life. To cite another example, his observations in Mesopotamia in 1916 influenced his later thinking on several issues, notably on the merits of the Anglo-Indian administration there. For this reason I have given space to the 1916 mission, even though it had no great importance in the short term.
The style of the book had to be appropriate to its aims. The emphasis in a historical (as opposed to a critical) biography should be on the story, rather than on the manner in which it is told. In 1928, commenting on D.G. Hogarth's Life of Charles M. Doughty, Lawrence wrote: 'Hogarth's style is that perfection of English - an invisible garment for his ideas. It would be the despair and ambition of everyone who had anything to say, if they were wise. Do you see, how there isn't a "fine line" in the book? If I had done it there would have been many: and people would have liked them: and it would have done Doughty wrong.'19 A conspicuous prose style would also be a handicap in a work which seeks to blend extracts from documents by many different hands into a readable narrative.
A further cause of
distraction can be the excessive use of endnote references. It was
necessary to give sources for quoted material, and in order to reduce
the number of notes I have tried, where possible, to attach any comment
to the same references. It would be impractical to give a source for
every statement of incidental fact, and for the benefit of future
researchers I intend to put a marked-up copy of the text with the T.E.
Lawrence papers in the Bodleian Library.
Finally, I would like to say something about the status of an 'official biographer'. The expression is commonly used in publishing circles, but to me it has the aura of an 'official version', inspired and possibly censored by the subject's loving relatives. I greatly prefer the term 'authorised biography', which, for me at least, lacks this unfortunate connotation.
I would not have accepted the role of Lawrence's official biographer if there had been any hint of future censorship, and A.W. Lawrence, as literary executor, insisted from the outset that I should publish whatever conclusions I reached. We agreed that it would be best if my work was totally independent, and I avoided troubling him with questions about his brother's life except as a last resort when the information seemed unavailable elsewhere. When the book was in draft I sent parts of it for comment to several well-qualified critics. I was glad when he agreed to read the chapters describing Lawrence's childhood and work as an archaeologist, and I was grateful for the notes that he and other readers sent me. But the responsibility for the content of this biography is mine and mine alone.
1. K. Morsey, T. E. Lawrence und der arabische Aufstand 1916/18 (Osnabrck, Biblio Verlag, 1976). Originally written as a doctoral thesis. A revised English-language edition is in preparation. The book compares Lawrence's own account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars with the evidence of contemporary documents, and also discusses criticisms made by biographers such as R. Aldington and S. Mousa. (back)
2. T. E. Lawrence to V. W. Richards n.d. (1922). Bodleian R (transcript). (back)
3. W. S. Churchill, address given at the City of Oxford High School for Boys on the occasion of the unveiling of a memorial to T. E. Lawrence, 3.10.1936 HL p. xiii. (back)
4. At one time it was suggested, by J. Meyers and others, that I was commissioned to write this biography as a corrective to J. E. Mack's A Prince of our Disorder (Boston, Little, Brown, 1976. For Meyers's views see Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn 1976).
In reality, the project of a major historical biography was put to me some years before Mack's book was written, and I agreed to take on the commission before I had seen his text in any form. I had, however, already discussed Lawrence with him on many occasions during his research and I knew that his book would be a subjective interpretation of Lawrence, written from the unusual and interesting viewpoint of a professional psychiatrist.
The biography I have written is a historical study based on far more extensive examination of contemporary records (especially British Government papers) than Mack was able to undertake. Consequently there have been many revisions (some of them substantial) in the factual narrative of Lawrence's life. In particular, I have dealt in greater depth with the history of the political, military, and literary activities which are at the core of Lawrence's reputation. These revisions and additions have considerably altered the biographical record given by Mack, and have sometimes placed his argument in question; but in no sense did I set out to overturn his specialist analysis and judgments. (back)
5. T. E. Lawrence to R. R. Graves 28.6.1927 B:RG p. 58. (back)
6. M. J-M. Lars, T. E. Lawrence, la France, et les Franais (Universit de Lille III, Service de Rproduction des Thses, 1978; abridged edition: Paris, Imprimerie Nationale [Publications de la Sorbonne, 7] 1980). K. Morsey, op. cit. note 1 above. (back)
7. In the past, some of the most outrageous allegations about Lawrence have been made by writers in France and Italy, but all in all there has been far more sensational comment about him in Britain than overseas. (back)
8. H. Williamson, Genius of Friendship (London, Faber & Faber, 1941). (back)
9. The letter to Alister Kershaw used as an introduction to Aldington's biography of Lawrence has left many readers with the impression that Aldington was a Lawrence admirer when he began research for the book, and that his views changed as he 'discovered the truth'. This may be true, but Aldington's published and unpublished correspondence clearly shows that dislike of Lawrence permeated his research from a very early stage. For his true attitude see A Passionate Prodigality, Letters to Alan Bird from Richard Aldington (New York, New York Public Library and Readex Books, 1975); Literary Lifelines: the Richard Aldington-Lawrence Durrell Correspondence(London, Faber & Faber, 1981), and Aldington's unpublished letters to his wife Netta, BL Add. MS54211. (back)
10. Historians working on more recent events have met with difficulties where contemporary documents have contradicted accounts by the surviving participants. In some cases these conflicting versions have raised the possibility of action for libel. For a discussion of this delicate problem see C. Cruikshank, 'People or Papers' in The Author (London) Vol. XCVIII, No. 4, Winter 1987, pp.105-6. (back)
11. J. Bruce, 'I knew Lawrence' in the Scottish Field, (Glasgow) August 1938, pp.20-1. (back)
12. P. Adam, Les Echecs de T. E. Lawrence (privately printed, c.1962, p. 9) author's translation. (back)
13. J. M. Wilson, T. E. Lawrence: A Guide to Printed and Manuscript Materials. This work was never printed. Instead, most of it will be incorporated in the online T.E. Lawrence Studies website. (back)
14. T. E. Lawrence to C. F. Shaw 29.3.1927 MB p. 321. BL Add. MS 45903. This comment is slightly at odds with the impression often given by Lawrence when discussing the use of documents. For example, after reading John Buchan's life of Montrose, he wrote: 'I am glad you allow common-sense to interpret the documents. A fetish of the last-school-but-one was to believe every document. As one who has had the making of original historical records I know how weak and partial and fallible they are. Fortunately you have been a man of affairs, and so are not to be taken in, like a scholar pure.' (26.12.1928 DG pp. 627-8) Elsewhere, his remarks were even stronger: 'One of the ominous signs of the time is that the public can no longer read history. The historian is retired into a shell to study the whole truth; which means that he learns to attach insensate importance to documents. The documents are liars. No man ever yet tried to write down the entire truth of any action in which he has been engaged. All narrative is parti pris. And to prefer an ancient written statement to the guiding of your instinct through the maze of related facts, is to encounter either banality or unreadableness. We know too much, and use too little knowledge.' (T. E. Lawrence to L. G. Curtis 22.12.1927 DG p.559). However, I view with caution the extreme statements on the same theme reported by Ralph Isham (Friends, bottom of p.298). Only the first of the passages cited by Isham comes from any letter I have seen. The remainder appear to be paraphrase, or memories of conversations with Lawrence. I am particularly doubtful about the weight that should be attached to the statement: 'What does [the truth] matter? History is but a series of accepted lies.' As Lawrence admitted in Seven Pillars, he enjoyed provoking people with outrageous assertions so that he could observe their reaction. This remark, made to an American banker who was investing huge sums in research on the Boswell papers, seems a typical instance (assuming that it was reported correctly).
In considering Lawrence's views, one must first of all recognise that his enthusiasm had been for medieval history. The documents relating to that period are notoriously undependable, and have often been contradicted by archaeological evidence. As a field archaeologist he would have been well aware of such conflicts. Secondly, he was by nature an interpretative historian. This does not mean that he was indifferent to the factual record other people had worked to establish. That record is, after all, the raw material for all worthwhile historical interpretation. Lawrence was urging intelligent use, not total disregard, of the documents. He himself used contemporary documents very extensively when writing Seven Pillars. Few historians of the twentieth century would accept his suggestion that researchers do not recognise partiality in written records. The archival sources for this period are very great, and it is usually possible to read so widely that the bias and inaccuracy of individual documents become obvious. Lawrence himself had no experience of, or taste for, this kind of research. It is therefore wrong to treat his comments as though they were the carefully considered views of a qualified research historian. (back)
15. P. Adam, Les Echecs de T. E. Lawrence (Privately printed, c.1962); A. Malraux, extract from a then-unpublished biography of T. E. Lawrence titled 'N'tait-ce donc que cela?' in T. E. Lawrence Studies (n.pl.) Vol. I, No. 1, 1976, pp. 21-32; V. Ocampo, 338171 TE (Lawrence of Arabia) (Buenos Aires, Sur, 1942; English translation: London, V. Gollancz, 1963). All three of these intellectual works on Lawrence (including Ocampo's) were originally written in French. (back)
16. For the circumstances under which Lawrence's various portraits were painted see C.Grosvenor, An Iconography: the Portraits of T. E. Lawrence (Pasadena, The Otterden Press, 1988). There were only three major series of photographic portraits during Lawrence's adult life. All were taken at the photographers' request. (back)
17. D. Stewart, T. E. Lawrence (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1977). See for instance Stewart's claims about Lawrence's relationship with Ali ibn el Hussein, which include the suggestion that Ali was responsible (under different circumstances) for the flogging described by Lawrence in Seven Pillars ch. LXXX. Not a shred of evidence is offered for these extraordinary allegations. (back)
18. W. S. Churchill, Life of Lord Randolph Churchill London, Macmillan, 1906, pp. x-xi. (back)
19. T. E. Lawrence to C. F. Shaw 27.11.1928. BL Add. MS45904. (back)
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset