Research & Discussion
Review comments by Jeremy Wilson on
LAWRENCE, THE UNCROWNED KING OF ARABIA
by Michael Asher (London, Viking, 1998)
The biography reviewed here contains contentious claims about T.E. Lawrence's sexuality. In the commentary that follows, all aspects of Asher's text are subjected to scholarly criticism. I have prefaced the notes with this warning because I know that discussion of sexuality is considered offensive in some countries with access to the Internet, and indeed by many people elsewhere.
The dust-jacket blurb of Michael Asher's Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia, promotes it as a "major new biography" of T. E. Lawrence. However, this claim is not born out by the content. Asher gives just 35 pages (less than 10% of his text) to Lawrence's life after the end of the First World War. In other words, he virtually ignores half of his subject's adult life. That might be pardonable, even in a "major new biography", if Lawrence had done nothing significant during those 17½ years. In reality, however, they were extremely productive. Many people find them the most interesting period in his life.
Surely the most revealing statement in Asher's book appears on page 3 of the Introduction, where he writes of his two-year biographical quest, "I searched and read and travelled, but the moment I thought I had Lawrence in my grasp, he eluded me, laughing, and appeared somewhere else. In the end, I realized that there was no 'real' Lawrence at all. There was only my own reflection in a glass . . . What I discovered was my Lawrence and my truth . . ."
Quite what that implies becomes evident when you look more closely at the text. Asher, who also writes novels, has produced an interpretation of Lawrence's personality that is so one-sidedly subjective, and so hard to reconcile with wider knowledge of the facts, that it seems closer to fiction than to biography. Again and again, on important issues such as Lawrence's sexuality and truthfulness, Asher's interpretation rests on flawed arguments propped up by filtered or questionable evidence.
Worse still are his factual errors, misquotations and distorted paraphrases - often hard to check because of incomplete or inaccurate source references. Viking Penguin, which promoted the book as a contentious new account, should at least have ensured that the references were adequate.
Of course, no one would expect a 400-page book to be entirely free from slips. However, the errors in Asher's "major new biography" are on a far greater scale than that. In my view, a biographer who displays such disregard for accuracy is unlikely to find any truth at all. What I learned from these pages would discourage me from reading anything else that Asher has written.
This said, the issue that concerns me is not Asher or his 'truth', but whether his countless mistakes are repeated in the next book about Lawrence and the books after that. Contentious biographers have a bad habit of accepting everything that has been written before and using that as a springboard for still wilder fantasies. That process is unjust to any historical subject. So the discussion in these pages is addressed primarily to future biographers - and of course to anyone else who is seriously interested in Lawrence's life.
I hope to annotate more of the book in the long run, but that will need more time than I can spare at present. I have therefore focused on the chapters in which Asher sets out the main lines of his interpretation. The notes cover Chapters 1-2 and the first pages of Chapter 3, where Asher seeks to show that Lawrence was a habitual liar who invented his own legend. I will later add notes on Chapter 16, Asher's account of the crossing of Sinai after the capture of Akaba. That chapter is central to his claim that Lawrence was dishonest.
If you read these notes, I recommend that you start as I did with Chapters 1 and 2. From these you will gain important insights into Asher's technique. Moreover, since repetition is boring, I have not always repeated in later sections the general faults identified in the first chapters.
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