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Review commentary by Jeremy Wilson on Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher 

(London, Viking, 1998)

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Chapter 1: Apparent Queen Unveiled Her Peerless Light
Early Childhood 1888-96 (13 pages, pp 7-20)

17/2/5 contd. In short, Lawrence's unconventional self-testing probably reflected the kind of competitive instinct that most young males possess. Lawrence wished to demonstrate that, despite his size, in terms of physical accomplishment he was as good as, if not better than, his peers. Nevertheless, in more general terms it is legitimate to wonder whether the pressure on young Englishmen to achieve physical excellence did not establish, in some of them, what the French call a terrain for masochism.
   It is a pity that Asher should have failed to discuss or even acknowledge this counter-argument when putting forward the sensational claim that Lawrence displayed masochism in his youth. Only a few pages later he cites the quest for physical excellence among young Englishmen of that period. The fact that he does so makes its omission here look even more like an attempt to bolster what he knew to be a weak argument.
   It is proper to point out that this whole issue should have been discussed in a later chapter. According to its title, this present chapter covers the years from 1888 to 1896, i.e. from Lawrence's birth up to the age of eight. A major - and I suspect deliberate - fault in this book is that Asher repeatedly introduces key elements in his interpretation far ahead of their proper chronological place. As a result, Lawrence's behaviour is discussed in isolation from its probable cause. Thus, for example, we have in this chapter discussion of his attention-seeking - which no-one recorded until much later - at a period when he had not reached his mature height.
   In historical analysis, this kind of non-chronological treatment invites problems if not disaster. Had Asher kept the chapter within the stated period, i.e. up to 1896, there would have been no call to introduce the subject of masochism. However, having done so he cannot invoke chronology as a defence for failing to mention Lawrence's adult height. The logic of Asher's presentation, if there is one, suggests that he thinks that Lawrence was suffering from masochism (a sexual disorder) at the age of eight, when he was still sexually immature.
   Many readers will overlook the note of caution in Asher's conclusion on this topic: 'It seems likely that any trauma Lawrence suffered in the war only intensified a capacity for masochism which had been a part of him since his earliest days.' If this is intended to convey that Lawrence was a masochist before the First World War, I find it unjustified and unacceptable. If it merely suggests that the circumstances of Lawrence's youth might have created a terrain for masochism, it is more reasonable. However, the rest of Asher's discussion of this subject would lead readers to the former conclusion.
   The argument that follows, in the third quarter of page 17, could do with an injection of logic.
18/1/6 The speculative suggestion here that Lawrence may have subconsciously provoked conflicts with his mother in order to experience painful beatings is intended to build up Asher's case that Lawrence was already a masochist before WWI. As I have shown above, there is no evidence to support this case. All the reminiscences of Lawrence's youth were written after he became famous - most of them soon after his death. That was a period of extreme hagiography, and admiring witnesses naturally tended to compete with one another in exaggerated tales of the young hero's freakishness and amazing exploits. The truth is that many students do wild and eccentric things, and that the things Lawrence actually did were probably not half as wild or eccentric as the yarns would have us believe. Next page


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