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

(London, Viking, 1998)

Chapter I | Page 10 | next page 

Chapter 2: Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Schooldays, 1896-1905 (pp 21-31,10 pages)


This chapter, which takes Lawrence through his school years from the ages of 8 to 17 (1896-1905), is titled "Dominus Illuminatio Mea", which is the motto of Oxford University, not the Oxford High School. Asher appears to have been confused by the fact that the motto is carved on the old Oxford High School building. However, its presence there is a mark of the school's traditional links with the university. As a chapter title, it would have been more appropriate to the following chapter than this one.
   The first page-an-a-half is an evocation of Oxford in Lawrence's day. I applaud any attempt by a biographer to get back to the atmosphere of the period. On this particular topic a paper by Dr Malcolm Graham goes considerably further ('The Oxford of T. E. Lawrence', JTELS VII:1, pp. 7-15).
   For the record, however, I suspect that there are some minor errors of detail here. Asher's walk from the Lawrence boys' home to their school seems to have been supplemented by information from guidebooks, and such sources can mislead. The reference to "the austere Elizabethan façades of Balliol and St. John's" is curious. The St. Giles façade of St. John's is, I believe, Tudor, but it is not Elizabethan. The façades of Balliol are much later. In fact, the only Elizabethan buildings I recall at Balliol were some cottages in the rear quad which were demolished to make way for a new building in the 1960s. It might formerly have been possible to see part of them from St. Giles through the back gate, if that happened to be open; but they were gone long before the walk Asher describes.
22/2/3 Here is an obviously nonsensical misquote which suggests that Asher, despite his degree in English, is no textual critic: "I fancied to sum up in my life that new Asia which inexorable time was slowly bringing upon us." For "sum", read "run". How did that get past Viking's copy editor unchallenged? Maybe he or she was baffled by Asher's source-reference: "SPW, Oxford Text, 1926". The Oxford text was printed in 1922, not 1926. Since it runs to more than 330,000 words, a chapter or folio number would have been helpful! As a detail, the quote as printed finishes incorrectly with a full point inside the quote-mark (because the end of the passage quoted is not the end of a sentence).
   The date error for the Oxford text occurs throughout Asher's references; yet completion of the Oxford text marked a turning-point in Lawrence's post-war life. This astonishing mistake suggests that Asher paid very little attention to the post-war period - a suggestion supported by the minimal space he gives to it in what purports to be a "major new biography". 
   This in turn raises another serious issue: in the pre-war chapters, Asher draws a number of contentious conclusions about Lawrence's personality. Because these conclusions are necessarily based on very little first-hand contemporary evidence, they involve a huge dose of speculation. By contrast, Lawrence wrote thousands of letters after 1922, many of which bear directly on his personality. Given Asher's determination to reach psychological conclusions very early in the book, it would have been reasonable for him him to test these conclusions by checking whether or not they still looked reasonable in relation to the weight of evidence from the post-war period. His failure to do so makes the "interpretation" in the early chapters even more suspect. 
    In my view, the person that Asher paints in these early chapters is, in important respects, definitely not T.E. Lawrence. Who is it? I suspect that it is Michael Asher. Read the last page of his Introduction (page 3)
24/1/5-8 Here Asher mentions Lawrence's height for the first time: "his smallness and unimpressive appearance would colour his self-concept throughout his life." A fair comment, if oddly expressed. Next page


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