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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 2: Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Schooldays, 1896-1905 (10 pages)


last quarter of page 25

pages 28-9


turnover of pages 25-6

Asher's next step is hardly better. He writes: "The words 'boyish' and even 'girlish', which crop up with surprising frequency in descriptions of him until his last years, suggest an almost androgynous figure." However, not a single example of such a description is cited, still less any quantification of what Asher regards as "surprising frequency". He makes no attempt to analyse the allegedly numerous descriptions and see what, in fact, their authors were trying to say. To my mind, the use of "boyish", at that period, was usually intended to denote an aura of youthfulness, or occasionally small size. It carried no overtone of effeminacy. Was it Lowell Thomas who said that Lawrence had the figure of a dancing girl? If so, in the usage of the period he certainly didn't mean what Asher would like him to mean. 
   The same cannot be said for Richard Meinertzhagen's often-cited "boy or girl" remark; but, as we now know, Meinertzhagen was a compulsive fabricator. The "boy or girl" comment was almost certainly added to his "contemporary" diary  in the 1950s, after he had read Richard Aldington's allegations about Lawrence's sexuality.
   I do not take seriously Asher's hints that Lawrence exhibited womanly traits during his pre-adult years. Lots of boys help and, at that age, emulate their mothers. Asher is truly scraping the barrel here, and his technique descends to persuasion by innuendo: "[Lawrence] would delight in taking charge of baby Arnie, sometimes bathing him in an iron bath, wheeling him in his pram to the football field where his 'manly' classmates were engaged in 'masculine' sport."
   Asher does not cite any source for this nastiness, but it appears to be Lawrence's mother in T. E. Lawrence by his Friends: "When the youngest was a tiny child, our faithful old nurse turned ill and had to go home. Ned delighted to help me look after him; he used to come back on half holidays and say 'Mother, may I take him out?' and it was the greatest pleasure for him to wheel him down to the football field".
   There is nothing in this passage about bathing Arnie in an iron bath, and nothing to say which, of Oxford's many football fields, Lawrence walked to. In part, Asher may be following an error in Celandine Kennington's unpublished memoir which, as I have already said, shows every sign of being derivative. In this instance, she appears to have drawn on Sarah Lawrence's statement in Friends quoted above, but to have added the assumption that the football field was one where Lawrence's school-friends were playing. This kind of whispering-game elaboration is to be expected; but in reality there is no basis in the original source for the claim that Lawrence's classmates were playing football at an unidentified pitch on a school half-day. Unless he has a more reliable source than Mrs Kennington, a significant part of Asher's paraphrase can be dismissed as fiction - and it so happens that the fiction is the element that contains his innuendo.
   In passing, note the slick yet contradictory suggestion that by smashing a face carved in stone Lawrence somehow instilled in his infant brother a penchant for archaeology (which of course is about preserving stone images, not smashing them). For the record, A.W. Lawrence told me that he dated his own interest in archaeology very precisely to a visit to the museum at Devizes (coincidentally the town in which he died) when he was about thirteen.
   Asher somewhat misrepresents a characteristically measured suggestion by A.W. Lawrence in Friends (page 591). AWL wrote (the underlining is mine): "[Lawrence] may have owed some of his facility for seeing through the eyes of others to inner lack of confidence. When he had just been with someone or was just going to see someone he tended to take on the characteristics of that person". In Asher's paraphrase, this statement loses its qualification, becoming far more certain (and therefore unworthy of its author): "Arnie believed that this special facility Lawrence had for seeing through the eyes of others stemmed from an inner lack of confidence, and described how he would take on the characteristics of anyone he had just seen or was about to see."
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