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

(London, Viking, 1998)

previous page | Page 16 | next page 

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

Page 26 Asher implies in this passage that there is homosexual significance in Lawrence's ownership of books by Laurence Housman (there are in fact seven in the published list of the Clouds Hill library, not six as Asher states) and "three homoerotic works" by F. W. Rolfe "whom Lawrence may have known personally while at school."
   Rolfe is better known by his pseudonym Baron Corvo. Lawrence went up to Jesus College in October 1907 and Rolfe moved permanently to Venice in 1908, before the second stage in Lawrence's acquaintance with Green. So if the Lawrence and Rolfe met (and there is no evidence that they did) it cannot have been (as Asher seems to suggest) through Lawrence's acquaintance with Green, which was apparently renewed in 1909. 
   Of the three allegedly "homoerotic" works only two, Don Tarquinio and Hadrian the Seventh, had been published by this date. These were not, as Asher's comment might be taken to imply, some kind of gay porn, but high-calibre literary works published by a leading London publisher, Chatto & Windus. In 1929 Don Tarquinio was even marketed by Boots, the highly respectable British Chemists, in its 'Pelham Library of Modern Literature' series. More recently a superb dramatisation of Hadrian the Seventh had a long run on the London stage. The third book, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, is regarded by many as Rolfe's masterpiece. It does allude to his homosexual fantasies, but it was published (this time by Cassell, another mainstream publisher) on 29 November 1934, just months before Lawrence's death. How he came to own a copy, and what he thought of it if he read it, are not recorded. It cannot be certain that he bought it, because many people sent him recent publications.
   Rolfe was a noted Oxford eccentric in Lawrence's day, who from time to time had stayed at Lawrence's college, Jesus. It would have been strange if Lawrence did not hear of him. He was also a highly regarded writer (although less well known during Lawrence's lifetime than he is today). Anyone who was as interested as Lawrence became, from 1920 onwards, in contemporary English writing would surely have read him. The stature of Rolfe's publishers is testimony to the fact that there was nothing intrinsically disreputable about these works, even by the standards of the time.
   So much for that; but what of the broader implication of Asher's comment? Surely it is illogical to imply that, because he owned three of Rolfe's books, Lawrence was homosexual? The suggestion is even more ridiculous in relation to a writer as successful and widely read as Laurence Housman. The absurdity becomes even more obvious when you consider how many works there were by heterosexuals in Lawrence's library. Two of his favourite books were The Hollow Land and other Tales by William Morris - he had a copy specially bound to mark his first class honours in Oxford finals - and Maurice Hewlett's Richard Yea and Nay, which he read over and over again. If Lawrence's pre-war sexual orientation is to be judged by his reading, it is very difficult indeed to sustain the case that he was homosexual.
   In passing, note that Lawrence's comment about Green's poetry, which Asher quotes twelve lines from the bottom of page 26, dates from February 1910. It does not, therefore, belong in this chapter. Deliberately or accidentally, Asher conceals the date by giving as reference Lawrence James's Golden Warrior (with no page reference, but actually from page 31, where James gives no source-reference at all, but dates the comment correctly to early 1910). Asher's circuitous reference is hardly necessary because the letter, already referred to above, is published in David Garnett's Letters of T. E. Lawrence (1938) - one of the major works cited in Asher's sources, on p. 381.
   Towards the end of page 26 Asher again takes his cue from James: "Lawrence was to include the work of two more Uranian poets in his own anthology which appeared in the 1920s." Here, once again, the author of this "major new biography" displays culpable ignorance of Lawrence's post-war life. Although James does not give the title, anyone seriously interested in Lawrence would recognise the anthology as Minorities, a commonplace-book of poetry that Lawrence compiled between 1919 and 1927. It did not "appear" in print until 1971. James names the two allegedly Uranian poets as William Johnson and J. B. White. There is no poem by a William Johnson in Minorities, but there is a poem by William Johnson Cory. The three stanzas by Joseph Blanco White are taken from his sonnet "Night and Death". Again, we are not talking about obscure gay erotica. These poems are so well known and respectable that they were both printed in the Oxford Book of English Verse, from where Lawrence transferred them to Minorities. Cory lived from 1823 to 1892 and White died in 1841. Therefore, whether or not they were homosexual (I don't know), neither could have belonged to the contemporary Uranian movement with which, according to Asher, Green and Lawrence may have been in contact in the early years of the twentieth century. Next page

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