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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)

page 26 While it is possible that Lawrence "listed Henry Scott Tuke, a Uranian Artist, as one of his three favourite painters" (no source-reference given) I would like to know when and where and under what circumstances, and whether this is a direct quote or a recollection by a third party. I have read a great many comments by Lawrence about contemporary artists, and this one does not strike me as very probable, unless he had some special reason to be flattering about Tuke at the time.
page 27 I do not agree that the comment by A. W. Lawrence that Asher quotes necessarily means that Lawrence "shared at least some of the sentiments of the Uranians as a youth".
    The issues here are complicated by the mores of the period. Lawrence had taken drawing lessons from a professional, and not only admired sculpture, but had tried his hand at it. There are numerous references to sculpture in his letters. He was, therefore, more aware than most people of the human form, and liable to make the kind of aesthetic comment that some would regard as sexual.
   Add to that the extremely constrained values of his background: he was one of a family of five brothers and no sisters, and lived at a period when the role of women was very different to their role today. Lawrence attended a boys-only school and a men-only college, and then worked for several years on an archaeological excavation where there were no European women. In a very important sense, like many other young Englishmen of his generation, he lived in a man's world.
   Moreover, his ideas about women in general were doubtless influenced to a degree by those of his parents. In that connection I found it interesting that A. W. Lawrence, who treated women with considerable charm, had on another level a most devastating contempt for them. He frequently expressed this when out of their hearing. The women who became his close friends were those he regarded as his intellectual equals.
   As a historian, I do not find it in the least surprising that in Lawrence's surviving pre-war letters (largely written to his parents) he should have felt it safer and more acceptable to make comments about male beauty than about female beauty, to the small extent that he made any such comments at all. In most circles at that period, anything more direct than poetic allusions to female beauty was likely to be regarded as improper.
   This said, the comments that A. W. Lawrence is referring to, in the passage quoted by Michael Asher, were almost all written in the post-war period. By then, Lawrence's attitude towards sex and, by implication, women, had been transformed by his own experience of male rape. To the post-war Lawrence, a young male might have represented many things, not least a fortunate inviolate state with the prospect of a normal family life - a prospect that, following his experience at Deraa, seemed barred to him. Note that the young servicemen whom Lawrence befriended in his post-war years - people like Chambers, Guy, Palmer, Russell - all married. His attitude towards them was plainly paternalistic. One of the reasons he felt at ease with them was that, in sexual terms they were, in his eyes, safe company. He often found ways to help both them and their families. By contrast, he kept people he knew were, or suspected to be, homosexual at a certain distance, even when, as in the case of E. M. Forster,  they became friends.
   In this connection, it is also worth mentioning A. W. Lawrence's comment to me that Mrs Fontana used to refer in conversation to Dahoum's wife. Next page

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