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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 3: Nothing Which Qualified Him to be an Ordinary Member of Society
Last year at school and first years at university, 1906-8


Looking at these in turn: 

33/2/6-7 1. that in the post-war years Lawrence gave a fictional story to John Bruce.

The fiction Lawrence told Bruce was neither an example of what most people consider to be compulsive lying, nor was it self-glorification. It was certainly a fiction, but was told with a specific purpose, and motivated by powerful psychological forces. Moreover, it dates from long after the period under consideration in this chapter. At the time, Lawrence was in the grip of a severe psychological disorder which he could not control. Even Asher seems to recognise that this is not evidence for the case he is making, because he restricts himself here to a passing mention. Verdict: this is irrelevant to Asher's case.

33/2/11-13 2. that Lawrence turned the incident of his boy-soldier enlistment into a "darkly romantic tale"

The very reticent statements about his RGA enlistment that Lawrence made to any individual did not amount to any kind of "tale" at all. We only know as much as we do because we have been able to piece together a few very scattered comments to different people, all made late in life and none made for publication. On their own, these comments are not very revealing, still less a "darkly romantic tale". Clearly, Lawrence did not intend to talk about the enlistment extensively to anyone. However, like many people who do not intend to reveal information, on different occasions he said enough different things to different people about different aspects to give a certain amount away provided that someone was in a position to assemble all these comments. That kind of scattered information-leak is human nature: as any intelligence officer will tell you. Verdict: Asher is not looking at what Lawrence said, but at the conclusions drawn by recent biographers from a scattering of evidence that could only be assembled long after Lawrence's death. Asher's conclusion is not valid and there is no 'evidence' here to support his case.  


3. that the quote: "reputation as a classical scholar is easily gained'" is evidence of Lawrence "honing his skills as a bluffer"  

Here Asher continues to build his case that Lawrence was a liar, or, as he puts it: "a bluffer". He quotes a joke by Lawrence in a letter home: "A reputation as a classical scholar is easily gained" - as though the remark was made in deadly earnest. 
   The first problem is Asher's source reference (No. 2), to Malcolm Brown's Letters p.67. This is nonsense. The letters on that page date from 1914, whereas the quote comes from a letter home of 6 July 1909 which is not printed in Brown, but in HL p. 87, where it turns out that the context was not a lie made in deadly earnest but a family joke. Lawrence writes to his mother: "Thank Will for his letter, and for most excellent quote from Theocritus. I brought it out with enormous effect in the College Common Room this afternoon: a reputation as a classical scholar is easily gained" 
   There is, in fact, an implied humility in this remark. Lawrence would continue reading both Latin and Greek throughout his life, and was to write a successful translation of the Odyssey. On this evidence, many people today would think of him as a classical scholar. But he knew that was not the case. Verdict: taken in context, the remark is a self-depreciating joke which in no way supports Asher's case. Question for Mr Asher: was the false reference deliberate? Next page

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