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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


A second possible explanation is equally innocent. Flecker, who lived in the Middle East, had doubtless seen plenty of caravans and knew that they might consist of mules or camels or a mixture of both. Leeds, however, had only spent one period of his life abroad, and that had been in the Far East. The records suggest that he had never been to the Middle East, and neither had Lawrence's parents. If you had asked a typical English person at that date (and probably even today) what animals were used in caravans in the Middle East, the unhesitating answer would be "camels", because camel-caravans were and are one of the elements in every English schoolboy's romantic image of the Holy Land. In other words, to have the caravan made up of mules would have detracted from the merits of the story in the eyes of his English readers. It is hard to believe that Asher does not know this. 
   If Asher had read my introduction to Minorities (published in 1971, nearly thirty years before his biography), he would have had even less of an excuse. I wrote: 'By the end of the Desert War deeper knowledge of Arab character had destroyed [Lawrence's] earlier reverence . . . In one post-war letter he condemned the idealised accounts so often given by casual European travellers in the Middle East: "It just shows you how time and experience take the zest out of adventure. If I'd written the tale of my first travels in Syria, hunting Crusader Castles, I might have done this sort of thing. Indeed, I probably did it, cautiously, in letters home. Later I went to the very bottom of Arab life - and came back with the news that the seven pillars were fallen down."' The quote is from a letter of 17.6.1928 to Charlotte Shaw, and the work Lawrence is referring to is W. B. Seabrook, Adventures in Arabia (London, Harrap, 1928). 
   In summary, my point is this. The discrepancy between these letters only reflects seriously upon Lawrence's honesty if, as Asher claims, there is "no conceivable motive for lying". In reality, there are two possible explanations for the alteration, both of which should have been as obvious to Asher as they are to me. Either of these explanations would be sufficient on its own, and it is quite likely that they both apply. What remains is an extremely trivial 'white lie' and not, as Asher is determined to show, a profound flaw in Lawrence's character. 
   Before drawing a grandiose conclusion from two brief passages selected from Lawrence's letters, Asher had a duty to take into consideration both the context of the letters and Lawrence's relationship with the people concerned. Carelessly or deliberately, he did neither. Verdict: This incident, which Asher uses as the key to his argument, is extremely trivial. Asher's dramatic interpretation overlooks more probable explanations.

34/4/9 et seq 6. Lawrence told Robert Graves "that the best way of hiding the truth was by making mystifying, contradictory or misleading statements". 

This is an interesting case. For some reason Asher gives a reference to Mousa - a relatively difficult book to find - rather than Mousa's stated source, B:RG pp. 88-9. At all events, the context of the quote puts it in a very different light. Here, Lawrence is talking specifically about the account Graves is to give, in Lawrence and the Arabs, of Lawrence's 1917 northern ride. Having told Graves that he has not revealed everything that happened, he says: 'You may make public if you like the fact that my reticence upon this northward raid is deliberate, and based on private reasons: and record your opinion that I have found mystification, and perhaps statements deliberately misleading or contradictory, the best way to hide the truth of what really occurred, if anything did occur'.  Next page

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