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Threads: November 1997
Comments on 'The hero who despised himself' by Harold Orlans 36-7


0036) Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 15:59:37 -0500
From: Jeremy Wilson
Subject: 'The Hero who despised himself'

Many subscribers to this List will also have access to the American newsletter T.E.Notes. In the latest issue (Vol.VIII, Nos. 1-2, pp. 26-33), there is an article by Harold Orlans called 'Lawrence of Arabia: The Man Who Despised Himself'.

I find this article is considerably more interesting and thought-provoking than most of the commentaries on Lawrence that have appeared since 1989. It represents the kind of analysis that I had expected to follow, once the Authorised Biography had provided a basis of fact on which to build such interpretations. Instead, we were treated to Lawrence James....

The notes below (and to be continued) pick up some points - large or small. For the benefit of those who have not seen the article, I will summarise in each case what I am commenting on.

P. 26 col 2 para 1. In line 3 et seq., Orlans writes: 'October 1916, bored with making maps and interviewing prisoners, he took ship to Jidda...'

A minor point, but I take issue with the word 'bored', and suspect Orlans of a slightly under-thought-through link. Lawrence was of course very interested in the opportunity to make an intelligence-gathering visit to the Hejaz, to meet the Arab leaders and to assess the situation on the ground. However, he had also been deeply absorbed by the work he had been doing for many months in Cairo. Not least, he had played a leading role in mustering political and material support for the Arab Revolt. At the time of his first visit to the Hejaz this work had, indeed, been frustrated for some weeks by internal politics within EEF Intelligence, and Lawrence had temporarily been side-tracked. However, by the time he left for Jidda, Hogarth was arranging the transfer to the Arab Bureau, where the prospects were greatly to Lawrence's taste and far from boring. Therefore, word 'bored', without qualification, seems to me unjustified by the evidence or by the facts of the situation.

p. 26 col 2 para 1 last lines. At this point - within a few lines of the opening of the article - Orlans uses Meinertzhagen's 'boy or girl' comment. I have apparently ignored this comment in my own writings on Lawrence because I think it tells us more about the speaker than it does about Lawrence. Here are my reasons:

First of all, one should accept that, at the dates in question, anyone using the word 'girlish' or 'girl' in relation to a man was being deliberately pejorative. The only exception would be dramatic comparison: 'he had the heart of a lion, but a slender, almost girlish figure.' This is surely the basis for Lowell Thomas's 'face and figure of a Circassian dancing girl' (as regards Lawrence's face, this comment like some other things uttered by Thomas was patently ridiculous!)

In Meinertzhagen's case, there can be little doubt that the intention was to demean. Meinertzhagen had long since parted company with Lawrence over British policy the Middle East, espousing the Zionist cause where Lawrence had supported the Arabs. By the time that Meinertzhagen was rewriting his Middle East Diary for publication, the two causes were diametrically opposed. Meinertzhagen altered his diaries to bolster the debunking Aldingtonian view of Lawrence. That he did so has long been known, but has now been decisively exposed by Jon Loken.

There is a second factor that should not be forgotten. The overwhelming majority of British regular officers in the Middle East will have deplored Lawrence's adoption of Arab dress (see his comments in Seven Pillars on C.E. Wilson's reactions, which were probably representative of conventional opinion). Few if any of the other British officers serving with the Arab forces went so far as Lawrence did, completely eliminating British army uniform. This, in British imperialist terms, was tantamount to 'going native' - a shameful thing in a British officer serving his King and Country (and so on...)

The 'boy or girl' comment is a rather obvious quip when confronted with a man in 'skirts'. In some cases, it probably owed at least as much to prejudice about the clothing as it did to any physical attribute displayed by Lawrence. It is significant that no-one ever suggested that he looked effeminate when he was not wearing Arab dress. Nor, for that matter, do the many photographs of Lawrence in Arab Dress look - to me at any rate - effeminate, except in the general sense that Arab dress might look feminine to any European who was not familiar with it. Lawrence's head was large and strong-featured, with a face that was clearly adult, male, and European.

In short, I suspect that 'boy or girl' - in relation to Lawrence in Arab dress - was nothing more than a bitchy comment by those who felt critical of Lawrence for one reason or another and wished to diminish him.

In footnote 1, Orlans seeks to support Meinertzhagen by quoting remarks along the same lines made by other people.

I cannot comment on the surgeon James Abraham, except to say that the remark seems to me totally unclinical: there are plenty of men with slight figures. No scientific doctor would class them all as having 'the delicate frame of a girl'. Unless Abraham was a devotee of Lowell Thomas, I would suspect prejudice, and I note that his book too was published after Aldington's biography.

Lowell Thomas's 'Circassian dancing girl' is dealt with above.

I am a little puzzled by the Rolls comment, but it may be that a driver from a working-class background would have thought that any quiet-spoken man with an Oxford accent sounded 'girlish'. Maybe his impression owed something, also, to the fact that Lawrence did not bellow military commands like a Regimental Sergeant Major...

It certainly appears that Lawrence was soft-spoken, but that is not the same as sounding 'girlish'. To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever suggested that Lawrence spoke in a manner that was effeminate. I knew his brother A.W. over quite a long period, and there was nothing girlish about his accent. He spoke quietly, though his voice may have been deeper than TEL's.

The term 'giggle' is more often used in connection with girls than men, but I think it is probably only a first-approximation to what Lawrence's listeners were trying to describe. A. W. Lawrence did it too. It was a quiet, amused, rather 'inverted' laugh - maybe a little too intellectual to be called a chuckle. It was not in the least effeminate.

To conclude, I think that Meinertzhagen's 'boy or girl' comment is sufficiently suspect to be useless as historical evidence, one way or the other. As Loken has demonstrated, the same applies to everything else he wrote on Lawrence, without exception - and indeed to Meinertzhagen's comments on many other matters. The evidence suggests that he was a compulsive liar.

 

0037) Date: Wed, 26 Nov 1997 05:40:29 -0500
From: Jeremy Wilson
Subject: Further thoughts on Harold Orlans' essay.

On p. 26 col 2 para 3 Orlans speaks of the effect of the Lowell Thomas lectures in England.

A factor not mentioned, but surely at that date very potent, was that the campaigns had taken place in the Holy Land. This was exploited (doubtless for commercial reasons) by Thomas in the original title of the lecture: 'With Allenby in Palestine, including the capture of Jerusalem, and the Liberation of Holy Arabia'.

I have often wondered what influence, if any, religious sentiment may have had in the subsequent international success of Seven Pillars. That is difficult to assess but, excluding the Middle East which was directly concerned, interest in Lawrence seems to have spread to non-Christian countries (e.g. Japan) mainly after the film.

A very minor point: on p. 27 col 1 para 2, Orlans says: 'he roared around on a Brough Superior, the Rolls of motorcycles, a heavy machine whose rear wheel was lowered so that his short legs could reach the ground.'

This sounds mechanically improbable! Either the Brough was fitted with a small-diameter rear wheel, which is highly unlikely because that would modify the effect of the machine's designed gear-ratios, or the rear SUSPENSION was lowered - to the extent that that may have been possible.

These minor comments apart, this introductory section of the Orlans essay seems to me to do its job swiftly and well.

Page 27 col 2 para 1. Although Malraux served in de Gaulle's post-WWII
administration, I would be cautious about grouping him 'on the right' with Henry Williamson. In the 1930s and 1940s Malraux fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and was a noted opponent of Fascism in France and elsewhere. Williamson, in 1937 (two years after Lawrence's death), became embroiled with the British Union of Fascists.

Page 28 col 1 para 2. Lawrence may have written 10,000 letters, but that seems to me a high estimate for the number that now survive, even if you include in the count (as Cliff Irwin does) the many brief file-minutes in the PRO.

Same para. 'Certain papers were removed from the [Bodleian] Library [reserved collection of T. E. Lawrence deposited by his heirs]'. I know of no papers removed by A. W. Lawrence or the Trustees. I know of an individual early reader, thereafter persona non-grata at the Bodleian Library, who removed some papers from the collection and was discovered to have done so.

In this same paragraph Orlans repeats his often-expressed view that the restrictions on access to material (in the Bodleian and private collections) and the need to comply with copyright law have hindered scholarly examination of Lawrence's life. That is of course true of all archives relating to contemporary figures and events, and is simply a fact of life. Orlans appears to imply that there is something unusual or sinister in Lawrence's case. That is not so. While I share his irritation with private collectors who refuse to make information available to serious scholars (and there are many who are only too pleased to help) I also recognise the role played by these collectors who give so much time and money to seeking out, preserving and archiving documents that might otherise be lost. In the end, these archives almost always end up in publicly-accessible collections.

Same col, last para. Did Lawrence really confess to Charlotte Shaw 'much he concealed from others'? I don't think so. I have little doubt that Charlotte believed that he only revealed his inmost feelings to her - but in fact there are relatively few things in his letters to her that he did not also write, at some time or another, to someone else. That, I suspect, lay behind her bitter disappointment when David Garnett's Letters of T.E. Lawrence was published. She discovered in that collection that her correspondence with Lawrence had been much less exclusively imtimate than she had imagined (she had refused to collaborate with Garnett, and his collection contains no letters to her). From there it was only a small step to realising that Lawrence had known all along what were her feelings towards him, and had maniuplated the relationship so that it remained on a 'safe' level.

The importance to Charlotte of her correspondence with Lawrence can be guessed by the fact that she recorded the out-going and in-coming letters with special symbols in her diary. Furthermore, on her side the revelations in letters to Lawrence probably were, as GBS later said, uniquely intimate. The bitterness in some of her later comments about Lawrence has to be seen in this context.



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