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Research & Discussion

General biography

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Youth 1888-1914

War service 1914-1918

Diplomacy 1918-1922

Service years 1922-1935

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The subscribers' abridgement, 1924-6

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Setting to work

The agreement reached in December 1923 was the basis on which Lawrence's friends promoted the proposed edition of Seven Pillars to subscribers. It was also the commitment that underpinned the bank loan needed to finance production. Nevertheless, a year later Lawrence would depart from it.

As for the book's production, he told Kennington: 'I am to be solely responsible (that the law of libel, civil or criminal, may fall blunted on my penniless status as a private soldier), will pay all bills, and sign all papers and copies. Hogarth will help edit my proofs: you, edit my pictures (I hope).

'Production to start as soon as 200 has been subscribed: ("starting" means sending four Arab pastels to W. & G.) . . .

'I estimate the job might take a year at the shortest, two at the longest.

'As for printer: Aforesaid copyright act and law of libel will make advisable my being a nominal partner in the printing firm. To retire as soon as job is completed.

'I want it done monotype, in eleven point or fourteen point, of a type approximating to O[ld] F[ace] Caslon, unleaded: with side-headings in side margin: no top-heading, lines not long, but print-panel taller than usual in quartos. The size of the page you know . . .

'Paper to be a thin decent rag brand, hand-made or machine-made of similar quality. Not perfectly bleached:- a tone of yellow or mud in it . . .

'Matter will be sent in in sheets of the book you have [the Oxford Text] hand-corrected (scissors and paste). So it will be a very legible M.S. to set up from.'38

The first twelve subscriptions were received by mid-January 1924. Lawrence then instructed Whittingham & Griggs to proceed with the plates. By the end of March the printer, Manning Pike, had submitted detailed estimates - and more subscribers were coming in. At one stage, when more subscriptions were urgently needed, much help came from J.G. Wilson, manager of Bumpus, booksellers to the King. He found about twenty subscribers within a few weeks.

Lawrence started preparing the new text in January 1924. By then, his taste in writing had moved towards much simpler prose; yet the style of Seven Pillars was unashamedly pre-war. Re-reading it critically after an interval of more than a year, it struck him as 'unwholesome'.39 It was, he said, 'so incredibly unlike what I'd thought my talents (of which I'd had too good an opinion) would bring forth.'40

He attempted to make improvements, but found that the spirit of the book eluded him. After two months he told Forster: 'the revise I'm going to give the Seven Pillars . . . can be one of detail only: for the adventure is dead in me.'41 A few weeks later he wrote: 'I'm trying to shorten the lumbering thing by 10%. Simplest way is to cut 18 lines from the 180 which make up each double-columned page of the old edition: but the simplest way doesn't always work . . . The experience of the book is gone foreign and remote from me, so that I can't do more than darn and trim it... no new matter. I haven't yet re-written a word: but will try when I get into the stodgy stuff. If I can't improve I'll erase.'42

In May he circulated some trial pages for comment. He had used 14-point Caslon, rather than 11-point, 'since that reads easier, to my eye, and to the eyes of four out of five of the men in Hut c.2. [at Bovington Camp] Quaint, isn't it, to submit such an affair to such judgment? But it's seldom one can get such an approach to "the man in the street".'43 In July he described the process of revision to Charlotte Shaw, who had offered to look over proofs: 'The text is being a little worked over, and all possible redundancies taken out - often we have to alter things, to dress the ends of the paragraphs neatly. Also I don't wish any words divided at the ends of lines. These things all lead to rearrangement. So I have the text sent me in galley for first check, and paged later. So far only six pages are finished.'44

In truth, before the book was finished he would make thousands of alterations to the text for typographical reasons. Letters written while he worked on the proofs suggest that he began to care more about the appearance of the page than the quality of Seven Pillars as literature. That may reflect his feelings about the book. When he was just over half-way through, he wrote to Edward Garnett: 'What muck, irredeemable, irremediable, the whole thing is! How on earth can you have once thought it passable? My gloomy view of it deepens each time I have to wade through it. If you want to see how good situations, good characters, good material can be wickedly bungled, refer to any page, passim. There isn't a scribbler in Fleet Street who wouldn't have got more fire and colour into every paragraph.'45

If he felt so critical as that, the niceties of fine-press typesetting may have been a welcome distraction. As work progressed, he introduced increasingly stringent rules. Every paragraph must end in the right-hand half of the page. Where the end of a paragraph coincided with a page-end, the bottom line must extend to the margin. No words were to be broken at line endings - though occasionally he let pass a word that is usually written with a hyphen, such as 'machine-gun'.

Under normal circumstances, such rules could not be followed without introducing ugly tight or loose lines. In short paragraphs they would often be unworkable. Lawrence had a simple solution: he added or removed words as necessary. This very un-literary process solved the problem, but it must have led to countless amendments. Just to ensure that paragraphs finished comfortably to the right of the centre-line could have involved over 1,500 changes to the text, many affecting several words.

Where possible, the desired effect was achieved by cutting words out. To save time, Lawrence authorised his printer, Manning Pike, to do that without consulting him. Where words had to be added, Lawrence made the change himself. He told Charlotte Shaw that Pike was 'fortunate in having found a living author: for it makes his work much easier, often, to leave out a few words, or a few lines, to make a new paragraph begin here or there, to telescope two chapters:- and I've given him carte blanche to cut and change the text as he pleases (only refusing to let him add anything): this is fair, for words are as elastic as ideas, and type-metal isn't elastic at all. He has the harder job.'46

After the Introduction and Books I-III, Lawrence introduced another complication. In Books IV, V and VII every page began with a new paragraph, embellished at the opening with a decorated capital letter three lines deep. In Books VI, IX and X all the left-hand pages, but no right-hand pages, began with a new paragraph. In Book VIII no pages at all started with a new paragraph. These contrivances, whose effect has been entirely lost in posthumous trade settings of Seven Pillars, involved yet more alterations to the text.

There are few clues that help identify changes made to the subscribers' abridgement for these reasons. However, when Castle Hill Press typeset the 1922 text and the abridgement in parallel, two aspects of the tinkering became visible.47 In some cases, a single paragraph in the 1922 text had been cut in two, to make a paragraph-break at the page-end. In others, a paragraph had been pointlessly lengthened in the last line or so, either to drive the final word closer to the margin or to extend a paragraph to the foot of a page. Here are two examples:

  • In an early proof of page 36 [the end of Chapter VI in current editions of the subscribes' abridgement] the last line finishes '. . . cramped operations.' To fill out the line, Lawrence expanded this to '. . . was able to cramp a purely military operation.'

  • In Chapter 37 of the 1922 text there is a paragraph that ends 'To be sure, that would have completed the bewilderment of the Turk!' In the subscribers' abridgement, this has been extended to read: 'To be sure, such a feat would have properly completed the bewilderment of the Turks!'

Could anyone find these amendments 'swifter and more pungent' than the original? That was the claim Lawrence later made for the subscribers' text.

A surviving note to Pike about a batch of proof illustrates Lawrence's priorities: 'There is a drastic change in page nine of this block. It will mean resetting generally, and the scrapping of a page. My attention was drawn to this longueur by the odd fourteen lines or so which lapped out from its end to make an irregular chapter tail. I hope the new work is short enough to compress into one page instead of two. I should have seen the loose writing sooner...'48 Put differently, in order to tidy the appearance of the chapter-end, Lawrence made another cut.

The time that he and his long-suffering printer gave to these adjustments is well documented. In the original scheme, he had promised: 'Author's corrections almost nil'.49 Now, after an initial typesetting based on marked-up pages of the Oxford Times proof, Lawrence was making further cuts and amendments on the galley proof, yet more on the first page-proof, and 'final corrections' on the second page-proof. As the book was set in monotype, Pike had to carry out these time-consuming adjustments by hand. Small wonder progress was slow.

It is hard to imagine a writer with literary ambitions butchering his work in such a way. To me, the fact that Lawrence did so - after all the effort he had put into the Oxford Text - can only reflect his unbalanced mental state. This is one of the reasons I prefer to read the unaltered version.

By the end of September 1924 the first eight chapters were in proof. Lawrence had several copies bound up as pamphlets. He sent one of them to St John Hornby, writing: 'I want to ask you to look over the enclosed proofs, technically . . .

'It's a good deal to ask: but I'm keen that the printing, (typesetting and press-work) should be respectable: and this is the first section to be put in shape . . .

'Pike, a new man who is setting it for me (using a monotype base, and re-arranging by hand) is very keen, but this is his first book, and mine, and we are both doubtful whether it is well done.

'I chose the type: and the page-size was the smallest into which the coloured illustrations would go. I don't find the lines too long.

'We vary the type-panel length, by a line or two, as the paragraphs demand: and cut about the text, so that no word shall be divided at a line-ending, and so that all paragraphs shall finish in the second half of the line. We tried "dressing" every paragraph to the same stopping place (the same length as the paragraph heading-indent) but that looked too stiff: whereas to let them end anywhere looked ragged.

'Do you think that all chapters should end at the foot of a right-hand page?

'The side-headings are neater than top-of-the-page headlines, in my estimation: and I like them best in black. We tried red, and it looked too careful, for so plain a text.

'The initial letters are a modern set, designed by Wadsworth, the black and white man. They seem to me not inconsistent with the sobriety of Caslon, and in keeping with the up-to-dateness of many of my pictures. We reduced some of them to the three-line scale, and are using them for the headings of paragraphs, where these head the page.'50

He sent another copy to Sydney Cockerell, saying: 'The aim of it is to strike mid-way between printing so good (like the Ashendene) that it dazzles the eye to the imperfections of the matter: and printing so bad that it deforms the matter. In fart we aim at "vehicular" printing, if such there can be.'51

Cockerell criticised the ending of pages with paragraphs, and Lawrence agreed to make the last line solid: 'It's easy to add a few words to the concluding paragraph, and it shall be done . . . I'm lucky to have found Pike. He's man enough to alter my text, where it doesn't fit well into a line or paragraph: which is as a printer should be: and he cuts out stuff, rather than add to it. Again a good point. Of course the job goes very slowly, on his lines.'52 It was probably Hornby who told Lawrence to standardise the page lengths - at all events the page was now fixed at thirty-seven lines. He also suggested adding some red to the text. Lawrence replied: 'We experimented with red ink, for outlying pieces and for initials, and gave it up. It was too weak to line up with black, except in very great mass . . . and that a printer cannot achieve, except by multiplying his type-faces . . . and the fewer the better.'53 Lawrence did, in the end, use red initials of the three-line size for the little synopses that precede each book. Presumably he felt that the objection about balance did not apply, since the synopses are set in italics, a lighter-weight typeface than roman, within a small type panel.

Charlotte and Bernard Shaw both commented on the proof. This was the occasion of GBS's often-quoted criticisms of Lawrence's punctuation and libels. Also, he advised deleting the whole first chapter. It is sometimes claimed that he 'edited' the whole of Seven Pillars; but these criticisms were based only on the first 44 pages.54 The correspondence between Lawrence and the Shaws shows that he paid little attention to the later proofs that Lawrence sent to Charlotte, except when she consulted him about a specific point. Lawrence almost entirely ignored Shaw's advice on punctuation.

The evolution of the text

The subscribers' Seven Pillars was finally completed, after three years' work, at the end of 1926.

At the beginning of 1927 Lawrence circulated a leaflet to the subscribers titled Some Notes on the Writing of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.55 In this, he explained how their version had evolved from the Oxford text which, he now wrote, had been 'nearly 330,000 words long'.

This text . . . was a recension of the Oxford sheets of 1922. They were condensed (the single canon of change being literary) during 1923 and 1924 (Royal Tank Corps) and 1925 and 1926 (Royal Air Force) in my spare evenings. Beginners in literature are inclined to fumble with a handful of adjectives round the outline of what they want to describe: but by 1924 I had learnt my first lessons in writing, and was often able to combine two or three of my 1921 phrases into one.

There were four exceptions to the rule of condensation:

i) An incident, of less than a page, was cut out because two seniors of our party thought it unpleasantly unnecessary.56

ii) Two characters of Englishmen were modified: one into nothing, because the worm no longer seemed worth treading on: the other into plain praise, because what I had innocently written as compliment was read ambiguously by an authority well able to judge.57

iii) One chapter of the Introduction was omitted. My best critic told me it was much inferior to the rest.58

iv) Book VIII, intended as a 'flat', to interpose between the comparative excitements of Book VII and the final advance on Damascus, was shortened of an abortive reconnaissance, some 10,000 words long. Several of those who read the Oxford text complained of the inordinate boredom of the 'flat', and upon reflection I agreed with them that it was perhaps too successful.

By thus excising 3 per cent and condensing the rest of the Oxford text a total reduction of 15 per cent was achieved, and the length of the subscribers' text brought down to some 280,000 words. It is swifter and more pungent than the Oxford text; and it would have been improved yet more if I had had the leisure to carry the process of revision further.

This explanation was doubtless intended to reassure subscribers that the book they had bought was better than the original, and that no significant content had been lost.

In reality, however, the word-counts and percentages that Lawrence gave were wrong. They distorted the extent of the changes he had made, bolstering the reassurance and concealing heavy cuts throughout the second half of Seven Pillars.

The table below shows computer word-counts made when Castle Hill press typeset the two Seven Pillars texts in 1997. Overall, the abridgement was not 15%, as Lawrence claimed, but 25%. To achieve the figures in given Some Notes, he overstated the length of the subscribers' abridgement by 29,500 words and understated the length of the Oxford Text by 5,000 words. Taken together, these two misstatements distort the truth by about 75 pages.

  Oxford text Subscribers'
Introduction 16,673 13,836 -17.0%
Book I 23,911 20,055 -16.1%
Book II 25,831 20,539 -17.3%
Book III 30,092 25,411 -15.6%
Book IV 43,581 34,411 -21.0%
Book V 36,575 26,524 -27.5%
Book VI 35,248 28,595 -18.9%
Book VII 28,678 20,429 -28.8%
Book VIII 23,256 12,217 -47.5%
Book IX 25,936 17,426 -32.8%
Book X 45,785 31,154 -32.0%
Totals: 334,566 250,579 -25.1%

Some Notes led subscribers to believe that, except in Book VIII, the subscribers' text was about 12% shorter than the original. That was consistent with the scheme originally agreed. What he had really done, as the table above shows, was very different.

Could the inaccuracy be accidental, or perhaps wishful thinking? It is difficult to know. Certainly, Lawrence's arithmetic was poor. Figures quoted in his writings are often incorrect.59 When he drafted Some Notes, soon after arriving in Karachi in the spring of 1927, he may not have had a final word-count for the reduction with him. Indeed, it may never have been calculated.

Probably, the figures in Some Notes were part-remembered and part-guessed. Yet a critic would say that they are most conveniently wrong, while noting that very few people were in a position to check them.

Throughout my work on the Oxford Seven Pillars, the statements in Some Notes puzzled me. Did Lawrence conceal the depth of his cuts in the second half of the book deliberately? If so, why? There were other problems, too. His claim about an 'abortive reconnaissance, some 10,000 words long' is misleading, because it implies a single large cut. In reality, the omitted reconnaissance (mainly in Chapter 109) amounts to only 2,000 words. The rest of the cuts in Book VIII were made elsewhere - to say nothing of the cuts in Books VII, IX and X. Could he possibly have forgotten them?

Also, in the early correspondence I had seen, only one reader seems to have found the 'flat' before the final advance too long: Edward Garnett. Others may have said so in conversation, or in letters I have not seen; yet I thought it odd that I had missed 'several' instances of the comment. And why did he suggest that the work had been spread over four years, when in fact it had taken three? His letters show that he hardly looked at Seven Pillars during 1923.

Still another puzzle was his statement that he would destroy the Oxford Times copies. What purpose would that have served? He had given the 1922 manuscript - from which they had been typeset - to the Bodleian Library. Whatever happened to the printed copies, the text would survive.

It was not until March 2004, after our one-volume edition of the Oxford Text had been published, that further research provided answers to these questions.

Page 3: Which text is better written?


38. T. E. Lawrence to Eric Kennington, 13 December 1923, MB pp.251-2.

39. T. E. Lawrence to Henry Williamson, 2 April 1928, Letters IX p.45.

40. Ibid.

41. T. E. Lawrence to E. M. Forster, 20 February 1924, DG p.456.

42. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 10 June 1924, Letters I pp. 81-2.

43. T. E. Lawrence to Harley Granville Barker, 9 May 1924, MB p.265.

44. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 10 July 1924, Letters I p.85.

45. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 13 June 1925, DG pp.476-7.

46. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 31 August 1924, Letters I p.97.

47. In 1997, Castle Hill Press published a small parallel edition of the two Seven Pillars texts typeset in double-column.

48. T. E. Lawrence to Manning Pike, 12 January 1925. Transcript in private collection. Original thought to be in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

49. T. E. Lawrence to Eric Kennington, 13 December 1923, MB pp.252.

50. T. E. Lawrence to St. John Hornby, 27 September 1924 quoted in Jeremy Wilson, 'T. E. Lawrence and the Printing of Seven Pillars of Wisdom', in Matrix 5 (Andoversford, Whittington Press, 1985) p. 63. Although Pike had already printed J. C. Squire's A New Song of the Bishop of London and the City Churches (1924) that is little more than a pamphlet bound in boards with a cloth spine. It has only a single 16-page gathering.

51. T. E. Lawrence to S. C. Cockerell, 27 September 1924, quoted in Jeremy Wilson, 'T. E. Lawrence and the Printing of Seven Pillars of Wisdom', in Matrix 5 (Andoversford, Whittington Press, 1985) p.63.

52. T. E. Lawrence to S. C. Cockerell, 6 October 1924, quoted in Jeremy Wilson, op. cit. note 51 above, p.63.

53. T. E. Lawrence to S. C. Cockerell, 17 October 1924, quoted in Jeremy Wilson, op. cit. note 51 above, p.64.

54. For a fuller account of the Shaws' involvement with the subscribers' abridgement, see Letters 1. The texts of the Introductory book of Seven Pillars before and after comments by Bernard Shaw and others have been printed in parallel (Castle Hill Press, 1997, edition of 100 copies). Except for the rewriting of libellous passages and the omitted first chapter, most of the changes were of kind a publisher's copy-editor would suggest.

55. Op. cit. note 6 above.

56. See T. E. Lawrence to C. E. Wilson, 19 February 1926. 'Dawnay cut out one little incident (less than a page): it was a trifle. That is the only thing censored.' Stirling seems to have objected to the same passage. It was probably the account in Chapter 92 of an incident involving sexual intimacy between an Arab and an English soldier. It was 'less than a page' in the double-column Oxford Times printing, but would have been longer in the subscribers' edition typesetting.

57. Lawrence omitted passages critical of Major Vickery from the subscribers' abridgement. The misinterpreted compliment may have been a passage about Ronald Storrs, altered at a late stage in the proof.

When printing Some Notes from Lawrence's manuscript draft, Pike misread 'compliment' and in its place printed 'complaint'. The error survives in the version included in SP35, and in most subsequent printings.  

58. The original first chapter was omitted on the advice of Bernard Shaw. It was restored to British printings in 1940. Shaw gave similar advice to other authors.

59. Lawrence once wrote: 'the average intelligence in a month could learn all the arithmetic that he or she will ever need thereafter, till dying day. About one person in a thousand wants to know more. I should isolate these repulsive cases and protect all other children from their contact.' (Wilson pp. 33-4.)

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