T. E. Lawrence to Bernard Shaw
Your letter was a great delight to me, but you have read too much of yourself into me. So parts of what you say do not seem to me to fit The Mint's circumstances, or my situation.
You say 'record of fact' or 'work of art'... Neither, I fancy. When I had writing ambitions, they were to combine these two things. The Seven Pillars was an effort to make history an imaginative thing. It was my second try at dramatizing reality. The Mint is my note-book of preparation for another try. After 1923, when I re-read The Seven Pillars in cold print, and saw that it did not begin to be what I'd intended and hoped:- then I gave up the notion of writing a book about the R.A.F.: or of writing any sort of book about anything. Don't imagine that because The S.P. may be better (in another direction) than my private judgement of it, I thereby become a writer.
'What do do with it?' Why, nothing. Garnett asked me for the notes, as a personal souvenir: but for that they would have been burned years ago. Now they are copied out clean and given to him. Surely the job is finished? I can't conceive of their being of any value to humanity. The experience they recount is open to anyone who likes to enlist. If Garnett loses them by lending them to someone prudish, not one of my hairs will turn. Writing books seems inevitable, somehow: but publishing them is an indulgence.
So neither your 'place on record' or 'save from destruction' seems to me worth the expenditure of anyone's time or money. You suggest printing 20 copies for records. Cui bono? Harm to myself, for twenty copies will be talked about. Harm to the R.A.F. for fools would not see the solid kindness behind the troubles they inflicted on us: and the R.A.F. is my home, of which I am very fond. I am like Charles II, too old to go wandering again. The Mint is not an episode in history, like The Seven Pillars, which had to be put on record. My enlistment was a personal experience, only. Libraries like the W.O. (to which you suggest a copy might go) are open only to the officer-class, whose supremacy is based on their not knowing or caring what the men think and feel.
'Revise', you suggest, for general publication? I do not think it interesting enough for anyone's revision. Nor do I intend to publish another book:- ever, I was going to say, but ever and never are vain words in a man's mouth. Yet I think I can say that I'll be a different character, before I publish anything else. Look how you are turned inside out daily in every paper, at the pleasure of any worm. God deliver me from the folly of ever returning to that game. You can only keep the press within the bounds by assuming always the offensive... by chucking to them, as it were, the less intimate details of your equipage. It's a tight-rope game, which only a very cool-headed person dare play. Not for me. You say 'the slightest reticence of self consciousness would be unpardonable'... that from the old fox (pardon the metaphor) who throws a red herring in the pack's face at every twist of the chase! You are all reticences. When I met you I discovered that the public Shaw wasn't even a caricature, much less a likeness, of the private one. Do you think an ordinary fellow could get away with it? Your advice would sink my ship: would sink any ship which had less than your speed and power of manoeuvre, and hitting power.
'If you have contracted to give Cape the refusal of your next book you must fulfil your obligation in the customary sense without . . . unusual condition'. I do not see why. Cape is told he may publish it, if he prints it textually: my terms (to him and to every other publisher) being a million down in advance of royalties. He refuses. Nobody else takes his place: the book is not published. I am free to accept (for instance) an offer I have from an American printer to translate (anonymously) some Homer into English for him, at a high fee. That surely isn't poppycock? I warned Cape, when he put in that clause, that I would, if I was strong enough, not publish another book. I do not think it even sharp practice. I am not proposing to change publishers: merely to exist, in future, without a publisher.
That is the end of your page 5 and the business half of your letter. Don't you agree that my position is at least a possible one? You might as legitimately take hold of a bunch of letters that I had written, week by week, to someone and say that they should be either,
(a) printed, uncensored, for record
(b) revised into an autobiography of general interest.
The Mint is a private diary, interesting the world only in so far as the world might desire to dissect my personality. And, like my betters, I disapprove of vivisection. Things so discovered aren't worth the cost of finding.
Your literary criticisms are much more exciting. You put your finger on two of the three or four inventions in the book: first the purple night-scape in the story of the dead infant. What Corporal Williams said was: 'Christ, it was as black as hell.' I found that in my notes, and copied it. When I read it, stark on paper, here in Karachi, the whole story felt true. So I pulled out his too-likely phrase, and piled black Pelion on Ossa, to shake the scene out of fact into Dunsanity. Overdid it, of course, as usual. Now I'll write and tell Garnett to cross out the purple lines, and restore the bald reality.
The other passage, about Queen Alexandra, shows that I've wholly missed my target with you. As I worked on it I was trying to feel intensely sorry for the poor old creature who had been artfully kept alive too long. I was trying to make myself (and anyone else who read it) shake at the horrible onset of age. And you find a touch of the grinning street-arab. Mrs. Shaw found it cruel. I was saying to myself 'You'll be like that, too, unless you die sooner than the Queen...,' but it wasn't just personal. There were all the hundreds of younger fellows round me in the church, and I was smelling instead the decay of Marlborough House. It only shows how aims miscarry. I didn't want to take it out of the parson even.
That's the sort of thing that pulls me up with a jerk when I let the comment of other people influence me to think myself a writer. Perhaps I have a punch in each hand: I know I feel things passionately; but you wouldn't call a punch-owner a boxer, if his aim in the ring was such that he knocked out the referee, and downed four posts. And if you'd tried to paint a Japanese sunset, and the best critics of art in England gasped and said 'Sheer genius, that portrait of Mr. Lloyd George': what would you judge yourself then? I'm like a hen who lays a clutch of Mills' bombs in a flurry of ambition to play tennis.
As for Graves' book.... I think it makes me do far less: and seem to be something far greater, than the truth. As pieces of virtuosity, my settlement of 1921 (the harder thing) and my campaign were subtle and successful. He misses the subtlety, and does not attempt to set out the success: nor does he give me credit enough for my realism. I've always accepted the half-loaf as better than nothing:- for the other people, my clients.
This doesn't sound a grateful letter. You have sent me seven pages. That is a great honour, and pleasure: and I'd just like to say so, and have done with it: but somehow you provoke argument. There is a waywardness in me, which would like to make me prove myself not a Shavian character, nor fully captured by your pen. If you were here in the flesh (or, better, me there) you would persuade me that you had really set out my motives and course. As it is, we are 18 months and 5,000 miles apart. Yet it is very good of you.
|Last revised:||18 January 2006|
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset