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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to James Hanley


Plymouth

21.VIII.31.

Dear Hanley

Lately in London in one day I re-read the new book right through. Its writing is white-hot and terrific, but as a piece of work it has not the force of Boy. For one thing, I suppose, you have never been a maid-servant in Liverpool: nor, I think, was the village-fisherman life of the first page yours. At least I did not feel (except by fits and starts) the strangeness of the Moynihan family on which you laid stress, to carry the book into rational experiences. Both father and mother were interestingly drawn, and their priest magnificent: but the inevitable element is missing in the tragedy. I think it over-labours the disaster of being seduced: I could bear it with some fortitude, personally! I think it over-states the proportion in which sex inhabits our minds. Sheila meets two priests - one rapes her. She meets two bus-conductors - both have a shot at it. Now, honestly, you overdo the lechery of bus-conductors. A decent, wearied, cynical and rather hasty-tempered class of men. Also the final coincidence, though perhaps the only way of ending a book keyed so high, is rather a coincidence, isn't it?

The quibble that the priest's performance on the cross might be technically difficult you could rebut, because I judge only by report.

Are you laughing now? I doubt it: yet you will find that others besides me will take refuge in laughter against your over-dose of terror. I think the book is keyed too high. It is amazing: ingenious: unusual: and carries itself off. I do not think anybody but yourself could have conceived it, or would have attempted it, or could have gripped me, as I was gripped while I read it: but it is a criticism, surely, that I kept on crying out 'No, no' to myself even while I read. You held me, but did not carry me away: and the only justification for extravagance is that it should be wholly successful. 

I'll tell you the part of the book I shall never forget; what struck me as perhaps the finest scene (bar the man and wife in The Last Voyage) of all your writing - and that was the priest and his church-warden fellow over the bottle of whisky, while the priest sophisticated upon his intended rape. It was unearthly and yet entirely real: really three-dimensional. I could feel all round and about the two creatures while they talked. You can make queerness come to life. Will you rave to hear that I said 'Dickens' as I read it, though Dickens is a man I cannot bear to read?

You see, not being a conscious critic, I cannot tell you what I really thought and felt about the book, nor can I explain what it really was that made me think and feel: but I did imagine that your cause, and your effect, were both of them disproportionate (too trivial) for the vast tone of your treatment. A big thing should, I fancy, be quietly treated, for it states itself: and a small thing has to be underlined and picked out. Your tragedy does not feel inevitable, or typical: it is individual, perhaps accidental. I think what you wanted to describe was the unhealthiness of a celibate priesthood, and that the victim was introduced as illustration. I don't know: but I feel that as an imagination the book lacks the complete appearance of life. 

How I fumble! It is astonishing, as writing: whole pages of sustained eloquence such as I've never read in you before. What do I now do with the typescript?

Yours

T.E. Shaw

Source: DG 734-736  
Checked: dn/  
Last revised: 8 January 2006  


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