A Touch of Genius: The Life of T E Lawrence by Malcolm Brown & Julia Cave; The Selected Letters of T E Lawrence by Malcolm Brown (ed) - review by Toby Buchan

Toby Buchan

Beating is Not The Same Thing as Buggery

A Touch of Genius: The Life of T E Lawrence


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The Selected Letters of T E Lawrence


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Since, so far as I can tell, all 5 million of the Literary Review’s readers – with the sole exception of myself – are writing/have written at least one book, they will know what I mean by ‘the myths of publishing’. One of the most enduring and fatuous of these myths is the notion that books on Certain Subjects will ‘always sell’, apparently regardless of their quality, or the number of similar or competing works still in print. Usually cited as such subjects are Churchill, gardening, Nazis, ‘Bloomsbury’, cats – and T E Lawrence ‘of Arabia’. (This is manifest rot, of course; the remainder bookshops are full, metaphorically speaking, of books by Churchill on Lawrence’s unique cat-garden which, as the world knows, was designed by the Hon Vita Sackville-West from an idea by Dr Goebbels.) Here are two more Lawrence books. They contain a great deal of Lawrence, a little of Churchill, a smidgen of cats and Nazis, and almost nothing, thank God, of gardening or ‘Bloomsbury’.

A Touch of Genius should, if there is any justice, avoid the remainder shops, even though it bears the admitted and unmistakable stamp of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust (prop and Guardian of the Flame, Professor A W Lawrence, T E’s youngest brother), and of Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence’s ‘authorised biographer’. Both authors of this biography are (or were, in Brown’s case) producers for BBC Television, and both have worked on documentaries about Lawrence. Their book bears a close resemblance to such documentaries, being comprehensively illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs, and making considerable and effective use of archives and other documents, books, diaries, memoirs, letters, studies, interviews, and Lawrence’s own recollections and reflections. This technique is in no way annoying – television is at its best in the presentation of balanced, well-researched historical documentaries, and A Touch of Genius is just that. I must also swiftly add that the book is not based solely upon secondary sources – there is much previously unpublished material here, including letters and photographs. It is not easy to tell to what extent the authors’ purpose has been hindered, as well as helped, by the Lawrence Estate Official Seal of Approval. This is no hagiography, certainly, but neither does it deal in much detail with the more disturbing, controversial, or less lovely aspects of its subject’s life and character. Equally, it seems likely that more and greater revelations than are set down in this book – perhaps based on recently released papers or dealing with Lawrence’s Great War service and his private life thereafter – will appear in Wilson’s monumental ‘authorised’ life. If it does appear, that is.

None of these limitations mar the book, which manages to be precisely what it claims to be: a concise, readable, superbly illustrated biography, employing enough new material to make it useful to those who read anything they can on Lawrence, as well as those coming fresh to this ‘odd gnome – half-cad, with a touch of genius’ (Aubrey Herbert’s phrase, from which the title is taken). The authors have striven to be fair; no bad thing, given the belittling nonsense that has appeared in the last 30-odd years. Poor Aldington comes in for what Joyce called ‘a bad quarter of an hour’ for his intensely disobliging 1955 biography of Lawrence, but some allowances are made for him. Conversely, however, Graves and Liddell Hart, especially, are let off pretty lightly for helping to perpetuate Lawrence myths. Graves even had the gall once to refer disparagingly to the ageing survivors of the ‘Lawrence Bureau’, of which he had himself been a leading member; he made a considerable amount of money from writing about Lawrence.

I have a number of disagreements with this book, and these I will come to later. For the moment, it is enough to say that this new life of Lawrence is fresh, balanced, and interesting, and is quite exceptionally well-designed and well-produced (except for the 2 – only – maps, which are vile pieces of work). Lawrence was, and is, as demonstrated here, extraordinarily intriguing in a considerable number of ways. This portrait, so often illuminated with Lawrence’s own words and with those of people who knew him, does not in the end present us with a white-robed figure riding mistily out of the bled at the head of a noble host, and that is a relief. Better still, neither are we shown a miserable, talentless charlatan, shivering pathetically throughout a half-life of perversion and mythomania. And all this for less than the price of an indifferent luncheon in an Arab restaurant…

Since, in buying the biography, readers will have saved themselves an indifferent Arab meal, they may as well save themselves another and buy the Letters of T E Lawrence (more truthfully Selected Letters). Lawrence was a better-than-good letter writer – many people, including Liddell Hart and John Buchan, thought that his letters contained his finest writing – and this collection provides as much of a truthful, accurate autobiography as anyone has a right to hope for. It shows us Lawrence in all his indefinable humanity, as traveller, scholar, soldier, writer, critic, politician and, supremely, friend. By its careful editing, it portrays a man of such complexity that his often-disbelieved cry for simplicity is seen, at the last, as both necessary and inevitable. This volume starts in 1905, when Lawrence was still a schoolboy, and ends 30 years later with what was almost certainly his last letter, dated the day before his fatal accident. In between lie the hopes and dreams and aspirations, the fears and worries, the enthusiasms and achievements, doubts and failures and depressions of a disordered but oddly single-minded life. The book is divided into 7 sections: the early years (there is, curiously, very little from his University days); war service; the 2 years ‘politicking’; the first years in the RAF; the years in India; the last 6 years in the RAF and the final weeks from his discharge in February 1935 to his death in May. Each section is provided with a biographical and critical introduction, and there is a general introduction which discusses both Lawrence and his letters. This book, like the biography, has received the full cooperation of Professor Lawrence and Jeremy Wilson; not surprisingly, since it would have been impossible to produce a selection, certainly one as intensely interesting, without such help. Again, one wonders about the strictures laid upon Brown as editor, and whether material or opinion was excluded in order to fatten the ‘authorised’ life, or perhaps to maintain a fiction or secret.

Lawrence’s sexuality is a well-travelled territory, but the authors of the biography are right to point out – which the letters almost certainly prove – that he was not homosexual. Possibly the idea of sex disgusted him, as the letters and The Mint intimate; probably he died a virgin; but, as Brown demonstrates, no self-admitted homosexual would have written to his close friend Graves, of Sassoon, ‘for I like him; homosex and all’. The matter of the beatings which, in the last 10 years or so of his life, he paid a young soldier to administer, is less clearly handled. Professor Lawrence, quoted in the biography, suggests that they were the means by which his brother quelled his sexual longings; Brown, in his introduction to the Letters, avers that there was a sexual, as well as a punitive, element to them, as there was to the famous (whether real or invented) incident with the Turkish officer in Deraa in 1917. Yet it seems to me that Montgomery Hyde’s assertion, echoed in Raleigh Trevelyan’s sensitive essay on Lawrence at Clouds Hill, that the beatings were in the nature of a penance, not a perversion, comes closer to the truth. Certainly the letters repeatedly show a man who, over certain subjects – his writing, his fame, his war service, the treatment of embryo Arab nationalism by the Great Powers – continually flagellated himself in intellectual terms. Nor was this liking for being beaten necessarily the surprise to his friends suggested in these two books, and out of which the Sunday Times and Knightley and Simpson created such a fuss. This is John Buchan, writing of Lawrence in 1940: ‘There was a fissure in him from the start … he was an agonist, a self-tormentor, who ran to meet suffering half-way. This was, I think, partly due to a twist of puritanism, partly to the fact that, as he often confessed, pain stimulated his mind; but it was abnormal and unwholesome.’ (My italics.) Buchan admired Lawrence, and knew and loved him well; no hero-worshipper, he wrote that he would have ‘followed him to the ends of the earth’. But, punishment and sex on the one hand, penance and intellect on the other, it seems likely that the beatings are not really relevant; Swinburne, after all, shared the same proclivity, but that does not make the best of his verse one whit less beautiful. Nor much more interesting…

I am not sure that I agree with the authors that Lowell Thomas, the American publicist whose lecture tours brought ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to a wide public, should bear most of the blame for the ‘hype’ which overtook Lawrence and which literally – and again as this life and the letters show – drove him to seek obscurity. Anyone who doubts the genuineness of his attempts to duck the limelight should consider that Lawrence spent 13 years in the ranks, with only one involuntary 2-month gap, at a time when service life for ORs was decidedly tough, uncomfortable, and philistine. This is not the act of the suicide who waits to hear the friend’s key in the lock before swallowing the pills. It seems likely that the process started with John Buchan and his Department – later Ministry – of Information, which from 1917 was responsible for propaganda in the Empire and in foreign countries. When one sees that the greatest triumphs of the Arab Revolt, of Lawrence, or of Allenby coincide with a period which included the collapse of Russia, Caporetto, Passchendaele, and the terrifying Ludendorff Offensive, it is impossible to believe that a government propaganda department could have failed to make capital out of the successes against the Turks. Lawrence himself, of course, and the early biographers, must bear a part of the blame, but I would suggest that a good deal of the fault lies with the Department of Information. Here, perhaps, is an area genuinely worthy of further research, although it may well be that the official papers are still proscribed.

My greatest complaint is against what could be described as the ‘minor editing’ of the Letters, something which is not altogether Brown’s fault. He has striven manfully to keep his notes to a minimum, but even so there are pages where footnotes amount to two-thirds of the type space. Could it not all have been gathered at the end of the book? Similarly, these footnotes – in my proof copy, at least – inevitably breed annoyances and mistakes: we do not need 4 separate notes on HMS Hardinge; or to be told repeatedly that ‘A’ signifies Lawrence’s brother Arnold; Barrie did not write The Water Babies for the Davies boys or anyone else (odd, this, for the editor picks up Lawrence earlier for confusing The Miller of Dee with Kingsley’s The Sands of Dee); the original and true title of Manning’s masterpiece is The Middle Parts of Fortune, published a year ahead of the expurgated and shortened version, Her Privates We – to refer to the full novel by the latter title is akin to referring to Seven Pillars of Wisdom as Revolt in the Desert; ‘Zoilist’ is annotated but not explained, although it has some significance given that Lawrence later translated The Odyssey; the letters refer several times to there having been 5, 6 or 8 copies of the first printed version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but the editor does not really enlighten us. One note records with pleasure a disparaging comment of Lawrence’s about the poetry of both Yeats and Aldington; later in the book, however, the editor fails to draw our attention to Lawrence’s extremely flattering comments about Yeats’s verse. If he could change his opinion of Yeats, then he could have done so about Aldington, however unfair, in the editor’s eyes, the latter’s subsequent biography. And so on. This is a game which any pedant can play, but it does illustrate the dangers of footnotes, especially in anything as long, complex and wide-ranging as Lawrence’s letters.

There are also aspects of both books with which readers may not wholeheartedly agree. Lawrence was not, for instance, a good motorcyclist (although a gifted mechanic), and he crashed frequently. I don’t think that he owned exclusively Broughs, as is implied. I think his first bike was a Triumph. This is more important than might be thought, since it was extraordinary in the ‘20s and ‘30s for an aircraftman to own a Brough costing, at £140, well over twice his yearly pay. John Buchan deserves rather more than a mere mention for doing Lawrence one of the greatest favours of his life by interceding with Baldwin and getting him taken back into the RAF, a debt which Lawrence several times, and effusively, acknowledged; nor is Buchan’s memoir of Lawrence in his own autobiography a ‘brief account’. It is a little foolish to state that the RAF was formed from the Royal Flying Corps: to ignore the Royal Naval Air Service (amalgamated with the RFC to form the RAF) is to fail to take account of many of the problems which afflicted Trenchard and the RAF in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when both the Navy and the Army sought to have the new service disbanded and their independent air arms returned to them. Lawrence and his men were surely not the first to enter Damascus, as both books imply (so did Lawrence) – the 3rd Australian Light Horse entered the city some hours before but, good troops that they were, pushed on towards Homs in pursuit of the wily Turks. Allenby was not, as again you might think from these books, an unqualified Good Thing; his handling of troops on the Western Front has long been open to question, and even the normally anodyne DNB admits that his worst enemy was a hideous and disgracefully violent temper. I am stuffy enough to dislike seeing Mrs G B Shaw referred to throughout as Mrs Charlotte Shaw. I am sorry, too, that some of the letters from David Garnett’s 1938 collection – for instance, Lawrence’s enchanting 1933 ‘fan letter’ to Elgar – are not here, although this is more than offset by the vast numbers of previously unpublished letters – notably to Mrs Shaw, who denied them to Garrett – which are included. There are, too, very occasional lapses of English in both books – for the editor to write, as he does in the Letters, of Lawrence’s supposed homosexuality, that it is as well ‘to lay down the ghost of what he was not’, is as infelicitous as it is meaningless. The authors and editor have plainly done a great deal of reading, but neither bibliography lists any French, German, Turkish or Jewish sources, and only one Arab study is acknowledged. Finally, the Letters would have benefited, even more than the life, from some good maps.

Despite all my carping, I recommend the biography wholeheartedly, for its interest, its balance, and the beauty of its production. The Selected Letters should be required reading for anyone with the slightest literary pretension – Lawrence was among the best English letter writers of this century, and this selection, to so many people, covering so many topics, demonstrating so many facets of a highly volatile and deeply unfathomable creature, deserves especial praise. It is full of rich surprises – I have laughed for days (as did Lawrence) at Noel Coward’s greeting: ‘Dear 338171 (May I call you 338?)…’

Much of the denigration of Lawrence arises from small-mindedness. He was born and grew to maturity in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and it is as ridiculous to judge him solely in the light of post-Second World War history as it would be to compare unfavourably the performance and handling of a 1935 990cc SS100 Brough Superior with a modern sports motorcycle of half the engine capacity. For whatever one’s view of Lawrence, it is almost certainly, and inevitably, incorrect. It is that which makes him so fascinating whether as hero, writer, scholar, liar, or pervert, is immaterial. But what becomes increasingly clear, especially from the Selected Letters, is that he possessed a remarkable imperturbability of spirit – why else would he cut Herodotus’s tag, ‘OU ØPOVTIS’, which he loosely translated as ‘Wiworry’, in the lintel at Clouds Hill? For all the faults of his nature, the histrionics and depression and subtle building-up of reputation, he remained impressively true to his avowed purposes. All his other smoke-screens and fancies, his near-manic string-pulling, his habit of always approaching, as soldiers say, through ‘dead ground’, seems to have obscured this fact. Meanwhile, the world has grown grey with the breath of pro- and anti-Lawrence factions. Yet surely not all that great horde of truly loving and so often desperately worried friends, not Churchill, Nancy Astor, Forster, Trenchard, both Shaws, both Hardys, Graves, Williamson can have been wrong about T E Lawrence? They accepted that he did not always know his own mind, nor always tell the truth, nor usually tell the same tale to different people. They knew – and his letters prove – that he was marvellous company, clever, kind, loyal, generous, modest as well as falsely modest, and possessed, as near as makes no odds, of a species of genius. They knew, too, as he did – or at least they suspected and feared – that he was marked for death. Above all, they would have agreed with Cecil Day-Lewis (quoted in A Touch of Genius): ‘Being out of sympathy with those who have sought, by diminishing him as a scholar, a writer and a military leader, to cut him down to their own size, I maintain my conviction that he was an exceptional human being.’ Whatever Lawrence’s own lies, this is both true and, from these two books, entirely self-evident.

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