Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (1990, Lawrence James)

Publishing Info:

James, Lawrence. The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Skyhorse, 2008. Original publication 1990. 523 pp.


By the late '80s the Lawrence debate became relatively balanced. Rather than the hysterical black-and-white arguments of the post-Aldington era, shades of gray crept into the debate as new sources and original research appeared. A more interesting Lawrence emerged, even as authors continued to project themselves onto him.

The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia attempts a straight academic biography. Lawrence James provides relatively little original research or fresh insight, and his analysis occasionally grates. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for an intriguingly complex portrait of Lawrence.

The Author:

Lawrence James (born 1943) is an acclaimed British historian and journalist. Besides the present book, he has written extensively on British history, including the excellent The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (1997), Warrior Race: A History of the British at War (2001), and biographies of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Edmund Allenby. His most recent work is Aristocrats: Britain's Great Ruling Class from 1066 to the Present (2010).

The Review:

Despite his cynicism towards the "Lawrence legend," James scrupulously rebukes many outlandish critical claims. Addressing Knightley and Simpson's accusation of pre-war espionage, James argues Lawrence the archaeologist "would have found out nothing... not already well-known to the British government" (45). He also dismisses conspiracy theorizing about Lawrence's death as "thriller fantasy" (495). Between this and his healthy skepticism towards Lawrence's own writings, James establishes himself as a credible biographer.

The most interesting sections involve the development of the Lawrence legend. James has a deep background in British history, and he does a great job placing Lawrence's fame in context. In the grim aftermath of World War I, James shows how much the English-speaking world needed a hero like Lawrence, who mixed traditional romanticism with modern "common man" appeal. He also excellently captures Lawrence's complicity in starting the legend, and mixed feelings of its perpetuation. James ends the book with an overview of Lawrence's portrayal in biography and popular media, growing and mutating to meet cultural needs and the whims of his biographers.

Like other authors, James views Lawrence through his perceived fantasies. Chafing at a strict but not unhappy childhood, the young Lawrence tested his physical limits, traveled abroad and plunged himself into foreign cultures. Enraptured by Morte d'Arthur and The Odyssey, Lawrence viewed his life as a saga, casting himself as its oversized hero. This medievalism also informs Lawrence's love of the simple Bedouin and aversion towards the educated "town Arabs." John Mack and Desmond Stewart advanced ideas of this argument on a personal level, but James explores it in the broader context of Edwardian England.

When James gets to the war years, his analysis grows mixed. He convincingly argues that Lawrence's views on the Middle East - especially his skepticism towards France and hatred of Turkey - evolved in concert with his Arab Bureau colleagues, belying the idea that Lawrence was a committed imperialist from the start. He disparages the Arab Revolt, conceding its propaganda value but trotting out the old canard of gold-hungry tribesmen. He argues the Arabs achieved little militarily, a questionable assessment in light of recent books like James Barr's Setting the Desert on Fire. Despite these critiques, James gladly acknowledges Lawrence's skill and courage in the desert.

James adds little new or insightful in dealing with Lawrence's strange post-war career. He dutifully recounts Lawrence's work in the Colonial Office, his attempts to serve as a "gentleman ranker," his bizarre relationship with John Bruce and brushing shoulders with the likes of Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves while dining with gruff RAF flyers. Lawrence's post-war career is fascinating, but James doesn't bring much to the table here.

James casts a skeptical eye on Seven Pillars of Wisdom, pointedly highlighting Lawrence's exaggerations. Interestingly, James notes Lawrence's embellishment extended to his official reports, rendering many contemporary documents suspect. However, James' textual analysis is also spotty. He views Lawrence's descriptions of the Deraa incident and Turkish atrocities at Tafas as justification for later Arab massacres of the Turks. The bloodcurdling depiction of Tafas, and Lawrence's loudly-stated revulsion to bloodshed, seem to bely James's argument. James is wedded to the idea of Seven Pillars as a carefully-structured novel, interesting in specific cases but overstated in general.

James devotes a long chapter to Lawrence's capture and rape at Deraa (pp. 245-263). He raises the usual objections, from Lawrence's inconsistency in accounts to some eyewitness testimony to Hajim Bey's heterosexuality. His bombshell is a diary entry from a colleague at Aqaba, which supposedly proves Lawrence could not have been in Deraa at the time of incident. Jeremy Wilson, however, has shown this diary conflicts with other contemporary documents. James moves on from factual matters to speculation that Deraa serves as a "coded" admission of Lawrence's sexual preference.

James goes beyond the usual arguments by claiming that Lawrence was a practicing homosexual. He makes the most of Seven Pillars' description of Bedouin man-love, and John Bruce's tale of flogging is hard to discount. Beyond these old chestnuts, James is grasping at straws. He repeats Desmond Stewart's spurious "Bluebeard" story, liberally quotes the dubious Richard Meinertzhagen ("boy or girl?") and even suggests Lawrence was about to be arrested for indecency prior to his death. The fact that such rumors existed is suggestive, but does not constitute evidence.

The Golden Warrior remains a worthy biography all the same. If James criticizes Lawrence's vanity and self-aggrandizement, he also praises his genius, heroism, tactical skill and charisma. "Why Lawrence felt impelled to embellish his achievement and then repudiate the fame they offered him remains inexplicable," James notes (433), nicely summing up one of history's most enigmatic figures.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Groggy Returns

I'm back from a seven-month hiatus with a new crop of Lawrence bios. Time permitting (my job doesn't allow for the time required for a good, well-thought-out analysis) I will have reviews of two more Lawrence bios up soon: Vyvyan Richards' Portrait of T.E. Lawrence and Lawrence James' The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. These will be the first two books not covered in Images of Lawrence, the book which inspired this blog in the first place, so I hope I can do them justice.

In the meantime, there are at least two new Lawrence biographies just released: James Schneider's Guerilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, which appears to be an analysis of Lawrene's military leadership, and Joseph Berton's T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt: An Illustrated Guide. Also Jeremy Wilson appears to be preparing a new edition of his authorized biography.

One of the benefits of being a Lawrence enthusiast is there's never a shortage of reading material. Keep an eye on this blog for more updates.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

T.E. Lawrence, or the Search for the Absolute (1955, Jean Beraud-Villars)

Publishing Info:

Beraud-Villars, Jean. T.E. Lawrence or the Search for the Absolute. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1959. Original French publication 1955. 358 pp.


This interesting biography might be called T.E. Lawrence: A French View. One of a surprising number of French books on Lawrence, it presents one of the most balanced and interesting portrayals of Lawrence, holding up well even after fifty-plus years of research and revelations. Only when the author lets his personal hobby horse interfere in the narrative - i.e., by depicting Lawrence as a Francophobe - does the book test one's patience.

The Author:

I couldn't find much biographical information on Beraud-Villars. He served in the First World War as a French pilot and had a prolific career as a military historian. His most famous work is probably Diary of a Lost Airman (1918), an autobiographical account of his wartime service.

The Review:

Almost every Lawrence biographer has an ax to grind, and few do a good job of hiding it. Lowell Thomas had wartime propaganda to sell; Richard Aldington had a deep resentment of the British "Establishment"; Suleiman Mousa was an employee of the Hashemites; Desmond Stewart apparently had some personal issues to work out. Monsieur Beraud-Villars views Lawrence as being fundamentally anti-French, blaming him for focusing "solely on the interests of Arab nationalism... and... neglect(ing) those of the Allies" (148). To reach this conclusion, Beraud-Villars engages in some special pleading and extreme applications of hindsight.

For instance: Beraud-Villars argues that Britain and France "obvious interest lay in remaining closely united" (352). In hindsight, this indeed seems "obvious," but Beraud-Villars strangely ignores the centuries-old Anglo-French political and colonial rivalry that created the post-war tension. Lest we forget, their wartime alliance against Germany was an aberration, the two countries only two decades removed from Fashoda. Finally, Beraud-Villars sees the post-war settlement as sacrificing French goals in the Middle East for Arab ones, a mirror image of what actually happened.

Beraud-Villars' allegation is not groundless. More recent authors like David Fromkin and James Barr have shown the degree to which Britain and France jockeyed for prestige and position in the region, even after nominally agreeing to divide Turkish lands. However, it's simply wrong to suggest the British sold the French out to a greater degree than the Arabs, whom they had misled into fighting for independence. And to blame Lawrence, first and foremost, for the dispute is extremely dubious.

Did Lawrence hate France? Certainly he was a vocal opponent of France's imperial designs in Syria and Lebanon, desiring to "biff the French out of" those regions. On the other hand, he had a great love of French history and architecture, and was a lifelong admirer of French literature. Contrary to Beraud-Villars's depiction, he portrays the French contingent in the Hedjaz with respect in Seven Pillars, if one overlooks his personal enmity towards Colonel Edouard Bremond. Speculating on "what humiliations, which incidents [had]... created in him... the strong enmity" towards France (20-21) takes the wrong track. Dislike of French policy is not hatred of France.

It must also be noted that Beraud-Villars is extremely harsh towards the Arabs. Just a few examples: Beraud-Villars refers to the Bedouin as "semi-savages" (153), Syrian Arabs as "a heap of rootless bazaar-keepers and scoundrels" (210), and Iraq's population as "a few million illiterates" (285). All of the Revolt's successes are attributed to Lawrence and the other Allied advisers. His argument that an Anglo-French alliance was worthwhile "even if a few local patriotisms had to suffer" (352) is revealing. His views certainly reflect his time, when France was embroiled in a ferocious war in Algeria, but have a nasty ring to modern ears. After reading this, the resentment of George Antonius and Suleiman Mousa towards Western depictions of the Revolt becomes understandable.

If we restrict ourselves to Beraud-Villars' portrait of Lawrence, however, the book is much more satisfactory. He's one of the few biographers to capture something of Lawrence's tortured complexity. Even if this Lawrence is anti-French, he's not only anti-French. This Lawrence is a well-rounded, flawed but largely admirable man.

Beraud-Villars takes Lawrence to task on a number of issues, including his account of the strategic interlude at Wadi Ais and his specific level of authority within the Arab Bureau. Beraud-Villars amusingly deflates Seven Pillars's account of Lawrence's first trip to the Hejaz: "Lawrence is certainly here abusing... the first person" (122). Most of all, he views Lawrence as an extremely neurotic individual, suffering from a "persecution mania" (336) and being essentially a split personality. In a particularly incisive comment, the author states that "no impostor ever made such sacrifice to make his imposture credible" (346), criticizing his mischievous treatment of biographers and ambivalent attitudes towards Lowell Thomas.

In other ways, however, Beraud-Villars's portrayal of Lawrence is largely positive. He views Lawrence as, in many ways, an extraordinary personage, "one of the rare men... to have been at once a war leader and an artist" (xi). He refutes the view that Lawrence succeeded only due to money: "There was genuine popularity... which cupidity alone does not explain" (175). Lawrence is presented as a skilled military leader, a great writer, and, if anti-French and unduly pro-Arab, at least honest in his convictions. One can accept or reject what they want of this, but Beraud-Villars's attempt at a well-rounded portrait is admirable. As the book was written simultaneous to Aldington's Biographical Enquiry, it shows that an extreme reaction to the "Lawrence Bureau" wasn't required for a more measured portrayal to occur.

Beraud-Villars presents Lawrence as a latent homosexual and suggests a personal motive for Lawrence's northern ride. He's curiously reluctant to name Dahoum as S.A., on the bizarre grounds of Dahoum's lack of political sophistication, but doesn't present a credible alternative. He accepts Lawrence's account of Deraa uncritically, arguing that his vivid description of torture and male rape was crucial in shaping modern perceptions of political violence.

Like most Lawrence biographies, T.E. Lawrence or the Search for the Absolute mixes interesting presentation with speculation and politicking. Unlike most biographies, however, it presents a balanced, complex portrayal of Lawrence that is extremely commendable.

Monday, April 18, 2011

T.E. Lawrence (1977, Desmond Stewart)

Publishing Info:
Stewart, Desmond. T.E. Lawrence: A New Biography. London: Harper and Row, 1977. 352 pp.

Desmond Stewart was an expert journalist and Arab expert, and thus a seemingly ideal biographer for T.E. Lawrence. Instead, Stewart pens the worst major Lawrence biography, an indigestible mass of tabloid-style speculation and psychosexual fixation.

The Author:
Desmond Stewart (1924-1981) was a British journalist, novelist, and historian who specialized in the Middle East, focusing mostly on Egypt. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1981, supposedly being poisoned.

The Review:
Early chapters provide a respectable account of Lawrence's family life, time at Oxford and research at Carchemish. Attentive readers can spot warning signs, however. Stewart dismisses Janet Laurie's story of Lawrence's proposal as fanciful, ignoring John Mack's corroborating witnesses. He is similarly dismissive of Lawrence's pre-war service with the Royal Artillery. He dwells on Lawrence's relationships with Oxford classmate Vyvyan Richards and Arab servant Dahoum, along with his alleged ties to the Uranian movement of literary homosexuals. And the continued insinuations that Lawrence was "ignorant" of the Middle East (cf. 142, 291) grate.

When Stewart reaches the Arab Revolt, however, he goes completely off the rails. To call Stewart's assertions "controversial" misses the mark. It might be politely termed invention, crafting a highly questionable picture of Lawrence.

Stewart is hardly the first writer to question the veracity of Lawrence's "northern ride," his solitary reconnaissance into Syria during the Aqaba raid. Crucially, though, Richard Aldington and Suleiman Mousa did so without having official documentation released in 1969. Stewart does those gentlemen one better, dismissing the documentation and relying on the Arab sources employed by Mousa. But Stewart can't let well-enough alone: he says Lawrence "may have ridden off... in a search for news of Dahoum" (167). What's his evidence for this? Nothing. Not a footnote, source, or citation of any kind.

Many authors from Mousa on question Lawrence's claims of being captured and raped at Deraa. But Stewart isn't content with skepticism. Instead, he advances an unlikely theory that Lawrence allowed himself to be flogged by Sherif Ali ibn al-Harithi at Azrak, partially as self-punishment and partially for sexual release. He subsequently invented the story as a "metamorphosis [of] guilt and failure into a myth of degradation and torture" (188).

The best evidence he can summon: Lawrence was flogged by his mother as a child; Ali was physically attractive; a cryptic conversation with his aide, Rolls, months later, about Lawrence's supposed "imprisonment" (pp. 188-189). That's his entire basis for this extraordinary allegation. That, one suspects, and a healthy dose of imagination.

Later, Stewart claims Lawrence conspired with Nuri al-Said, Feisal's right-hand man and later Prime Minister of Iraq, to assassinate Syrian rival Abd el-Kader. Stewart's source is Subhi al-Umari, a pro-Kader police officer in a memoir written decades later. One wouldn't disqualify al-Umari's account on this basis, except Stewart seems content to dismiss Janet Laurie, the testimony of the boys involved in Lawrence's accident and others because of "the unreliability of memory" (30).

And why did Lawrence do this? Because "Abd el Kader had denounced Dahoum" (210) to the Turkish authorities. Again, he evades Seven Pillars, not so much critiquing Lawrence's account of Kader's treachery during the Yarmuk raid and later, as ignoring it. Nor does he present evidence supporting his version. Stewart's claim that "Lawrence never adequately explained his hatred of Abdel Kader" (209) is simply incorrect.

Stewart dissects Seven Pillars at length, viewing it as literature rather than memoir. He tries to portray Farraj and Daud, and Deraa, as symbolic of Lawrence's own relationships rather than things that actually happened, regardless of other historians' conclusions. Lawrence's execution of Ahmed is presented as implausible because "Lawrence was still bound by the King's regulations" while with the Arabs (245). He also questionably argues that the book's view of Arab nationalism and prose style were influenced by others, rather than being Lawrence's own thoughts/invention.

Stewart is convinced that Lawrence was a fascist, based on his relationship with Oswald Mosley acolyte Henry Williamson, Lawrence's own detailed descriptions of violence in Seven Pillars, his interest in rebels like Lenin and Roger Casement, admiration for the proletariat and supposed militarism. "The Fascist ethos would be more important to a man with Lawrence's blend of the radical and the authoritarian" (296). This, despite an earlier assertion that Lawrence was not an "ideologist" (209) and was motivated on a purely personal level.

Stewart's remaining credibility evaporates in the final chapters, when he posits Lawrence was murdered. Stewart dismisses the testimony of the two boys involved in the accident, claiming that "boys are bad witnesses" (302), insinuating further they were "under pressure from their fathers, minor cogs in the military machine" (303). Stewart obsesses over the "black car" reported by a single witness, and considers it suspicious that detectives were later sent to Lawrence's home and hospital bed. This theory was well-debunked by Knightley and Simpson eight years before and scarcely deserves a response.

Politely, Stewart is his own worst enemy. It is all well and good to critique Lawrence's cavalier attitude towards the truth, something even his admirers concede. But one undercuts their position by discarding documentary evidence for naked speculation. Certainly Stewart's bizarre Deraa story and entertainment of conspiracy theories about Lawrence's death strain credulity.

While skeptical towards Lawrence's writings, Stewart is happy to marshal dubious sources for his own case. He accepts Richard Meintertzhagen's suspect writings without critique, partly because of his "bluff, masculine personality" (225). His account of Lawrence's supposed sexual involvement with the crime boss "Bluebeard" originates from a German tabloid. Similarly, his willingness to credit Arab sources with a grudge against Lawrence and the Hashemites indicates a determination to arrange facts around a thesis.

Stewart uses this sleight-of-hand to craft a meretricious portrait of Lawrence: a habitual liar, a proto-Fascist, an active homosexual. All of these are defensible positions, advanced by other biographers. Again though, basing them around speculation and selective omission is, at best, self-confirmation. At worst, it's stretching the truth. For advancing bizarre, untenable theories without evidence, Desmond Stewart does himself and his subject a great disservice.

What Others Say:

"Completely unsupported assertions about T. E. make this one of the stupidest and most asinine books written about T. E. - or anyone else for that matter." - CooperToons

"Every critic knows that a crime style of sorts is responsible for a bad book... [Stewart's] crime style is as multiple as it is singular." - Nigel Dennis, New York Review of Books

"Stewart's singular contribution to this debate is to demonstrate that unverified and wild assertions will no longer go unchallenged, no matter how clever they are." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"Worthless and untenable." - Jeremy Wilson

“If you accept Mr. Stewart’s thesis—and I do—then the core of virtually every Lawrence biography collapses like a desert sandcastle.” - Phillip Knightley

"Closely reasoned, level-headed and revealing." - Brian Vintcent, The Globe and Mail

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lawrence the Rebel (1946, Edward Robinson)

Publishing Info:

Robinson, Edward. Lawrence the Rebel. London: Folcroft Library, 1979 (limited library edition). Originally published in 1946 by Lincolns-Prager, London.


Edward Robinson's Lawrence the Rebel is one of the most obscure Lawrence biographies, and with good reason: it's not very good. Aside from providing a somewhat first-hand account of Lawrence's exploits, this slim volume doesn't add much to a reader's understanding of Lawrence or the Arab Revolt. And that's not to mention the myriad credibility issues.

The Author:

The only info I could find about Robinson is that he served with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) under Allenby during World War I, and was at some point attached to the British military mission in the Hejaz. Or so he claims: several biographers dispute the veracity of his service, and he in fact was arrested for forgery in 1927.

The Review:

Lawrence the Rebel deserves notice for two reasons. One, it was written by someone who served with Lawrence during the war, and he provides a unique perspective on Lawrence's exploits in Arabia, if not the man himself. Two, it's probably the first biography that doesn't go for straight hero-worship of Lawrence. Robinson views Lawrence as a great man but isn't uncritical of him.

Otherwise, this slim volume doesn't add much to the Lawrence literature. Like most of the early biographies, it focuses almost exclusively on Lawrence's time in the Arab Revolt. Robinson provides a lot of primary documents and official reports that, while interesting in a way, make for rather dry reading. While Robinson provides a detailed account of the Revolt, both on the ground and in its political machinations, he devotes comparatively little time to Lawrence himself, and the book barely qualifies as a biography.

Robinson's portrait of Lawrence, such as it is, is fairly flat and uninteresting. He does provide a few nuggets of interest: his account of Lawrence's changes in personality after Deraa, for instance, does much to confirm that incident's veracity, and he shows knowledge of Lawrence's attempts to negotiate a settlement between Arabs and Zionists, something scarce mentioned in the early Lawrence books. Of course, how much of this he actually knew at the time, and how much of it comes after the fact, isn't entirely clear, and certain sensational bits - Lawrence's "northern ride" during the Aqaba campaign now includes attending a German-Turkish military conference in Damascus incognito! - don't help his credibility.

Giving Robinson the benefit of the doubt, this adds some nice pieces to the Lawrence puzzle. If nothing else, Robinson should be remembered as the first biographer to advance the theory that Deraa inspired Lawrence's actions at Tafas. But overall, the portrait of Lawrence is flat, focused almost entirely on a military level; and the broad scope of the story doesn't even ensure that.

Lawrence the Rebel has faded into obscurity for a pretty good reason. It's dryly written and not especially insightful, and too hard-to-find to be worth checking out.

What Others Say:

"Presents some interesting ideas, but... has been neglected." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence (1976, John E. Mack)

Publishing Info:

Mack, John E. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976. 561 pp.


A Prince of Our Disorder is, by a pretty wide margin, the best Lawrence biography I've read. Mixing impeccable research with insightful analysis, Mack creates the most complex and complete portrait of Lawrence to date. Unlike other writers who try and delve into Lawrence's psyche, Mack actually has the credentials to do so, and despite minor flaws Prince is extremely convincing.

The Author:

John Edward Mack (1929-2004) was a psychiatrist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Interested in how a person's worldview affects their actions and relationships with others, Mack wrote several books on dreams, nightmares and suicide before tackling Lawrence. Mack won a Pulitzer Prize for Prince, but is best-remembered today for his controversial works on alien abduction. He died in a car accident in 2004.

The Review:

In a nutshell, Mack's book has everything you'd want from a biography. It's more accessible than Jeremy Wilson's tome, more insightful (and credible) than Anthony Nutting and Desmond Stewart, and more balanced than most any other account.

Mack's greatest strength is his relative objectivity. Writing an objective account of Lawrence is a difficult proposition, and Mack probably comes as close to a balanced portrayal as possible. Perhaps because he advances from a psychological vantage point, Mack avoids the political and historical pre-occupations of other biographers, taking Lawrence on his own terms as man heroic and admirable, but also flawed and extremely tortured.

The genre of "psycho-biography" has become much-maligned, but Mack here shows its practical applications. Where a Richard Aldington might simply use Lawrence's writings and private correspondence to divine his personality, Mack engaged in exhaustive research to profile his subject: interviews with Lawrence's friends, family and acquaintances, primary source documents. Mack's hobby horse, viewing all of Lawrence's actions as personal rather than idealistic, has its drawbacks, namely in elliding the greater ramifications of Lawrence's life. On the other hand, though, it allows for a deep and insightful analysis of an ever-elusive individual.

Mack portrays Lawrence as, essentially, a boy who never went through a proper adolescence. In Mack's view, Lawrence's odd home life, with parents living out of wedlock (yet the mother fanatically religious), combined with Lawrence's love of history and literature to create a strangely stilted personality. Analyzing Lawrence's relationship with John Bruce, the Tanks Corps soldier Lawrence persuaded to flog him, Mack writes that Lawrence's personality was "vividly... split... between the adult and childhood aspects of himself, which... he never fully integrated" (439). This seems a spot-on analysis of a man who, until the end of his life, reveled in deliberate misdirection, playful exaggeration, silly practical jokes and a rather childish view of sex. And it might also account for his "craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known."

Drawing on Lawrence's childhood preoccupations with romantic literature and the Crusades, Mack hypothesizes that Lawrence's Arab exploits were a real life extension of his "hero fantasies" (100), relishing the chance to play Richard the Lionheart or Sir Gallahad in real life. If one accepts Mack's argument that Lawrence never fully matured, this portrait seems extremely plausible. It certainly accounts for the epic style and florid language of Seven Pillars, his comparisons of Feisal and Auda abu Tayi to medieval knights, and his schizophrenic view of war as both good fun and utter horror.

Instead of focusing on Lawrence's need for "father figures" like Hogarth, Storrs and Allenby, Mack provides a more complex view of Lawrence's relationships. Whatever the difficulties with his parents, Lawrence had a warm and loving affection for his brothers, especially Arnold. Some of the most interesting sections involved Lawrence's very close relationship with Jimmy Newcombe, the son of Lawrence's wartime colleague Colonel Stewart Newcombe. The testimony of Lawrence's service mates in the Tank Corps and RAF show a great deal of affection for "Private Shaw." Through this analysis, Lawrence's relations with Arabs like Selim Ahmed and Emir Feisal can be viewed in a more complete light.

Mack spends a lot of time discussing Lawrence's sexual predilections. Mack mostly avoids the puerile "Was Lawrence gay?" debate that's raged since Aldington, seeing it as almost irrelevant. Instead, Mack views Lawrence as essentially incapable of physical love, both remarkably ignorant of and disgusted by "self-degradation." Deraa only exacerbated Lawrence's neuroses, channelling them into disturbing, self-destructive impulses. He also shows that, contrary to many biographies, Lawrence was not a misogynist - indeed, he had many female friends, including Charlotte Shaw, Gertrude Bell and Lady Astor. And Mack disputes the preoccupation with Seven Pillars's description of Bedouin homosexuality, arguing that his candor "must not be confused... with what Lawrence would or could tolerate in himself" (425).

Mack was the first to uncover the story of Janet Laurie. A childhood friend of Lawrence's, Laurie was shocked when a twenty-one year old Lawrence spontaneously proposed to her. Other writers have cast doubt on Laurie's veracity, especially since she didn't publicly come forward for decades. But Mack finds other witnesses - including Reverend E.H. Hall, an Oxford acquaintance of Lawrence's - to corroborate the story. If one accepts Laurie, it certainly complicates matters for the Aldington/Stewart/Lawrence James school who bluntly state Lawrence was gay.

Like many biographers, Mack places particular emphasis on Deraa. Mack concludes that "Lawrence underwent a painful, humiliating assault at Deraa... and the element of sexual pleasure he experienced... was particularly intolerable and shameful to him" (233). And yet Lawrence felt compelled to relive the experience, through John Bruce at least, "serv(ing) to gratify... the very desire for which Lawrence needed to be punished" (439). In Mack's eyes, Lawrence's inconsistent accounts of Deraa are an unwillingness to fully confront the incident, despite his need "to make... private suffering a matter of public record" (228).

By focusing on Lawrence's personality, the historical ramifications of Lawrence's actions get relatively short shrift. Mack recuses himself of analyzing Lawrence's military or political achievements - fair enough for a psychologist, but still a cop-out. At the very least, though, Mack convincingly argues that Lawrence was neither a cynical imperialist nor a naive Arab nationalist, rather doing his best to reconcile these oppositional viewpoints. Certainly he rebuts Knightley and Simpson's assumption that Lawrence was an intelligence agent before the war, claiming that "Lawrence hardly behaved like the model secret agent" (103). And, citing writer Anis Sayigh's work and the testimony of Bedouin who knew Lawrence during the war, he shows that Arabs hold (or held) Lawrence in more esteem than Suleiman Mousa suggests.

A Prince of Our Disorder will likely remain the definitive Lawrence biography for years to come. Mack's well-rounded portrait of Lawrence confirms his view of the man as "one of the most moving personal sagas" (459) ever, and stands as a really excellent book.

What Others Say:

"Clearly a book that tries to be objective and discusses the pros and cons of whether T. E. told the truth or not. John was a psychiastrist at Harvard Medical School and yet the book doesn't fall into trying to figure out history by psychoanalyzing the subject... This book deserved its Pulitzer Prize." - CooperToons

"A balanced answer to the Aldington-inspired line of criticism: it was the most serious and solid of all Lawrence biographies ever to appear up to the end of 1987." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"I most admire John E. Mack's A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence (1976) for its thoroughness and sensitivity." - June Turner, Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing

The following quotes from Mack's website:

“A hugely admired, and Pulitzer prize-winning, biography which concentrates on the relationship between Lawrence’s inner life and the actions and events which grew out of them. It is easy to warm to a biographer who, while drawing on his training as a psychiatrist, is never deceived into thinking that theory can ‘explain’ his Lawrence. The more Mack discovered about the social contexts of Lawrence’s actions and the demands on a public man, the more he understood Lawrence’s psychology. The result is a resounding confirmation of this approach to his subject.” — Desmond Christy, The Guardian

“Unlike many ‘psycho-biographies’, this was written by a trained psychologist who had also done his biographer’s homework: it remains the best biography of T.E. Lawrence.” — Contemporary Review

“Takes us closer to the core of Lawrence than any previous biography.” - Time

“A great book which honors its subject, its form, and its author.” - Boston Globe

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Update and Self-Promotion

Due to a busy class and work schedule, I haven't made much progress on the Stewart, Robinson or Armitage biographies. I still hope to have a review of whichever I finish first up soon, as well as a review of Korda's Hero.

On the plus side, I was recently hired by the online website Suite101, and my first published article is basically a compressed-into-1,000-words version of this blog.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive (1961, Anthony Nutting)

Publishing Info:

Nutting, Anthony. Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive. London: Hollis and Carter, 1961. 256 pp.


I'm surprised that Anthony Nutting's 1961 biography isn't better-remembered. It may be one of the most influential: Nutting was an adviser on the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and his depiction of Lawrence as a tormented sadomasochist undoubtedly influenced David Lean and Robert Bolt's depiction of Lawrence in said movie. Besides this cultural influence, The Man and the Motive is a mixed bag, mixing good storytelling with often-shaky history.

The Author:

Sir Anthony Nutting (1920-1999) was the scion of a wealthy British family. During World War II he served in various diplomatic posts and in 1945 was elected to Parliament at the age of 25. Despite his youth he became a major player in the Conservative Party, becoming Privy Councilor in 1954, serving in Winston Churchill's second Cabinet as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and leading two delegations to the United Nations.

An Arabist who encouraged friendly relations between Britain and the Middle East, Nutting helped negotiate the turnover of the Suez Canal to Egypt in 1954. However, he was aghast when the British and French decided to "knock [Abdul] Nasser from his perch" by invading Egypt two years later. Nutting resigned in disgust over the resulting Suez Crisis, ruining his political career, though he remained in the public eye as an historian and political commentator for decades.

Parenthetically, Lawrence may be one of the few cases where a man's biographers are as interesting as their subject. Between Nutting, Graves, Aldington and Lowell Thomas, we have a number of men as worthy of lengthy biographies as Lawrence.

The Review:

In Images of Lawrence, Stephen Tabachnick attacks Nutting for a lack of original research and a lot of speculation. This is a valid criticism, as The Man and the Motive essentially boils down past accounts of Lawrence's life and actions to a simple form, with some brief chapters of analysis and examination. That said, it's also one of the most readable, straightforward Lawrence biographies.

Nutting's main virtue is accessibility. He structures his biography like a novel (or a film script?), with events clearly laid out. This isn't always to the benefit of the book, with Nutting indulging in speculative dialogue and analysis on occasion. But his prose is crisp and the book flows perfectly, so for pure readibility it comes highly recommended. Of course, for historical works readability isn't the only consideration.

Nutting's portrayal reflects the general debate on Lawrence circa 1961 - eg., the scholarly community still reeling from Richard Aldington's broadside, and trying to reconcile it with the traditional Lowell Thomas/Robert Graves portrayal. To Nutting's credit, he avoids either extreme, seeking a balanced portrayal of Lawrence rather than deifying or demonizing him. His account of the Arab Revolt is straight out of Seven Pillars with some brief sections on his pre- and post-war life, but this is an issue of presentation His history is generally good; his view of Lawrence may raise an eyebrow.

Nutting portrays Lawrence as admirable in many ways, but a tortured, self-contradictory one, who mixes heroism and idealism with vanity and neurosis. He mostly abstains from direct analysis until the final chapter, fittingly entitled "The Motive," where he tries to determine "What... lay(s) at the root of the Lawrence enigma?" (p. 237). So again we have a biographer thinking there's a definite "key" to Lawrence. And without the psychological training of a John Mack or the documentation of a Knightley and Simpson, Nutting's interpretation is questionable.

Nutting rejects some of Aldington's more egregious speculations, namely that Lawrence was a pathological liar or a homosexual. However, he does agree that Lawrence was a "rabid masochist" (p. 244), and goes a step further in arguing that Deraa is the key to all his subsequent actions - not least the Tafas Massacre. Edward Robinson made a similar argument in his Lawrence the Rebel, but this seems idle speculation at best, misrepresentation at worst. If Seven Pillars is accurate, Lawrence's failures during the Dead Sea Campaign, and general guilt over misleading the Arabs, prompted him to try and resign, not Deraa. As for Tafas, biographers needn't engage in psychological speculation: Lawrence's vivid account of the Turkish atrocities beforehand should suffice for a reason.

Nutting's overall depiction of Lawrence is mixed. Much of his account rings true, if overly simplified. His depiction of Lawrence as a "Kingmaker" (p. 36), though harmed by silly "thought" dialogue, seems accurate, and for much of the book Nutting draws a good bead on Lawrence's basic motivations: a mixture of genuine idealism and personal ambition. Nutting is also credible in portraying Lawrence's relationships with Feisal, Auda and Allenby. Finally, Nutting commendably points out Lawrence's mutual sympathy for pan-Arabism and Zionism, where many authors (Suleiman Mousa) see these beliefs as inherently incompatible.

On the other hand, Nutting's depiction of Lawrence's "northern ride" during the Aqaba campaign as a "compulsive act of bravado" (p. 75) seems ridiculous. Rather than rebut Lawrence's stated reasons (intelligence reasons plus a guilt-driven, self-destructive impulse) he claims it "unlikely" and substitutes his own speculation. After Nutting's account of Tafas: "If... Lawrence was able to see into his soul... he must have been among the most tortured of God's creatures" (p. 163). This is psychological profiling by someone lacking the qualifications.

There's also the minor quibble that Nutting spends two-three pages rebutting Terence Rattigan's depiction of Deraa in his controversial play Ross, which has Lawrence deliberately raped by Hajim Bey to break his spirit. I agree with his conclusions but I wonder what the point is; after all, Ross isn't intended as anything more than fiction.

In spite of its flaws, Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive stands as a decent pre-1969 biography. As a work of ground-breaking scholarship it isn't great, though Nutting is ahead of his time in some of his conclusions. As an entertaining, readable, if occasionally suspect, biography, it's cautiously recommended.

What Others Say:

"Not much new here, and it basically assumes T.E. told the truth." - CooperToons

"The best short book (on Lawrence)." - Thomas Jackson, Forbes Magazine

"Offers interpretation rather than concrete new evidence about Lawrence." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

Time Magazine review

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I'm back!

Apologies for the three-month hiatus; I've been busy with school (I'm graduating at the end of this month) and areas of other interest.

I just finished Michael Korda's Hero and will have reviews of that and Anthony Nutting's The Man and the Motive up soon. I also ordered a bunch of rather obscure Lawrence books, including those by Desmond Stewart, Edward Robinson and Florence Armitage, so stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, I just came across this excellent blog by Maarten Schild, an historian and Lawrence scholar. I recommend you check it out while I sort through the new material.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson, 1969)

Publishing Info:

Knightley, Phillip, and Colin Simpson. The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969. 293 pp.


The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most important Lawrence biographies. It was the first major biography to tackle the mountains of newly-released Foreign Office documents from the World War I-era, and featured original research that provided fresh (and shocking) insight into Lawrence's character. In this regard, it's still an interesting and important work. It's too bad that the authors, like far too many others, commit themselves to "solving" the Lawrence riddle with a simplistic explanation - here, that Lawrence was a cold-blooded imperialist agent who knowingly misled and betrayed the Arab cause.

The Authors:

Phillip Knightley (1929-) is an Australian journalist, with extensive experience covering war and intelligence operations, and Colin Simpson a British counterpart. The two men first became interested in Lawrence when John Bruce, a former RAF mate of Lawrence's approached them with a story that Lawrence had compelled Bruce to flog him during their service together. This led to a series of Sunday Times articles by the two, published just around the time WWI-era government documents became available to the public. Soon, with the help of previous Lawrence biographer Suleiman Mousa (among others), Knightley and Simpson delved into the newly-released War Office files and primary documents, and undertook a wide variety of primary research. Secret Lives caused a stir when published, and its ramifications are still being felt.


The biggest problem among Lawrence biographers is the tendency to pigeon-hole their subject. To Lowell Thomas, Robert Graves and Ronald Florence he was an Arab nationalist; to Suleiman Mousa he was a committed British imperialist (and perhaps a Zionist!); to Richard Aldington, merely an egomaniac concerned only with himself. Neither view is strictly correct, and trying to easily define Lawrence as one thing or another completely misses his complexity and tortured equivocation. This is the primary failing of Secret Lives, an otherwise well-researched and valuable addition to the Lawrence canon.

Secret Lives primarily focuses on Lawrence's personal life, and political role in the Middle East. Unlike most Lawrence bios, Lawrence's exploits in the Arab Revolt are a relatively minor (if still important) part of the story. His closest relationships (especially those with D.G. Hogarth, John Bruce and Charlotte Shaw) are carefully scrutinized. Its portrait of Lawrence as a person (rather than a public figure) is quite interesting, arguing that he relied on intellectual connections to replace sexual longings, and there's not much to quibble with.

Two major bits of research are particularly interesting. First, the authors spoke with the relatives of Hajim Bey, the Turkish commander at Deraa who supposedly buggered Lawrence. We learn that Hajim, while hardly a model soldier, was a womanizer and highly unlikely to have engaged in compulsory homosexuality. Knightley and Simpson argue that perhaps Lawrence mistook Hajim for another officer, but seem skeptical of the whole incident. Nonetheless, the authors fail (as Mousa had) to provide an adequate explanation of what *did* happen to Lawrence at Deraa; perhaps this is why Desmond Stewart later felt compelled to concoct his absurd story of a gay liaison with Sherif Ali.

Second is the testimony of John Bruce, who befriended Lawrence in the RAF and Tank Corps. Bruce's shocking story - that Lawrence compelled Bruce to flog him at the instructions of a likely-nonexistent "old man" - confirmed long-standing speculation that Lawrence was a masochist. While later biographers have quibbled over the details (Bruce's claims of adventures in Afghanistan), most do accept the gist of Bruce's testimony, adding a darker, more disturbing shade to Lawrence's heroic reputation.

Other analyses are equally valuable. Knightley and Simpson provide an in-depth analysis of the famous "S.A." poem that prefaced Seven Pillars, determining that Lawrence's pre-war friend Dahoum (Selim Ahmed) was the only viable candidate. Other candidates, including British spy Sarah Aaronsohn (an absurd theory recently revived in Florence's Lawrence and Aaronsohn) and Feisal's brother Sherif Ali, are neatly tossed aside. (At the same time, they convincingly debunk claims that Lawrence was gay.) The authors also debunk, at length, conspiracy theories surrounding Lawrence's death, arguing mainly that "romantic minds find it hard to accept that... Lawrence of Arabia could die in such an ordinary manner" (p. 274). These are penetrating, well-argued and reasonable analyses, and show their authors as responsible researchers.

Perhaps because of this new information, Knightley and Simpson felt compelled to "solve" the Lawrence riddle. Certainly the documentation gives them significant authority, leading many readers to swallow their conclusions. Knightley and Simpson replicate Mousa's idea that Lawrence was nothing more than an especially skilled and shrewd intelligence officer, with no feelings towards the Arabs. Lawrence's inability to secure Arab independence is not a failure, but part of a grand design.

Knightley and Simpson dwell at length on Lawrence's supposed connection to the Round Table, a study group headed by Lionel Curtis that argued strongly for British imperialism and world hegemony. Knightley and Simpson make an interesting case that this group exercised a disproportionate influence on British policy in the early 20th Century due to "the wealth, scholarship, patronage and class consciousness of... its disciples" (p. 24). What they don't do, however, is adequately connect Lawrence to this group, aside from showing that friends like Hogarth and Ronald Storrs had some interest in it, and that Lawrence "absorbed, via Hogarth, some of the precepts of the Round Table" (25). Further, they try to argue that Lawrence was recruited at Oxford, and that his pre-war archaeological work was merely a cover for espionage.

Knightley in particular, due to his experience covering Cold War espionage, may have been drawn to the idea of Lawrence as Secret Agent Man, but it doesn't really hold water. Lawrence's Carchemesh expedition of 1913 was purely academic in nature, and no evidence to the contrary has surfaced. Other biographers show that because of Carchemish's proximity to the Baghdad Railway, Lawrence wasn't privy to anything invisible to any observers. His geographic survey of the Sinai came after spending time in the Middle East in a civilian capacity. There is too much supposition from scanty documentation and guilt by associated. It seems here, the authors opt for a sensationalist "scoop."

Similarly, the authors pepper the text with comments from Lawrence that are derisive towards Arabs, and seem to support British imperial goals. This quote-mining supports the conceit that Lawrence was "a political officer.. with the object of... ensuring the success of British policy" (p. 4) but is highly incomplete. Gone are the agonizing quotes of Seven Pillars and private correspondence (which the authors must have had access to), with Lawrence equivocating over his role in the "fraud" against the Arab cause, or his oft-expressed hope that the Arabs would earn their independence through revolt. Lawrence's determined efforts at Versailles are none-too-convincingly presented as an attempt to block French interests in Syria. If so, why so publicly side with the Arabs after the main work was over? As with Mousa, they see Lawrence's involvement in the Colonial Office as evidence of his complicity in betraying the Arabs, as opposed to a tortured, self-crafted compromise between British, French and Arab interests.

Yet again, a very selective reading of Lawrence's writings and work results in a flawed thesis. No doubt Lawrence was officially an imperial agent. No doubt that he played a role in shaping the post-war Middle East, at the expense of his Arab allies (but what was he supposed to have done?). But arguing this was his whole character is simplistic. It brings to mind Graves's admonition that "there are many thousands of Lawrences, each one a facet of the Lawrence crystal" (Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure, p. 40): i.e., that Knightley and Simpson saw what they wished to see. Focusing on Lawrence's writings for the Arab Bulletin and official reports, where endorsing Arab nationalism for its own sake would not go over well. It also ignores Lawrence's more private writings (such as his wartime diary).

Despite these failings, I do recommend The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia. There is a lot of important research therein, much of which remains unchallenged. It's unfortunate that Knightley and Simpson decided on a simplistic solution, but they're far from the only ones to make that mistake.

What Others Say:

"While Knightley and Simpson do not make their case for Lawrence's alleged obsessive British imperialism, they do present genuinely new evidence in many areas; future biographers would have to do the same or seem weak by comparison." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia must be taken with caution, even in its most compelling pages. Too limited in its aims to be a full biography, it proves again how remote a reliable biography of Lawrence must still be." - Stanley Weintraub