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