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

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