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


  1. (Don't mind me, I'm just going to comment on the reviews of the biographies that I've read now.)

    I might have been able to enjoy this in a "so bad it's good" way, except for the cringe-worthy metaphors all through it. I actually exclaimed aloud when I got to this, on page seven: "the Canon [Christopher], whose kind eyes disputed with bigoted mouth the battlefield of a hair-girt face". Yeesh.

    I assume a lot of the sillier speculations are due to Stewart feeling under pressure to produce some new angle or revelation, especially since this book came out so soon after Prince of Our Disorder. It's like he had to make everything kinkier than it already was. So he compares Lawrence wearing Arab garb while at Carchemish to transvestitism. He comes up with the Azrak/Sharif Ali S&M session instead the standard Deraa-happened/Deraa-didn't happen argument. He even argues that the first version of the S.A. poem refers to Lawrence's father, because it would be "banal" for it to refer to Dahoum, or one of the other usual candidates.

    Perhaps the most annoying aspect of this bio is the patronising/condescending tone Stewart adopts so often in relation to Lawrence. I think the implication that he was ignorant about Arab culture is one instance of it. Stewart also seems to disapprove of Lawrence's taste in books, music, art and other things. Which is reasonable, and yet the purpose of the book is to tell readers about Lawrence, rather than about Stewart's taste, right?

    The facism connection, which seems to be spurious according to all the evidence Stewart doesn't cite, is one of my pet peeves. Every now and then while searching for something else Lawrence-related, I'll come across a webpage with neo-facists claiming Lawrence as one of their own, and Stewart's book seems to be one of their key sources. Of course they seem to conveniently forget that Stewart portrays him as an active homosexual as well...

  2. For me the low point was Stewart speculating whether Lawrence, if he were alive today, would hang out in leather bars. Shows what sensationalist trash the book as a whole is.

    And yet a lot of real historians take it seriously which is another peeve. David Fromkin heavily cites it in A Peace to End All Peace, for one. Kirkus Reviews says it's the most objective and reasonable biography available, and said its speculation was "no different than John Mack's"! Excuse me? That's like a biographer of Bill Clinton saying The National Enquirer is "the most objective and reasonable source of information on our 42nd President."

  3. I figured the leather bar thing was just a way for Stewart to pass off a porn mag as a research expense.

    I read somewhere that Fromkin and Stewart knew each other, so perhaps that's why he considered the book a credible source. It seems obvious that Stewart doesn't back up a lot of his claims, but perhaps that's only if you already have some idea of the controversial areas and what sources are generally used to support different interpretations. Presumably Kirkus Reviews doesn't have a specialist Lawrence reviewer, to focus on the mass of books about him - maybe you should suggest yourself to them in that role.

    Then again, when books are reviewed by the 'experts' in the field, personality issues and professional jealousies seem to intrude quite often. Have you read Jeffrey Meyers' review of Prince of Our Disorder in the Virginia Quarterly Review? That piece apparently lead to threats of litigation. Stephen Tabachnick's reviews in English Literature in Transition, on the other hand, are notably balanced and insightful.

  4. I haven't read the Meyers' piece you're referring to - do you know if it's available anywhere? I can't say I'm shocked though. Again I've seen Jeremy Wilson and Lawrence James go at it in print a few times. Academics are no less susceptible to pettiness than the rest of us.

  5. The Meyers review is here, and he refers to it again (among other tiffs) here (you have to scroll down a fair way). It's also discussed in Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale by Fred Crawford. I haven't got that book, but you can see a preview of it through Google books.

    1. Oops, I seem to have mucked up the second link: it's here

    2. Thanks for those Laura! Some really nasty comments there - hard to tell from that article if Meyers has an ego problem or if Wilson is really that obnoxious. Wilson's certainly fiercely protective of Lawrence and he made similar litigation threats towards Desmond Stewart and others. Given his breadth of research and knowledge on the topic though, I'd hardly call him a crank.

    3. PS: If I were Wilson I certainly would have taken umbrage to the comments Meyers made in his Mack review, whether mentioned by name or not.

    4. My impression is that Wilson isn't obnoxious. He must have felt genuinely defamed. Meyers seems to enjoy provoking arguments - he would probably have found some common ground with Robert Graves.

      With that said, I really enjoyed Meyers' literary study of Seven Pillars of Wisdom The Wounded Spirit. He takes strong positions on some biographical issues (like Lawrence's sexuality) without always backing them up, but it's really interesting if you're into literary criticism - which I admit is not everyone's cup of tea...