Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Desert and the Stars (1955, Flora Armitage)

Publishing Info:

Armitage, Flora. The Desert and the Stars: A Biography of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Henry Holt, 1955. 318 pp.


Written simultaneous to Richard Aldington's Biographical Inquiry (and tweaked before publication), The Desert and the Stars reads like an extreme reaction to that skeptical tome. An admirable attempt at probing Lawrence's psyche, Armitage falls short of an effective portrait.

The Author:

Flora Armitage (1911-1995) was an English-born writer who spent most of her life in the United States. At the time she wrote The Desert and the Stars, she worked for the British Information Services in New York City. She published three novels and several collections of short stories, as well as essays published in the UK and US. Dartmouth College has a collection of her papers here.

The Review:

The biggest hurdle with The Desert and the Stars is its unfortunate style. Armitage's novelist instincts overwhelm her sober subject matter, and we're treated to laughably overripe palaver on the most banal subjects. For instance, Armitage writes of Lawrence's birthplace (p. 16):
"The house at Tremadoc... stood in the midst of a garden where the August flowers bowed their heads to the wind, and over which islands of Atlantic cumulus moved in shadowing phalanxes. To the south of Tremadoc the waters of a bay shimmered; and to the north the green foothills rose slowly up to the craggy peak of Snowdon."

Later, describing the fort at Azrak (p. 115):
"In winter a desolation more acute overtook it, for it was swept then by northeast winds and buffeted with driving rains. A pestilent dampness inflicted it, and a long and lingering melancholy which hovered like a hidden enemy in the gloomy passageways, waited upon the unwary, to swoop, to seize, to destory. Like a banshee the wind blew notes of doom through the volcanic rock towers which echoed into the shivering quiet below, trembled there, and then departed until the next gust."

This reader finds a little purple prose goes a long way. 300-plus pages of it are insufferable.

Other style points niggle, too. Throughout, Armitage insists on calling her subject "Edward Lawrence." Perhaps this is to distinguish him from his father, except she continues this affectation after the senior Lawrence departs. Awkward literary and Biblical allusions riddle the text to no effect. Ms. Armitage should have spent less time displaying her erudition than exploring her subject.

Armitage addresses many of Aldington's critiques. She concedes several points on Lawrence's honesty, but takes a more benign view. Recounting his claim of having read every book in the Oxford Union (tediously debunked by Aldington), she sniffs that "it is surely pedantic to take [it] seriously" (26). I'm inclined to agree; Lawrence's dishonesty was certainly more playful than pathological. She similarly addresses his claims about Lawrence's childhood; his alleged hatred of women; his heroism, politics and sexuality. It's a convincing rebuttal to Lawrence debunkers, though obviously not conclusive.

In this telling, Lawrence has a happy childhood. Armitage tiptoes over Lawrence's illegitimacy and describes him as a precocious child, mixing his mother's strength of character and morality with his father's love of history and machines. His time at Oxford and Carchemish receives almost idyllic treatment, his relationships with Dahoum and D.G. Hogarth lacking the sexual/political implications of later biographers. It seems fairly bowdlerized, even if one rejects Aldington's portrait of subtle repression. Armitage's repeating of apocryphal canards - for instance, that Lawrence's youthful leg fracture retarded his growth - somewhat weakens her credibility.

Armitage skims over Lawrence's war years, stopping for introspection only at Deraa and Damascus. Aqaba gets a few paragraphs, while the Tafas massacre receives a single sentence. She makes little effort to address the Revolt's effectiveness, though her assessment of Hussein as "a crotchety, devious-minded but sincere Arab patriot" (102) rings true. Less so does her implication that Lawrence was the Revolt's only worthwhile personage. Either Armitage had little interest in the subject or felt it would be familiar from past books.

Armitage excels, however, with Lawrence's post-war career. Aside from "personal portraits" like Claire Sydney Smith's The Golden Reign, most biographers up to 1955 elided his later activities, and Armitage's detailed description deserves commendation. She depicts Lawrence's unhappy stint in the Tank Corps, service in India and famous friends with skill. We encounters a Lawrence struggling with his fame, detesting life in the ranks and finding solace in technical achievements and unorthodox companions. It's only missing the testimony of witnesses like John Bruce, unavoidable in its era.

Armitage echoes Robert Graves in calling Lawrence "an iceberg... display(ing) a myriad of dazzling shapes and contours, though the inner matrix is forever hidden" (307). She views Lawrence's aversion to feminine company as product of his college and war experience rather than misogyny. "His hatred for sex should not be misconstrued... as a hatred of women," she chides (254). Similarly, she rebukes claims of Lawrence as budding Fascist, claiming that he "never had any message for mankind" (266). She ultimately views him as "a spirit so modern in vision and temper that his century has not caught up with him" (307) - a man who mixed the virtues of the scholar and soldier with nagging self-doubt and interior demons.

Despite its merits, The Desert and the Stars proves underwhelming. If one overlooks the acres of aureate verbiage it's readable, but offers few original insights or penetrating analyses.