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T(homas) E(dward) Lawrence (1888-1935) - byname Lawrence of Arabia, also called from 1927 T.E. Shaw

 

British archeological scholar, adventurer, military strategist, and the writer of  The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1927), an ambitious work, which combines a detailed account of the Arab revolt against the Turks and the author's own spiritual autobiography. T.E. Lawrence's enigmatic personality still fascinates biographers and his legend has also inspired filmmakers. T.E. Lawrence was better known in his lifetime as 'Lawrence of Arabia' because of the dashing role he had in helping Arabs against the Turks during World War I. At 31 Lawrence was an international celebrity but embittered by his country's policy he chose obscurity and died at the age of 46 after a motorcycle accident.

"I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into
my hands and wrote my will across
the sky in stars.
To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared
worthy house, that your eyes might be
shining for me.
When we came."

(from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926, dedication)

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Carnarvonshire, North Wales, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, seventh Baronet of Westmeath in Ireland. Since Lady Chapman refused a divorce, he had left her, and set up a new home with Sarah Junner, a woman who had been governess in his household. Sarah was fifteen years his junior. Sir Thomas moved with her to a large semi-detached house in north Oxford, where they were known as Mr and Mrs Lawrence. Outwardly they lived normal Victorian age life, but actually with a sense of guilt. Lawrence was the third son of this union. He learned the secret of his parents at the age of ten.

Lawrence began to read books and newspapers before going to school. From his father, who lived as a gentleman of 'independent means,' he learned to love bicycling and photography. Lawrence was educated at the Oxford High School. He won a Welsh scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, where he read modern history. In the summer of 1909, he went alone on a walking tour through Syria, Palestine, and parts of Turkey. By September he had covered some 1,100 miles. Making careful notes, Lawrence visited 36 crusader castles. His thesis on "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the End of the XIIth Century" gained him a first-class honours degree in 1910. Lawrence was awarded a post-graduate scholarship by Magdalen College, and appointed by the British museum to an important archeological dig.

In 1911 Lawrence was in Syria and participated on an expedition excavating the Hittite site of Carchemish on Euphrates. First he worked under D.G. Hogarth, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, and then, from 1912, under Leonard Woolley. However, digging did not really inspire him: "I am not going to put all my energies into rubbish like writing history, or becoming an archeologist," he told his mother. "I would much rather write a novel even, or become a newspaper correspondent..." He was impressed by John Buchan's "clean-lined, speedy, breathless" books and said to Edward Garnett in 1933 that "For our age they mean nothing: they are sport, only: but will a century hence disinter them and proclaim him the great romancer of our blind and undeserving generation." 

On his Arabic travels, Lawrence carried three books, the romances of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, the Greek comedies of Aristophanes, and the Oxford Book of English Verse. In Egypt Lawrence worked under Sir Flinders Petrie, and took part in a survey in Palestine. In Carchemish he became a friend of the site's 14-year-old water boy, Dahoum and taught him to read and write and dedicated him The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Their friendship raised eyebrows, but Jeremy Wilson has argued in his authorized biography from 1990, that rumors of a physical relationship have led many astray.

During these years Lawrence acquired the knowledge of the language and customs of the Arab people. After the outbreak of World War I, he was assigned to intelligence as an expert on Arab. In 1916 he joined the forces of the Arabian sheik Feisal al Husayn. In The Seven Pillars Lawrence describes his first meeting with Feisal: "I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek – the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory. Feisal looked very tall and pillar like, very slender, in his long white silk robes and his brown headcloth... His eyelids were dropped; and his black beard and colourless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body."

Taking on Arab costume himself, he began to work with Feisal to launch a fullscale revolt of the tribes. In 1916 he was captured and subjected to beatings and homosexual rape by the Turkish governor of Deraa, ''an ardent paederast'' (Lawrence's own term). Though he escaped, Lawrence was shattered by the experience. "I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with – our bodily integrity," he later wrote. Lawrence's masochist tendencies became much later public when a Sunday newspaper published an interview with a former Tank Corps private who carried out ritual floggings, at Lawrence's request, from 1925 to 1934. Professor A.W. Lawrence, the youngest member of the family and his brother's literary executor, confessed in an interview in 1986 that Lawrence hated the thought of sex. "He had read any amount of medieval literature about characters – some of them saints, some of them not – who had quelled sexual longings by beatings. And that's what he did." Numerous biographers believe that the Der'a incident did not happen, it was a deception created by Lawrence who has been credited with the quote, "On the whole I prefer lies to truth, particularly where they concern me."

Brave beyond compare, Lawrence soon acknowledged as an influential figure in the Arab forces. He formed an alliance with Auda abu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat tribe, known for his courage and brutality. When one of Auda's men was lost in the desert, he went to find him. With this act, Lawrence obtained the high respect of the troops. Lawrence fought in the desert landscape of Wadi Rum. Especially Lawrence's guerrilla warfare undermined successfully Germany's Ottoman ally – they blew up sections of the vital Hejaz Railway, which carried Muslim pilgrims from Syria to holy sites, and raided Turkish positions. Lawrence claimed to have personally destroyed seventy-nine bridges during the Arabian revolt; in fact the number was twenty-three.

During the campaigns Lawrence was wounded several times – he suffered from dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds. He took the port of Aqaba in July of 1917, without firing a shot, and led his Arab forces into the desert, distracting the Turks when the British army began its invasion of Palestine and Syria. However, Lawrence's military victories were shadowed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which promised Syria to the French and undermined the idea of an Arab homeland in Syria. These years Lawrence later described in his work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A new national hero was born, when the American journalist Lowell Thomas gained success with his lectures in London on Sir Edmund Allenby's invasion of Syria and especially Lawrence's  exploits with the Arabs. On his campaigns Lawrence used the reports of Gertrude Margaret Lowthia Bell, who had investigated Arab archaelogical sites; they had met when he was on a Hittite dig and became friends. Later she joined the British intelligence division in Cairo. Like Lawrence, she never married.

After World War I Lawrence accompanied the Arab delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris, first as Feisal's adjutant. He was a research fellow at Oxford and served at the invitation of Winston Churchill as a political adviser to the Middle East Department in the Colonial Office (1921-22). H. St. John Philby, the father of the Soviet double agent Kim Philby, succeeded Lawrence as Chief British Representative in Trans-Jordan. The senior Philby converted later to Islam, assuming the name Hajj Abdullah. Before his death, Lawrence contemplated a search for the lost city of Ubar, of which Philby tells in his book The Empty Quarter (1933).

Charles Doughty's classic account of his 1876-78 travels in Arabia, Travels in Arabia Deserta, was reissued in 1921 with an introduction by Lawrence; the book had captured his imagination in 1911-12. Later he complained of Doughty's "inhuman arrogance" and his "unshakeable conviction of his own rightness".

Lawrence refused a knighthood and the Victorian Cross. At the height of his fame, Lawrence resigned disgusted from his post and enlisted the Royal Air Force under the assumed name of John Hume Ross. He took the rank of aircraftman, the lowest in the servive. However, he did not live like a recluse, as it has been claimed. On the day of his enlistment, Lawrence sent a letter to G.B. Shaw, requesting him to evaluate The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. When his true identity was discovered - an RAF officer tipped off the press - he joined the Royal Tank Corps under the name of Thomas Edward Shaw, a name he would legally adopt in 1927. Lawrence he returned in 1925 to the Air Force as Shaw, serving in England and on a desolate RAF outpost in India for ten years. In Afghanistan he worked in an engine repair depot. Supplementing his meager income, Lawrence translated the Odyssey for an American publisher - the project took four years. The vivid prose version of Homer's Odyssey was a bestseller.

Lawrence left the service in 1935 and moved to Moreton, Dorsetshire. There he bought a little cottage named Clouds Hill. "I imagine leaves must feel like this after they have fallen from their tree and until they die," Lawrence wrote in a letter.

In the last 12 years of his life, Lawrence owned seven motorcycles manufactured by George Brough. They were the fastest in the U.K. On May 13, 1935, Lawrence was in an accident near his home - he tried to avoid two boys on bicycles, lost the control of his motorcycle given to him by G.B. Shaw and slammed into the ground. Moments before the fatal crash, a black car or van was seen passing his motorcycle. Lawrence died at Bovington Camp Hospital without regaining consciousness on May 19. "Many men would take the death-sentence without a whimper," he had said, "to escape the life-sentence which fate carries in her other hand." Lawrence's monument was later erected in the old Anglo-Saxon church of St. Martin at Wareham in Dorset. St. John Philby took possession of Lawrence's personal files covering the years 1914 through 1921.

The first draft of of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom disappeared in 1919 at Reading station. Lawrence carried the manuscript in a black banker's bag, which he put under the table. The bag was stolen.After losing the manuscript, Lawrence rewrote it without notes, but considered the result unsatisfactory. The third version was first published in a limited edition, with illustrations by Eric Kennington. A shortened, popular version, entitled Revolt in the Desert, came out in 1927. The work has been praised as a literary masterpiece and condemned as an example of monstrous self-aggrandizement. The Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny said that he carried a copy of the book.

Lawrence's other books include autobiographical account of his time in the Royal Air Force, The Mint (1936). Its matter-of-fact tone has has been compared to that of Hemingway. The Letters of T.E. Lawrence (1938) was edited by David Garnett. Lawrence's cottage at Clouds Hill in Wareham is under the care of the National Trust. The T.E. Lawrence Poems (1982), composed from Lawrence's point of view, were written by the Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987).

Lawrence's life and his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom formed the basis of David Lean's film, Lawrence of Arabia (1963), produced by Sam Spiegel. In the 1930s Alexander Korda had planned to film the Lawrence legend, in 1952 Harry Cohn of Columbia had revived the idea, and Terence Rattigan spent three years on a script to be directed by Anthony Asquith, starring Dirk Bogarde. When Lean launched his project, Spiegel told him that Marlon Brando would play Lawrence. In a letter to the director Rex Ingram, who was fascinated by exotic North Africa, Lawrence had written already in the 1930s: "They babble sometimes to me of making a film of Revolt in the Desert. I have no property in it, so that I hope they will not. Hollywood offered £6,000 or something, which the Trustees turned down. Long may they go on turning it down. I'd hate so see myself parodied on the pitiful basis of my record of what the fellows with me did."

Peter O'Toole in the title role repeated Lawrence's fatal motorcycle accident when a towing bar from the camera car snapped and sent the trailer-mounted cycle straight toward a ditch. Much much of the film was made in Jordania, at a site in the desert called Jebel Tubeiq, but the city scenes – Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem – were shot on sets in Spain, where the port of Akaba was rebuilt. Some scenes were filmed in Morocco. Lawrence of Arabia won seven Academy Awards; Michael Jarre's music greatly contributed to its success. The score comprised three elements: the famous 'Lawrence Theme,' a group of "Arabian" melodies, and a varioius pieces of an atmospheric nature. Jarre turned out to be not only a very good composer for space and sand, but perhaps even better composer for love, snow and Russian Revolution: his music for Doctor Zhivago won him his second Oscar. All critics were not enthusiastic about the film. Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice (December 20, 1962): "Simply another expensive mirage, dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal... on the whole I find it hatefully calculating and condescending... If a beautiful girl were stripped and then flogged for her resistence, the censors would be up in arms demanding and end to this immorality... but let a man be stripped and flogged, and we are supposed to be impressed with the seriousness of the theme. Perhaps Lawrence of Arabia is one brutal queer film too many..."

The American writer James Baldwin compares the film to Rudyard Kipling's 'Gunga Din' and sees that Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the dilemma of all the colonizing powers, but especially the compulsion of the English to make the world their mirror. After his humiliation Lawrence leads his men to massacre of the Turks. Baldwin points out that rape was not unknown in English public schools, and the fate of an English schoolboy "at the hands of infidels who refuse to be civilized, cannot be used to justify the bloody course of Empire, or the ruthless stratagems of power: this schoolboy is armed with the weight of a nation, and his mortification is, or should be, nothing to the point." (from The Devil Finds Work, 1976)

"Although Lawrence genuinely tried to see things from an Arab point of view, and did so more successfully than most, his technique of 'empathy' remained a method of control. He believed the traditional Arabs morally superior to Europeans because they were 'primitive' and therefore 'innocent,' but not intellectually so. The reality of his privileged position was stated frankly when he wrote: 'Really this country, for the foreigner, is too glorious for words: one is really the baron in the feudal system.'" (from Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher, 1999)
For further reading: Lawrence and the Arabs by R. Graves (1927); Lawrence of Arabia by R. H. Kiernan (1935); T.E. Lawrence by A.W. Lawrence (1937); Golden Reign by C.S. Smith (1949); Lawrence of Arabia by R Aldington (1955); Private Shaw and Public Shaw by S. Weintraub (1963); Lawrence of Arabia by R. Payne (1966); Desert and Stars: A Biography of Lawrence of Arabia by F. Armitage (1955); T.E. Lawrence: A Readers' Guide by F. Clemens (1973); Lawrence of Arabia by P. Knightley (1976); T.E. Lawrence by D.S. Stewart (1977); A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence by John E. Mack (1978); Lawrence of Arabia by K. Allen (1978); T.E. Lawrence by S.E. Tabachnick (1978); Lawrence of Arabia by R. Ebert and R.M. Schofield (1979); T.E. Lawrence by R. Warde (1987); T.E. Lawrence by M. Yardley (1987); The Wounded Spirit by J. Meyers (1989); A Touch of Genius: The Life of T.E. Lawrence by Malcolm Brown (1989); The Golden Wrrior by L. James (1990); Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence by Jeremy Wilson (1990); Garland of Legends by S.A. Sugarman (1992); Lawrence of Arabia by J. Wilson (1992); Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher (1999); The Waters of Babylon by David Stevens (2000); The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda (2010) - See also: Robert Graves, G.A.Wallin, André Malraux (who considered T.E. Lawrence his hero model)

Selected works:

  • Carchdemis, 1914 (with C.L. Wooley)
  • The Wilderness of Zin, 1915
  • Translation of The Forest King by A. Le Corbeau, 1924
  • The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926
  • The Revolt in the Desert, 1927
    - Erämaan kapina (suom. Heikki Teittinen, 1928)
  • Translation of Homer's Odyssey, 1932
  • Crusaders' Castles II, 1936
  • Diary, 1937
  • The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, 1938 (ed. David Garnett)
  • T.E. Lawrence to His Biographers, 1938 (by Robert Graves and Basil H. Liddell Hart)
  • Secret Despatches from Arabia, 1939 (foreword by A. W. Lawrence)
  • Oriental Assembly, 1939 (with A.W. Lawrence)
  • Men in Print: Essays in Literary Criticism, 1940 (introduction by A.W. Lawrence)
  • Selected Letters, 1941 (ed. David Garnett)
  • Lawrence's Letters to H.S. Ede, 1927-1935 1942 (foreword and running commentary by H. S. Ede)
  • Essential T.E. Lawrence, 1951 (ed. David Garnett)
  • The Home Letters, 1954 (ed. M. R. Lawrence)
  • The Mint, 1955 (ed. A.W. Lawrence)
  • T.E. Lawrence Fifty Letters, 1962
  • Evolution of a Revolt, 1968 (ed. S. and R. Weintraub)
  • Minorities, 1971 (ed. J. M. Wilson)
  • The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, 1988 (ed. Malcolm Brown)
  • Letters to E.T. Leeds, 1988 (ed. Jeremy Wilson)
  • Selected Letters, 1989 (ed. Malcolm Brown)
  • Lawrence of Arabia, Strange Man of Letters: The Literary Criticism and Correspondence of T.E. Lawrence, 1993 (ed. Harold Orlans)


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