Lawrence of Legend
The lost critic and the legend of Lawrence of Arabia
When I was spending summer afternoons copying Arabic lettering off the blackboard at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, I would often catch myself staring out of the dull, aluminum-framed windows. Where were the sweeping skylines pricked with minarets, the romantic deserts, the bustling bazaars of my imagined Middle East? Where were the clash and drama of newspaper coverage of wars and revolutions? Much of the Arabic syllabus seemed to peter out around the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and their takeover of the Arab World soon thereafter. Strangely, it seemed to me, even Britain’s extraordinary twentieth century moment in the Middle East was almost never discussed in my university classes.
In those days, soon after the publication of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, our teachers were also determined to avoid the Orientalist label. Sweeping vistas were out. The fashion was for minute, detailed study of manageably small events and narrow themes—and, for me, those impossible-looking curves and dots scratched in chalk on the blackboard. One result was that I began to nurse a secret love of the breezy memoirs and letters of the British who passed through the history of the East and could write well about it: Lady Wortley Montague, dragomans and ambassadors; or officials like John Bagot Glubb (dubbed “Glubb Pasha”), Sir Mark Sykes and Sir Harry Luke, even a glossy vision of Iraq that leaped from the pages of the 1955 yearbook of the London-based Iraqi Petroleum Company, a treasure I discovered on an upper floor of Baghdad’s old book market.
The most glamorous of them all, of course, was T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—and his voluptuous literary feast, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This promised and delivered “the sweep of the open spaces, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight and the hopes.” Before going up to Oxford I had bought a copy of this account of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt. I thrilled to his desert guerrilla raiding as a semi-amateur British army officer, his seamless acceptance into a different world to which I aspired to belong. I admired his promotion of the oppressed Arabs’ cause, and the selfless sacrifice of his status when London betrayed their promises of Arab independence. This work seemed to be considered almost pornographic by the Oriental Institute dons, but since we never studied the period or discussed the book in any depth, I never learned why.
Then one recent day in Edinburgh, I came across the plain black cover of the first edition of Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, a book I had never heard of. Here, in the folds of what I judged was measured prose, was concealed a jeweled dagger of a polemic. It led me into a whole world of debate about the Lawrence story—the great film, the (lack of) sex, his genius, his psychology—of which I am no scholar. But Aldington’s arguments did ring startlingly true as he portrayed Lawrence as one of my bugbears, a writer who exploits the confusion and magical reputation of the Middle East to play fast and loose with the facts.
Aldington was ambitious, seeking to deconstruct “the legend of Lawrence,” and to prove that key parts of his work were “heightened, exaggerated, faked, boastful and sometimes entirely without foundation,” making the British hero “at least half a fraud.” Even Lawrence’s trade-mark blowing up of Hejaz Railway trains, he said, was just “a wartime intensification of a constant peacetime nuisance,” and what other British and French officers equally proficient in such guerrilla actions lacked “was literary skill to write up their achievements.”
Aldington acknowledges that Lawrence’s lyrical description of the march to capture the Red Sea anchorage of Al-Wajh is “one of the admired set pieces of Seven Pillars,” with much singing, bouncing camels and barbaric splendor. But he then notes that Lawrence brought his men up two days late for the fight, during which British navy ships and men did the real fighting while the Bedouins hung back or looted. As for the ramshackle capture of the Red Sea harbor town of Aqaba—“another Gallipoli,” according to Seven Pillars—it had been done twice before in the war.
Later, the final British race through Palestine to Syria in 1918 was won thanks to old-fashioned bludgeoning by General Edmund Allenby’s main army columns, with Lawrence and his light raiders at most slightly distracting the Ottoman-German command with skirmishing on the desert flanks. It is sickening to read Aldington’s indictment of the massacres of retreating Ottoman and German troops by Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars, even if Lawrence admitted the slaughter. As for the great price on his head that Lawrence suggested was offered by his enemies, Aldington can find no evidence for it—nor indeed any mention of Lawrence in any of several accounts published by German or Ottoman officers who served in the Arabian peninsula.
Aldington also challenges a central pillar of the Lawrence legend. Lawrence told one of his biographers, Basil Liddell Hart, that “since about sixteen years of age [he had been] filled with the idea of freeing people and had chosen the Arabs as the only suitable ones left.” Later, Lawrence said he resigned from government service because Britain betrayed promises forwarded by him to the leaders of the Arab revolt, or as he puts it in Seven Pillars, “an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.”
Perhaps Lawrence was torn between a pro-Arab commitment and official instructions, but Aldington finds no proof that any authority ordered him to make any promises. Surprisingly, he even finds evidence that Lawrence’s Arabic was far from fluent. While Lawrence and the British faction to which he belonged may have had sincere sympathy for the Arab cause, Aldington believes “these causes were in the main British camouflage for . . . excluding the French.” As Lawrence put it in one letter, British policy should be to “biff the French out of all hope of Syria . . . won’t the French be mad if we win through?”
Aldington shows too the extraordinary degree to which Lawrence—not known to public opinion during the First World War itself—was catapulted to fame due to a delayed-action trick of US wartime propaganda. An American team out to boost morale, reporter Lowell Thomas and photographer Harry Chase, had tried the Western front but there, as Aldington puts it, “the drab butchery . . . did not lend itself either to thrilling photography or to eloquent narrative.” The pair then hit upon the idea of the Arabian front, where they found a ready and photogenic Lawrence.
The resulting show, eventually entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, was only ready in 1919, after the war was over. After a modest beginning in New York, the lecture tour became a sensation in the English-speaking world, with two thousand performances over four years. It was a true feast for the Orientalist imagination. In London, the promoters borrowed a “Moonlight on the Nile” scene from an opera set, a Dance of the Seven Veils was performed, and an Irish tenor off-stage sang a musical version of the Muslim call to prayer. Aldington says this was irresistible to a British public still in shock from the war:
What was now wanted was a success story, and who could give it better than an American, for whom success is a national duty? The technique was hardly understood at all in England, where advertising seldom rose above a flat monotony of uninventive mendacity—‘Ponsonby’s Pickles are the Best’ . . . Anyone who has seen a Japanese judo expert throwing hundredweights of London policemen about a stage will realize what Lowell Thomas did mentally and emotionally with those naïve British audiences.
The spectacle’s focus on Lawrence went so far as to include an inaccurate film subtitle stating that Lawrence dynamited the Hejaz Railway while other British officers remained at base. Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom followed, published in various public editions from 1926 onwards. In the introduction, Lawrence strikes a modest pose:
My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them.
But for all Lawrence’s later denials, Aldington painstakingly shows he was deeply involved in helping Thomas create the show that put him front and center. As Lawrence told Thomas, “History isn’t made up of truth anyway, so why worry?”
Aldington says he began his commission with no particular feelings about Lawrence. Aldington was a minor poet of the 1910s imagist school, dedicated to replacing romantic abstractions with exact observed detail and apt metaphors, and one of sixteen First World War poets commemorated in London’s Westminster Abbey. He had also edited a literary magazine, written a successful novel based on his grueling years in the trenches of the Western Front, and published a prize-winning biography of the Duke of Wellington.
Yet publication of his unexpected findings about Lawrence gravely damaged Aldington’s reputation, book sales, and health. Britain was not ready to see its only hero to emerge from the morass of the war toppled, and many disapproved of his revelation of Lawrence’s probably “humiliating and painful” feelings about his illegitimate birth. When Aldington died in July 1962, seven years after publishing his Lawrence book, his obituary in The Times said he was “an angry young man of the generation before they became fashionable; he remained something of an angry old man to the end.” It called his attacks on British middle class values “shrill” and suggested that his Lawrence of Arabia book would be “better forgotten.”
And forgotten it was, a mere footnote now in the Lawrence legend industry. For a few—Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred Crawford—it proves how hard it is to attack a national idol. More usually—as in John Mack’s Prince of our Disorder, which won a Pulitzer in 1976—Lawrence remains “a great man and an important historical figure . . . [who] strongly influenced the [war’s] military outcome and the political aftermath.” Mack allows that Lawrence was at times “less than completely accurate” and “had some tendency to exaggerate his role and importance.” But Aldington’s work, he says, was a “flagrant example of the use of psychology . . . for denigrating purposes.”
Michael Korda, author of the most recent biography Hero, says Aldington was “obviously” wrong to dispute Lawrence’s claim that he was offered the prestigious top British job in Egypt after the war. But the proof of this is missing—indeed he implies Aldington was right in a way, saying any such offer was not serious—and Korda exaggerates in saying that Aldington’s “whole case” rests on this “idée fixe.” Nevertheless, Korda dismisses Aldington’s findings as “minor stuff” and a “sad object lesson in the perils of obsessive self-righteousness.”
Still, even Korda allows that “somebody was bound to come along and correct the balance” after the previous biographical “panegyrics . . . without any serious effort at independent research.” And Aldington does not accuse Lawrence of treachery, as one of Lawrence’s loyal fellow officers has suggested. He just draws attention to grandiose misrepresentation of Lawrence’s role, partly due to Lawrence’s own efforts, partly because everyone wanted to believe it.
Some writers on the Middle East have always doped up narratives, shaped up stories for audiences, or appropriated others’ work as their own. Such self-serving sensationalism is hard to expose, since normal people want to trust colleagues, newspapers and government figures—especially those heroically caught up in great events. Fact-checking is also difficult in this tumultuous region, and few in the Western audience can compare what they read with personal experience. It is precisely these generations of repeated inaccuracies that have widened the gulf of understanding between the region and Western public opinion.
Aldington was bravely ready to show that reality counts, and paid a great price for showing that a fabulous legend was an extraordinary but hyped-up story. No wonder those Oxford academics preferred digging up matters that are buried in a deep and less sensitive past.