The Lawrence books are piling up, aren’t they? I don’t mean the author of The Rainbow, though as I write this the eremites at Cambridge are plugging away at a definitive edition of his works. (Their most recent yield, the Poems in two volumes, runs to over 1,400 pages and costs £130.) The English leader of the Arab Revolt, who also went professionally by his initials and shared the other Lawrence’s penchant for travel, has fewer admirers in the academy but an uncanny ability to move copies. A few years ago there was a hulking 800-plus-page biography, and since then everything from a brilliant study of Lawrence’s relationship with the intelligence community to an unwieldy life of Faisal — who, alas, didn’t look much like Alec Guinness — have crossed reviewers’ desk.
Now comes Anthony Sattin with a short biography, taking us from T.E. Lawrence’s birth up to the precipice of the first world war, with all of its great triumphs, and the peace conference, with its even greater humiliations, still ahead. Lawrence was not always styled ‘T.E.’ or even ‘Edward’. As a child, he was called plain ‘Ned’, though he was anything but ordinary. He did good if erratic work at Oxford High School, excelling, like so many other autodidacts, at his favourite subjects, barely passing others. Obsessed with notions of chivalry, he spent his summer holidays cycling around England, making brass rubbings of crusaders’ tombs; his boyhood bedroom was ‘hung with treasures found on these outings… life-size figures of knights in armour and priests in elaborate vestments’. Later he took up archaeology, and it is pleasant, in an age of mandatory permits and regulations written up in impenetrable officialese, to think that it was once possible for bright teenagers simply to bribe workmen into giving them antiquities for the local museum.
It was through this amateur work that he met D.G. Hogarth, the middle-aged curator of Oxford’s Ashmolean museum, at 17, ‘the age’, he later wrote, ‘at which I suddenly found myself’. Hogarth, who had spent two decades tramping around the Levant, recognised Lawrence’s abilities and encouraged the young man, by then reading history at Jesus College, in his study of the medieval world. As an undergraduate Lawrence made two journeys — both of them, once more, on bicycle — in pursuit of a thesis on crusader castles: a 2,400-mile trip across France and an even longer one through Syria. Sattin tells us that Lawrence did not have high hopes for Chartres cathedral, but after seeing it, he wrote home to his mother that he had felt ‘as though I had found a path (a hard one) as far as the gates of Heaven, and had caught a glimpse of the inside, the gate being ajar’.
In Sattin’s account of this first Syrian adventure, we find Lawrence ignoring the advice of Charles Doughty, in those days Britain’s foremost expert on the Arab world, and dropping Arabic phrases into his letters home, despite then having almost no knowledge of the language — two early examples of the arrogance for which he later became infamous. We also see something of the peculiar recklessness now synonymous with his name: in the northern Golan Heights, he set fire to a patch of overgrowth that stood between him and a ruined fortress whose interior he wanted to explore.
After returning to Oxford and graduating with first-class honours, he was awarded a postgraduate scholarship at Magdalen. This he abandoned in 1910 to join Hog-arth at an archaeological dig in Carchemish, near what is now the border between Turkey and Syria. He returned to England only for a few brief visits, and he might have spent his entire life digging had he not been co-opted by military intelligence in 1914, a clandestine appointment that paved the way for his career in the army.
Sattin thinks he was well suited to intelligence work, not only because he was clever but also because his mind was a secretive one. Despite his not being told about it until after the war, Lawrence claimed to have known since childhood that he was illegitimate. (His humble father was actually Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, an Anglo-Irish baronet who had run away with a Scottish parlour maid.) An even greater secret, one at which he hinted only to Bernard Shaw and a few others, was his chaste love for Ahmed, a clever and beautiful Syrian whom he nicknamed ‘Dahoum’ (‘Darkness’) and to whom, under the initials ‘S.A.’, he dedicated Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
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.
Whatever his hopes for Ahmed, they were not to be. In Sattin’s brief postwar epilogue, we see Lawrence learn that the young man who had taught him Arabic had probably died of typhus in 1916, well before Lawrence had achieved any of his great victories or even joined the revolt.
Reading this biography reminded me that Lawrence’s prose, though old-fashioned and a bit operose, is full of beautiful things. He was surely one of the great letter-writers of the last century. I especially liked the proto-Nabokovian hints in his description of ‘strange, indefinable scents, memories of myrtle and oleander, musk, cinnamon and ambergris’ on his visit to Qasr ibn Wardan, an ancient Syrian church built by Justinian I.
Sattin’s own writing is mostly good, though there are some awkward bits. I can’t imagine that many people interested in reading 300 pages about Lawrence will need to be informed that the crusades were ‘a series of invasions and wars waged by Europeans in the Middle East in the name of religion’. Even American readers will groan when they are told that Lawrence’s father attended Eton, ‘the famous English private school’. And of course there’s that subtitle, with its facile allusion and its tuneless repetition of ‘young’.
Still, this is an enjoyable book and a welcome addition to the literature on Lawrence, even if, for all the interesting material Sattin has collated, I don’t feel as if I understand his enigmatic subject any better than I did before opening it.