Matthew Walther

Secretive, arrogant and reckless: the young T.E. Lawrence began life as he meant to go on

A review of Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man, by Anthony Sattin. But don't expect this book to make sense of this enigmatic figure

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.

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