A Durable Lawrence (TE)
I read somewhere that, with the exception of one or two years
during World War II, not a year has passed since 1922 without
a book by or about T.E. Lawrence being published. For those of
you reaching for a calculator, that's 73 years. There were (and
still are) years in which more than one such book has been published.
No matter what the final tally, it's quite a lot of paper devoted
to the recording of one man's life.
Several factors over those seventy-odd years have contributed
to periodic surges of popularity. Each of these publications has
sparked a corresponding renewed biographical interest - the ultimate
result being more published books.
The first impetus would have been Lowell Thomas' slide lecture,
The Last Crusade - With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence
in Arabia, that he performed to packed London houses such
as The Royal Albert Hall in the early 1920's. Thomas eventually
took it on a worldwide tour and made a fortune from it. In 1924
his book, With Lawrence in Arabia,was published
and was followed by The Boy's Life of Colonel Lawrence
in 1927. Other biographies began to appear such as Lawrence
and the Arabs (1927) by Robert Graves and 'T.E.
Lawrence' in Arabia and After (1934) by Basil Liddell
T. E. in Arab head dress, 1917
In 1927 Jonathan Cape & George H. Doran published Revolt
in the Desert, which was an abridgment of Seven
Pillars of Wisdom. TE abridged Seven Pillars of
Wisdom and allowed it to be published so that the royalties
would help pay for the illustrations and production of the "Subscriber's"
edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. When he had
the money he needed, he donated the rest to the RAF Benevolent
Fund which cared for the families of RAF pilots who died while
on duty. The sales of Revolt in the Desert astounded
everyone; especially Jonathan Cape, who was able to move his small
publishing house to much larger quarters and become recognized
in London publishing circles. It was in no small part due to the
success of Revolt in the Desert that he was able
to do this.
TE died as the result of a fatal motorcycle crash in 1935. It
was in that year that Jonathan Cape and George H. Doran published
(in the UK and US respectively) the first limited and trade editions
of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Actually, in the bibliographic
sense, these were the third editions. They were preceded by two
much smaller editions. The first, called the "Oxford Edition"
consisted of only eight copies that TE had printed on the
Oxford Times printing press. The "Oxford Edition"
is obviously the scarcest of all, bringing bids of $100,000 and
more at auction, when one emerges - which isn't, as you might
have guessed, often. The second edition is referred to as both
the "Cranwell" and "Subscriber's" edition.
It was been given the description "Cranwell" because
TE was at the RAF cadet school in Cranwell at the time of its
publication. It has also been termed the "Subscriber's"
edition because it was sold by subscription.
The "Subscriber's" edition was an elaborate book whose
every aspect - down to the minutest detail - was supervised by
TE. He deliberately chose to use several binders, so that no two
books would look alike. He did not number or identify any of them
in any way so the total number of copies produced has always been
a mystery. These copies, when they appear, command prices of tens
of thousands of dollars.
In the years following 1935 several of TE's lesser known works
were published in Britain. Crusader Castles: The influence
of the Crusades on European military architecture - to the end
of the XIIth Century (Golden Cockerel Press, 1936), his
Oxford thesis; Diary of T.E. Lawrence MCMXI (Corvinus
Press, 1937), the diary he kept while on a walking tour of Syria
in 1911; Two Arabic Folk Tales (Corvinus Press,
1937), two Arabic children's stories he translated in 1911;
An Essay on Flecker (Corvinus Press, 1937), an article
on poet and friend James Elroy Flecker; Secret Despatches
from Arabia (Golden Cockerel Press, 1937), a compilation
of TE's contributions to the Arab Bulletin, which
was a British Intelligence circular for the Arab Bureau in Cairo
during World War I; Oriental Assembly (Williams
& Norgate, 1939), a compilation of his 1911 diary, the introductory
chapter of Seven Pillars (which was suppressed in
the 1935 as it was considered to controversial), several newspaper
articles, and 129 photos taken by TE; and Men in Print
(Golden Cockerel Press, 1940), a compilation of book reviews
TE wrote, some under the pseudonym of "C.D." (Colin
Among other books published on both sides of the Atlantic in
1937/8 were The Letters of T.E. Lawrence (1938),
the first collection of TE's letters; T.E. Lawrence by His
Friends (1937), essays written by friends of TE's aspects
of TE they felt they knew best; and T.E. Lawrence to His
Biographers (1938) by Robert Graves and Basil H. Liddell
The number of Lawrence-related publications in the postwar years
was lean compared to the number published in the 1930's. However,
in 1955 TE's The Mint: A day-book of the R.A.F. Depot between
August and December 1922 with later notes by 352087 A/c Ross
and Richard Aldington's Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical
Enquiry were published. Aldington's biography, which was
among the first to make reference to TE's illegitimacy (his real
family name was Chapman), also generally attempted to debunk the
Lawrence of Arabia legend. The biography caused quite a stir among
Lawrencians and, of course, much was published as a result. Some
of these books were published as direct rebuttals to Aldington's
In 1962, Columbia Pictures released David Lean's Lawrence
of Arabia. The film, though historically inaccurate in
many ways, won seven Academy Awards and, of course, prompted several
new biographies of Lawrence for adults and children. It also,
believe it or not, caused the publication of several comic books
with "Lawrence of Arabia" themes.
Seven years later, part of the embargo on official British secret
documents concerning TE's activities in the Middle East was lifted.
Arnold Lawrence (TE's youngest brother) then allowed two London
Sunday Times reporters access to the TE document
collection at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The result was
The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1969), which
was the most immediate consequence of this abundance of fresh
The 70's brought the publication of John Mack's A Prince
of Our Disorder (1976). Mack, then Head of the Department
of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, brought to his biography
the psychological aspects of TE's personality in a very readable
fashion. Winning for him the Pulitzer Prize in biography, the
book is still regarded by many as the best all-round biography
Harford Montgomery Hyde's Solitary in the Ranks: Lawrence
of Arabia as Airman and Private Soldier (1977) dealt with
TE's post-war years, i.e. 1922 to 1935 - a hitherto neglected,
but immensely interesting, period during which TE retired from
public life and enlisted in the RAF. Among his many achievements
during that period, he translated The Odyssey of Homer
(1932) for Bruce Rogers. For Jonathan Cape he translated
the French author Adrien LeCorbeau's Le Gigantesque
(The Forest Giant).(1924). He wrote The Mint,
a then extremely controversial look at the barracks life in his
early days in the RAF. Lawrence also developed and nurtured friendships
with the likes of John Buchan, Winston Churchill, F.N. Doubleday,
E.M. Forster, David and Edward Garnett, Robert Graves, Thomas
Hardy, Frederic Manning, Siegfried Sassoon, George Bernard and
Charlotte Shaw, Henry Williamson, and many other literary and
political figures of the day.
This decade, i.e. the 70's, also marked the beginning of scholarly
study of TE, with several doctoral dissertations being published
in the US and abroad (most notably in France and Germany).
Lawrencian publications in the 80's were given a lift by the
centennial of TE's birth in 1988. Among the many works published
that year, the most prominent was the definitive bibliography,
T.E. Lawrence: A Bibliography (1988). Compiled by
Philip O'Brien, the Director of Wardman Library at Whittier College,
this 724-page work is considered the bibliographic "bible"
for any Lawrencian collector. Phil is currently in the final stages
of compiling a supplement.
Peter O'Toole (left) as Lawrence with Omar Sharif in a scene from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia
The re-release of the film Lawrence of Arabia,
with several restored scenes, attracted immense interest. Jeremy
Wilson's Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorised Biography
(1989) was chosen by the New York Times Book Review
as one of the fourteen "Best Books of 1990".
The 90's have produced several biographies and a TV movie by
David Puttnam. A Dangerous Man starred the now much
sought after actor Ralph Fiennes. Even George Lucas' The
Young Indiana Jones Chronicles had TE appearing in a few
When and where will it all end? It's doubtful that it ever will.
The British government still has documentation that isn't due
to be released to public scrutiny till the year 2000. Several
collections of TE's letters and documents are still privately
held. At this very moment, a man named Clifford Irwin is compiling
a bibliographic database of TE's letters - their recipients, general
content, whereabouts, etc. It is estimated that in excess of 10,000
letters are in existence, most of which have never been published.
T. E. Lawrence in 1935 as photographed by R. G. Sims