The only things I knew (prior to reading this book) about Lawrence of Arabia were that he was a soldier in the Arab Campaign during World War I and that there is a Peter O’Toole film about him. There is also a copy of his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the family bookshelves. Yes, it, too, is now on my reading pile.
If I’m honest, I have never really thought about the man, though he is the stuff of legend and myth, so it was only when I visited Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire where I discovered he and George Bernard Shaw’s (G.B.S.) wife, Charlotte, had exchanged hundreds of letters, that my interest was piqued. Why would a 31 year younger than her bachelor exchange hundreds of letters with a married woman with whom he was not romantically involved, but who became a confidante and possibly even a soulmate?
This book sheds a good deal of light on that question and provided even more highly-readable material. It was heartening to see that the publisher of my forthcoming book on Pamela Colman Smith was also the publisher of this author, Dr Andrew Norman. He poses several questions about Lawrence which he endeavours to answer, the stuff of good biography, for there is always something which captures the writer’s imagination/sets them off on a research trail. For example, why did this famous figure choose a life of relative obscurity in the armed services? What was the true nature of his sexuality? The book suggests that Lawrence, who never married, was ritually masochistic, wanting to be socially despised, but then his own book tells of his rape at the hands of the Turks during the Desert Campaign which perhaps gives additional background to this. Andrew Norman suggests Lawrence was not homosexual as is often supposed; rather he disliked physical relationships generally and suffered ‘sexual aversion disorder’. This was apparent before his awful experience but was surely exacerbated by his later treatment at the hands of the Turks and his ensuing likely Rape Trauma Syndrome.
In the sexually averse sense, he was like Charlotte Townshend (Shaw). Both also had problematic relationships with their mothers, so there was common ground and a bond. Additionally, both mixed with the literati. Lawrence was a friend of the poet, Siegfried Sassoon and also Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy and E. M. Forster, for example. The author also sheds new light on Lawrence’s fatal motorcycle crash in May 1935.
All in all, a fascinating book about a popular historical figure. I enjoyed the short chapters which were easy to dip into, the plethora of information and the author’s objectivity. Lawrence is probably not everyone’s cup of tea for reading matter but I found him fascinating – and as Andrew Norman says – tormented.