Book Review: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
Michael Korda (JR Books, £25)

Ever since the acerbic Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, there has been a tendency for modern biographies to debunk the heroes of yesteryear, and few have been more tempting candidates than Lawrence of Arabia, with his penchant for backing into the limelight and embellishing his own image.

So it is a joy to find a new and comprehensive bio-graphy of him that acknowledges in its title and throughout its 700 pages that T. E. Lawrence was indeed a figure of indisputably heroic proportions. Certainly, the most discriminating of his contemporaries recognised this to be the case: George V offered him the Order of Merit, John Buchan said he would have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world, and one of the proudest Arab sheiks declared: ‘My heart was iron, but his was steel.’

This book was first published in America, and British readers may find some of the remarks about English institutions, such as Oxford University, a bit simplistic or even patronising (‘the university’s buildings are spread through the town-among them are such architectural landmarks as the Bodleian Library’ and so on). But when the author concentrates on Lawrence himself at Oxford, the narrative immediately becomes more original and interesting.

It’s clear Lawrence was always an outsider, acutely aware of his illegitimate birth, reluctant to dine in his college hall, a non-participant in team sports and a non-joiner of clubs in fact, enjoying a ‘Cheshire cat-like invisibility’ at Jesus College. He was, however, a serious scholar, focusing his attention on what interested him rather than what was on the curriculum in his case, crusader castles in the Middle East, the subject of a brilliant thesis that helped to secure him an outstanding First Class degree.

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In the course of his travels to study the castles, Lawrence came under fire for the first time in his life and his reaction was that of Winston Churchill: ‘Nothing in life is more exhilar-ating than to be shot at without result.’ He emerged from Oxford in 1910 committed to adventure and the world of Arabian deserts.

Lawrence’s dramatic exploits in the First World War have been retold many times, not least by himself in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Michael Korda explodes a number of formerly accepted myths, including Lawrence’s own story that he was never actually commissioned in the army at all, but ‘simply went out to the Army-Navy store at lunchtime and bought himself an off-the-rack uniform’.

In his military-intelligence role in Cairo in the early part of the war, Lawrence’s task was ‘to dream and to dare’, and when he was eventually released to ferment the Arab revolt against the Otto-man empire, he demonstrated how to put such dreams and daring into effective action. Every guerilla fighter ever since be they the Long Range Desert Group in Libya, Fitzroy Maclean in Yugoslavia, or Che Guevara in Latin America has drawn inspiration and often technical skills from Lawrence.

Mr Korda does not devote too much space to the vexed question of his subject’s sexual pro-
clivities. Although the sexual abuse to which Lawrence was subjected when captured by the Turks at Deraa disturbed him deeply and permanently, this was not a dominant theme in his life. What was a dominant theme was the fascination and repulsion engendered by the cult of celebrity.

Mr Korda compares him in this respect to Diana, Princess of Wales: he was, after his fame was established by the First World War, at one and the same time inclined to manipulate the press and to flee from them into the anonymity of the ranks of the tank corps and the ranks of the air force. In the barrack rooms of both, he demonstrated that ability to relate to people of a different social class from himself that, again, Diana was to show.

And the people’s hero, like the people’s princess, was to die tragically early in a road accident. This book is probably the most significant memorial to him since David Lean’s famous film of nearly 50 years ago.