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Author Biography: Michael Asher has made expeditions in many countries, always traveling on foot or by camel. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has won both the Ness Award of the Royal Geographic Society and the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He is the author of eight books, including Thesiger: A Biography and Two Against the Sahara.
Apparent Queen Unveiled Her Peerless Light
In 1879, a beautiful young woman called Sarah Lawrence alighted from a ferry at Dublin to begin the great adventure of her life. She was to be governess to the children of a wealthy gentleman called Thomas Chapman, who owned a mansion and a vast estate near Delvin in County Westmeath. Though just eighteen, Sarah was a woman of extraordinary dominance and ability, who had already overcome social barriers which many would have found insurmountable. Born the illegitimate daughter of a Tyneside shipwright named John Lawrence, deserted by her father and orphaned at nine by her own alcoholic mother, she had been brought up by an Episcopal minister and his wife in the highlands of Scotland and the Isle of Skye. In the late Victorian era, when illegitimacy attracted dire social stigma, when the classes were almost as fixed in their orbits as the celestial bodies, she was determined to leap the gulf between deprived working-class orphan and respectable, middle-classhousewife. If she could not become a queen or a lady of the manor, she could at least use her power to captivate the heart of a nobleman -- and that is precisely what she did.
Thomas Chapman, her employer, had been educated at Eton and Cirencester, the grandson of a baronet and the scion of seven generations of colonial English landlords who had originally been granted land in Kerry under the patronage of Sir Walter Ralegh. He had all the benefits of a privileged birth -- education, breeding, a vast estate, an opulent mansion, horses, carriages and servants, and the wealth and leisure with which to enjoy them. Yet he was not a happy man. His wife, Edith, was a shrew who regarded any form of pleasure as sinful -- 'the kind of woman', a neighbour later observed, 'who was terribly pious, who would go to church all hours of the day, and then if a wretched kitchen maid got herself into trouble, would cast her out without a character'. Edith's belligerence -- which found its most extreme expression in attempts to convert the local Roman Catholic peasants to Protestantism -- had become so painful that Thomas could hardly endure her company. When Sarah first appeared on his horizon he was the father of four young daughters and found himself approaching middle age, trapped in marriage to a woman he had long ago ceased to love. Morose, ineffectual, much given to drink, he had abandoned even the pleasures of hunting, shooting and fishing with which most country gentlemen filled their days. Into his dark universe the beautiful Miss Lawrence shot like a comet. She captivated him. As gay and energetic as Edith was ethereal and sour, she was an indomitable organizer. She came to his mansion -- South Hill -- to take charge of his daughters, but very soon she had taken over the running of the entire household. Thomas was seen to revive visibly whenever she entered the room. Presently -- inevitably perhaps -- squire and governess fell in love.
It was no rare thing, of course, for a bored Victorian gentleman to dally with an attractive servant-girl. But in an era when the British aristocracy still preserved an almost supernatural reputation, the idea of a gentleman actually forsaking his caste for a liaison with a minion was almost unthinkable. Sarah was aware that she walked a tightrope. She had nothing to offer but herself, and any young girl less determined, or less charismatic, might easily have ended up an unmarried young mother with recourse only to the workhouse -- or worse. Her hold over Thomas tightened by degrees, however. In 1885 she became pregnant and left the post of governess at his mansion, to reappear as his mistress in a house in Dublin. It was here, in December 1885, that their first son, Montague Robert -- Bob -- was born. For a while, Thomas led a double life, commuting between his wife and daughters at South Hill and his mistress and son in Dublin, but soon prudish tongues wagged. The Chapmans' butler once spied Miss Lawrence in a Dublin store and overheard her giving her name as 'Mrs Chapman'. Curious, he followed her to her lodgings, where he saw Thomas Chapman emerge. He rushed to Edith with the news, and she erupted with fury. Thomas was obliged to choose between his privileged but emotionally barren marriage with her, and an unconventional, materially pinched, but fulfilling relationship with Sarah. In choosing Sarah, he made the most courageous decision of his life. Some time in 1887, he left his mansion with its unkempt park of green meadows and Irish yews, forsook his inheritance and his culture for ever, and joined Sarah in Dublin. At her insistence, perhaps, he asked his wife for a divorce. Edith stubbornly refused, and in defiance they decided to elope to Britain, where, together, they could make a new start. They left Ireland by ferry on an evening towards the end of 1887. When they stepped ashore in North Wales the next day, they were no longer Thomas Chapman, landowner, and Sarah Lawrence, governess, but 'Mr and Mrs Thomas Lawrence' -- identities they would continue to assume successfully for the rest of their lives.
They could scarcely have chosen a more repressive moment in the entire history of British morals in which to commit themselves to a common-law marriage. Since the end of the relatively liberal eighteenth century, society had been growing ever more puritanical under the influence of the Evangelical Revival -- a movement to which, ironically enough, Sarah belonged. The year 1885 marked the climax of the so-called 'Purity Campaign' -- a crusade against lax sexual morals. which had harnessed powerful Victorian terrors of social chaos and the degeneration of the 'Imperial race'. Sex had become the great taboo, and society was so fanatically leery of anything smacking of bodies or nudity that polite people went so far as to lap the legs of grand pianos in cloth so that they should not be seen 'naked'. The moral code was rigid. Chastity was the ideal, the family was sacrosanct, and 'the fallen woman' who had been 'seduced' was deserving of utter contempt. The pervading omerta on all things sexual led to such incredible ignorance at all levels of society that even a learned Oxford physician could be heard to declare that 'nine out of ten women are indifferent to sex or actively dislike it; the tenth, who enjoys it, will always be a harlot'. The dark complement to Victorian prudishness, however, was captured with superb imagination by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886. At the height of the purity campaign, London was actually an international centre of prostitution, where there were more brothels than schools. Many of these bordellos were frequented by respectable 'gentlemen', who, by day, were pillars of the establishment. Despite the strict ban on pre-marital sex, many middle- and upper-class boys had their first sexual experience with a female servant living in the same house.
These were the Gothic shadows lurking behind the respectable Victorian facade -- the dark milieu into which Thomas Edward Lawrence -- Ned to the family -- came squalling in the early hours of 16 August 1888, the son of unmarried parents who had vanished from one life to recreate themselves in another. He was born in a house called Gorphrwysa at Tremadoc on the coast of North Wales, sufficiently near to the terminus of the Dublin ferry to suggest that the Lawrences had merely settled in the first convenient place. It was characteristic of Lawrence, perhaps, that as a boy he would claim proudly to have shared his birthday with Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the great military minds of the nineteenth century -- even though Napoleon had actually been born on the 15th. In later life, having become a world-famous military hero himself, though, he reused his adulation, patronizing Bonaparte as 'a vulgar genius who did things expected by the crowd'.
The fear of exposure which accompanied his parents' elopement allowed them no rest. Within a year of Lawrence's birth they moved again, to Kircudbright on the shores of western Scotland. There followed short-term halts on the Isle of Man and at St Helier in Jersey, and a longer one at Dinard in Brittany -- all of them remote from the main centres of polite society in which Thomas Chapman might have been recognized -- and during this period two more sons, William and Frank, were born. At last, in spring 1894, there came a turning point. Thomas and Sarah had been together for the best part of a decade, and their assumed identities had remained intact. Moreover, their four sons -- educated until then largely by governesses -- were growing fast and the eldest would soon need a good school and a more settled life. First they made the heady jump to the English home counties, settling at Fawley on the shores of Southampton Water, and then, in September 1896, came their last and most decisive migration, to Oxford, where, in a spacious semi-detached house at 2 Polstead Road, there arrived after three miscarriages the final addition to the family: Arnold, the fifth son, born in 1900.
Here they had come to stay. The new home was an Englishman's castle -- a miniature fortress of red brick, bay windows and castellations, in the best tradition of Victorian Gothic. Had it been part of an older, more established community, the Lawrences might have stood out, but the street dated only from 1890, and was consequently full of displaced people like themselves. No one -- in Thomas's lifetime anyway -- seems to have suspected their secret, and as children the Lawrence boys were not affected by it. Clearly, Lawrence's illegitimacy was not a direct source of guilt or shame at least until after his character was formed. Yet it mattered desperately to Thomas and Sarah, and their terror that it might be discovered prevented them from entering an active social life. They avoided the prim tea-parties presided over by the widows of college Fellows, whom John Betjeman described as 'the queens of north Oxford society' -- perhaps without any great feeling of loss, especially on Sarah's part -- and settled into a somewhat introspective and secluded life: 'the family didn't go about much in Oxford,' a neighbour recalled, 'but they had some very true friends. They were always happy [with] a lot of fun and silly jokes, but of course Mrs Lawrence managed them all.'
Within the home, indeed, Sarah Lawrence 'managed them all' with a rod of iron. She was, as a friend later observed, 'an utterly fascinating but rather alarming person', who exercised a relentless, obsessive control over all domestic details. Tiny and trim, with beautiful small hands and feet, she had rich blonde hair, penetrating methylene-blue eyes and a determined set of jaw. Her movements were precise, her speech clear and deliberate, and her bearing dignified. She looked directly at anyone who spoke to her, with a wide-eyed, slightly disarming expression, and she missed nothing. Her observations were acute and her memory prodigious. Her small figure radiated authority. She was frugal in habit, baking her own bread and feeding the family on porridge which was painstakingly prepared and left to cook slowly overnight in a leather haybox packed with straw. In her household there was only one way to do things, and that was Sarah's way. Servants and children argued at their peril. Her kitchen lore was graven in stone: apples were never to be peeled and cored, but wiped, quartered and stewed or baked whole; leftovers must never be thrown away but added to the stockpot. Possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, she would proclaim the qualities of exotic vegetables such as calabrese and butter-beans, and she was an avid gardener, tirelessly pressing seeds and cuttings on to others, and demanding to know their results with equal gusto. She read widely, spoke decent French, and wrote a fair letter in the same clean copperplate hand with which she kept her punctilious housekeeping accounts. Intelligent, opinionated, bossy, a woman who 'seemed to know about everything' -- as one neighbour commented -- she was also generous to a fault and capable of great warmth and devotion: to those she liked 'a faithful true friend'. Slightly ill at ease with social superiors, she was decidedly autocratic with everyone else: 'she fitted you into a pattern of the moment as into a delicate and important piece of machinery,' Mrs Kennington commented, 'and there you had no function [but that of] a cog, a tappet or a lever -- as she wished, so you were. You felt the forces arrayed against you so vast should you protest, that I for one never tried ... I just handed my will completely over to her.'
To Sarah the world was either black or white, either right or wrong -- there was no room for discussion, no margin for debate. The only yardstick of morality was God's ten commandments, the only authority the Bible. It is hardly surprising that the fundamentalist doctrine of the Evangelical Movement should have appealed to her. Her own venial sin of adultery with Thomas was a burden she would carry with her to the grave, yet her mantra 'God hates the sin, but loves the sinner' reminded her that redemption was possible. She glimpsed a path to redemption through the children of her sinful union, and made it her duty to rear them as immaculate soldiers for Christ. She found encouragement in Canon A. W. D. Christopher, Rector of St Aldate's church in Pembroke Square, Oxford. It may well have been partly to join the Canon's flock that the Lawrences had moved to Oxford in the first place, for they had heard him preach at Ryde on the Isle of Wight while living at Fawley, and had been struck by the message of love he proclaimed.
The Canon was regarded as a saintly old man. Almost eighty years old when the Lawrences first knew him, he was renowned both for his gentleness and his enthusiasm, and for the vitality which took him out in all weathers and at any time of the night to visit the sick and the aged. Christopher's brand of fundamentalism had developed as a reaction to the increasingly self-critical views of the Anglican High Church which, he believed, had led to the disenchantment of the poorer classes. He advocated a clear assertion of Christian principles, the literal interpretation of the Bible, and a return to the extreme orthodoxy of traditional English Protestantism. It is unlikely that the Lawrences confessed their secret to him, but it is certain that he became a very dear and influential figure in their lives. They were regular members of St Aldate's congregation and Thomas sat on the church council, partly because of his generous donations to the collection box. Christopher was vice-president of the Church Missionary Society, and immensely proud that St Aldate's had provided a crop of missionaries from among its own curates. Both Bob and Ned Lawrence were to become Sunday School teachers at St Aldate's and officers in the St Aldate's section of the Boys' Brigade. It was Sarah's highest ambition that they too would become missionaries, and thus redeem the unholy circumstances of their birth.
By the time they reached Oxford, Sarah had long ago parted Thomas from the bottle and, as Sir Basil Blackwell later commented, the Lawrences had a reputation as 'punctilious, church-going and water-drinking' folk even by the strict standards of the day. Thomas's religious convictions provided him with a degree of spiritual comfort, and he would read to the boys from a well-thumbed and annotated Bible before school every morning, and lead the domestic prayers at home on Sundays. A tall, bearded, retiring man, he made little impression on outsiders: 'He was always friendly and charming,' said Mrs Ballard, whose son often played with the Lawrence boys. 'But it was Mrs Lawrence who was the leading spirit ... I said to my boy once, "you talk a lot about Ma Lawrence but you don't even [mention] Pa Lawrence." He replied, "Oh yes, he's just Mrs Lawrence's husband!"' Diffident, shy, seeming to feel out of place in the genteel surroundings of Oxford, he rarely expressed his feelings. Some thought him distinguished-looking, others remembered him as a cadaverous figure on whom the clothes flapped like a scarecrow. Some believed him eccentric, idealist, or just plain barmy. Lawrence later painted a romantic picture of his father as a man 'on the large scale, tolerant, experienced, grand, rash, humoursome ... naturally lord-like', who, before having been 'tamed' by Sarah, had been 'a spend-thrift, a sportsman, a hard rider and drinker'. Thomas was a gentleman by profession and, despite his somewhat reduced circumstances, never needed to work. He spent his days pursuing interests such as photography, cycling, carpentry, or the study of church architecture, and occasionally yachting or potting pheasant and snipe in the New Forest, where he had taken out a shooting licence. He had plenty of spare time on his hands to teach these skills to his sons, and as a result Lawrence's photography became technically accomplished even before he left school. Like his father, he became a devoted cyclist and waterman, a carpenter of sorts, an expert on medieval architecture, and a crack pistol shot. Thomas enjoyed the company of his sons, playing word-games with them, leafing through boys' magazines, taking them on outings to hunt for fossils or to explore medieval ruins. But his influence was far less profound than Sarah's. Their characters were so much in contrast that Lawrence was later to blame their 'discordant natures' for the demons that haunted him. In fact, there is little evidence of discord. By all accounts, indeed, their relationship was affectionate and the domestic atmosphere a harmonious one. Thomas's reserved nature seems to have complemented Sarah's more fiery spirit: peace-loving and gentle, he had consummate skills in tact, diplomacy and tolerance to impart. Lawrence's picture of his 'hard riding, hard-drinking' younger days, though, was highly idealized. Thomas was essentially a submissive man, clearly dominated by Sarah, and, subconsciously, Lawrence despised his lack of authority. He would search for more powerful father-figures throughout his life, writing to one of them, Lord Trenchard, in 1928, 'If my father had been as big as you the world would not have had spare ears for my freakish doings.' Beside Sarah, Thomas remains a shadowy figure, a reformed drinker whittling out his days, 'just sitting in his chair and smoking and perhaps reading a book', as Mrs Ballard recalled.
It was, nevertheless, Thomas's income upon which the family depended. Shortly before his second son's birth in 1888, he had signed an agreement handing over his estates in Ireland to the care of his younger brother Francis, in return for an annuity of £200. Lawrence later claimed that his parents lived in near poverty, a fiction taken up with righteous conviction by his biographer Basil Liddell Hart. In fact, with other capital, income and inheritances, the family may have had an income of up to £600 per year. This placed them fairly high up in the social scale of the day, for in 1903-4 the population of Great Britain amounted to 43 million, of whom only 5 million lived on an income of more than £160 per year. The 3 million persons with incomes of between £160 and £400 per year were described as 'comfortably off', while those with over £700 were said to be 'rich'. Though for most of Lawrence's childhood the family did not fit into this latter category, they were able to employ one or two servants and to enjoy expensive holidays every year. Lawrence's trip to Syria in 1909, for instance, cost over £100 -- a good annual wage for most Britons of the era. By any other standards than the very highest, their financial circumstances were extremely happy ones.
Lawrence said later that he regarded his father as a friend rather than a figure of authority, suggesting an equality unusual in father--son relationships of the time. In fact, Thomas was too gentle and imaginative to administer corporal punishment to his sons, and left this task to the more resolute Sarah -- an inversion of the generally accepted Victorian ethos. Reared strictly by her puritan foster-parents, she had imbibed the Biblical adage, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child; but he who loves him chastens him betimes', and would administer severe thrashings to the boys' bare buttocks for disobedience, wilfulness or dishonesty, convinced that in doing so she was perpetuating God's will. According to the Evangelical canon, babies were born not innocent, but tainted with the sins of their forefathers: the children of adulterous parents were likely to develop a premature sensuality themselves. As the boys grew up, Sarah exercised a hawk-like vigilance for the appearance of such sensual traits, ready to nip them in the bud with a sound thrashing. She stood guard over her brood with the possessive greed of one who has known abandonment, distrusting women as dishonest schemers: 'she never wanted any of the sons to marry,' Mrs Ballard said. 'In fact, when Arnie [the youngest son] was engaged he wrote and asked me to break it to [his] mother.'
Sarah's need to control and dominate her world was blind, desperate and beyond reason. Her omnipotent, omniscient exterior actually concealed a fathomless rage of doubt and pain within. Victoria Ocampo, who knew her in old age, sensed that she was a woman seething with violent passions kept tight in the straitjacket of her unbending determination. Her childhood deprivation had left her with a chronic fear of abandonment and a massive emotional vacuum, which she could fill only by draining energy, attention and reassurance from her husband and children and anyone else who came within her reach. Bob -- kind, solicitous, prudish -- was the first to succumb to her insatiable demand for love and attention and never managed to escape it. He adopted her fundamentalist religious philosophy, did not marry, and remained attached to her for the rest of his life. Of all her sons, he was the only one who fulfilled her ambitions, becoming a medical missionary in China, where he was joined by Sarah herself after Thomas's death in 1919. Ocampo, who visited Sarah in the 1950s, found her confined to her bedroom by a broken leg, with Bob, himself an elderly man, occupying the room immediately below. Whenever she banged on the floor with her stick, Bob would scurry upstairs like a servant -- an arrangement, Ocampo noted with amusement, that Sarah referred to as 'convenient'.
As a child, Ned developed a terror of Sarah discovering his feelings: 'If she knew, they would be damaged, violated, no longer mine,' he later wrote. Unlike Bob, his disposition was prickly, and any pressure applied to him was likely to meet resistance. Even his teachers at school felt an instinctive recoil if they tried to push him in a way he did not wish to go. Given Sarah's character, a clash of personalities was inevitable: 'No trust ever existed between my mother and myself,' he wrote later. 'Each of us jealously guarded his or her own individuality, whenever we came together.' He and Sarah were mirror-images, attracted to each other but repelled by their sameness. He was sensitive to her wishes and anxious to please her, but intensely aware that if he lifted his emotional shield, she would get in and devour his independence, just as she had devoured Bob's. Though he was not her favourite son, she had great expectations of him, and for her he had to be perfect: brave, noble, strong, hard-working, honest, respectful, obedient and loving -- a white knight, sans peur et sans reproche. Arnie revealed that it was Ned who received the lion's share of Sarah's beatings, and felt that his life had been permanently injured by her. Though Bob and Will were never beaten, and Arnie required only one dose, Ned's more dogged obstinacy occasioned frequent repetition. Beneath the Biblical justifications, there lay a simple power-struggle. Bob was never whipped because he offered no resistance: he and his mother were 'at one'. Ned provoked her determination to 'break his will'. She did not succeed. In fact, she only strengthened his resolve, as with every blow he became more and more determined never to give in. He became detached from the pain and from the body which sustained punishment, but the will he developed to such an immense degree of strength became a monster with a life of its own -- a serpent which would eventually suffocate his creative power. His character -- no less than his elder brother's -- was ultimately to be defined by Sarah. The two elder Lawrence boys were predisposed to react to her demands in ways that were diametrically opposite -- Bob by total surrender, Ned by total resistance -- and both were scarred by the experience. 'I know Ned had a real struggle to achieve spiritual -- let alone physical -- freedom,' Celandine Kennington wrote. 'He and his mother were better friends apart. When together for more than a short time [he] was constantly forced to refight his battles for mental freedom.' Arnie -- twelve years younger than Ned -- had a similarly traumatic struggle to free himself from Sarah's grip, but eventually succeeded by choosing a third way: he simply 'took no notice of her'. Of the three sons who survived the war, he was the only one to marry, have a child, and lead a 'conventional' life.
In his later life, Lawrence paid a man named John Bruce to flog him at intervals over a period of thirteen years, and invented a complex farrago of lies to explain why such treatment was necessary. Bruce disclosed that Lawrence experienced orgasm as a result of some of these beatings. It is possible that this behaviour might have been initiated by horrific experiences during the war. On the other hand, there are clear traces of Lawrence's masochism in his early interest in self-punishment and self-denial. As an adolescent he would fast, go without sleep, deny himself pleasure, and continually push himself on long and arduous walks and bicycle rides. He would even dive through the ice into the frozen river Cherwell on chilling winter nights. It seems likely that any trauma Lawrence suffered in the war only intensified a capacity for masochism which had been part of him since his earliest days -- a capacity which emerged through his relationship with Sarah. The intolerable conflict of attraction and repulsion he experienced could only be resolved by physical punishment. Severe beatings could not make the sexual feeling go away, but they could atone for the forbidden desire. Pain thus became a means of release. As he grew up, he developed a terror of the feelings he associated with the sexual act, and was compelled to diminish his anxiety by intentionally bringing about the situation he feared: instead of fleeing away from the threat, he fled towards it: 'When a thing is inevitable,' he advised Charlotte Shaw years later, 'provoke it as instantly and as fully as possible.' His position was like that of the little girl who was obliged by her mother to take showers in cold water, and who, terrified by the prospect, would open the tap prior to shower-time and expose herself to the numbing water for a few moments. This act served to relieve the girl's anxiety. She did not derive pleasure from the pain itself, but from the relief of tension it provided. All his life, Lawrence was utterly terrified of pain: 'pain of the slightest had been my obsession and secret terror since I was a boy,' he later wrote. His brother Arnie confirmed that his fear of pain was abnormal. By inflicting punishment on himself -- by diving into freezing water, fasting, resisting sleep, pushing himself to the limits of physical endurance -- he was able to preview what he most feared, and gain a kind of mastery over it. Lawrence may even have subconsciously provoked the violent clashes with his mother, in his compulsive 'flight forwards'.
It was not only physically, but also psychically that Lawrence felt himself threatened. His mother would probe constantly into his innermost feelings, giving him a lifelong hatred of what he called 'families and inquisitions'. He chose to protect himself against this psychical threat by emotional withdrawal -- by assuming an aloofness which extended from his mother to almost every other person with whom he came into contact. Even when he was quite small he seemed to remain aloof from the ring of children, and had some unfathomable sense of sadness about him. His schoolmasters noticed that he was silent, self-possessed and inscrutable, and gave a hint of a latent power, just out of reach. As a young man he was difficult to know, unobtrusive, cheerful, even jocular in moments, but extremely reserved about himself. Ernest Altounyan would write that he was simply 'impersonal': 'someone cleaving through life, propelled by an almost noiseless engine'. His need to protect his spiritual independence would emerge throughout his life in an obsession with images of siege warfare, of attack and defence: 'I think I'm afraid of letting her get, ever so little, inside the circle of my integrity,' he wrote of his mother, 'and she is always hammering and sapping to come in ... I always felt she was laying siege to me and would conquer if I left a chink unguarded.' This image of his self as a circle or citadel of integrity recurs repeatedly. Even as a boy, he would tell his brothers an endless tale about the defence of a tower by warlike dolls against hordes of barbarous enemies, and the motif appears again in the study of crusader castles in Britain, France and Syria to which he devoted much of his youth, and which led to the thesis he presented for his degree. Cyril 'Scroggs' Beeson, who accompanied him on some of his trips around castles in France, noted that his interest was not primarily in military history but in the hearts and minds of the designers, and the extent to which history had tested their intentions. It was upon the military knowledge acquired from this study of castles that he would later found his theory of guerrilla war. So it was that the pattern forged in the dark recesses of his childhood struggle would one day spill out into the light as the strategy he would wield to brilliant success in the Arab Revolt.
Nietzsche -- whom Lawrence much admired -- wrote that every profound spirit requires a mask: the mask Lawrence wore was one of paradox. His aloofness concealed a craving for the attention of others, for fame and distinction, which he despised and could not allow himself to show. Aloofness was a barrier he created against the outside world, a means of preventing anyone from coming too close. He was able to relax his guard only with those who were younger or socially inferior, and though, in later life, he formed relationships with the great and famous, he confessed to John Bruce -- a poorly educated man from a working-class background -- that most of these high and mighty folk 'could not be trusted'. It was an aspect of his masochistic nature that he felt himself undeserving of love, and it was terror of failure which prevented him from opening himself. He found another way to attract people, using his aloofness as a tool for drawing attention by offering tantalizing glimpses and wrapping himself in an intriguing cloak of mystery. In short, as Sir Harold Nicolson coldly, but correctly, declared, 'he discovered early that mystery was news'. At school and college he was regarded by his peers as a pronounced eccentric, and would intrigue others by such idiosyncrasies as riding his bicycle uphill and walking down, by sitting through prescribed dinners in hall without eating, by adopting odd diets, by going out at night and sleeping during the day, by refusing to play organized games, or by fasting on Christmas Day when everyone else was feasting. This exaggerated form of attention-seeking was the shadow side of Lawrence's aloofness, and the social aspect of his masochism. He was like the woman from the provincial town who wanted to attend the opera in the capital wearing fine jewels and her most expensive evening dress. Ashamed of her desire for ostentation, though, she actually attended the opera in a plain dress, and as a result was the only woman in the audience not wearing evening clothes. She became the focus of attention by 'reverse exhibitionism' -- not because of her finery but through her conspicuous lack of it. Lawrence's tendency to cycle uphill and walk down has its parallel in the masochistic folk hero Till Eulenspiegel, who felt happy when toiling uphill and sad when coming down.
Soon, Lawrence learned to shroud everything he did in ritual and romance, a technique he found remarkably successful and which he sharpened into the most effective blade in his armoury. He learned to manipulate others with his aura of mystery, to lay false trails, to concoct endless mazes of riddle and conundrum. He learned to intrigue those who interested him by what he called 'whimsical perversity' or 'misplaced earnestness', whetting their curiosity and then rushing off abruptly, hoping the object of his attention would pursue, 'wish[ing] to know whom that odd creature was'. Few could resist Lawrence's 'whimsicalities', and his jokes and buffooneries, his sudden flashes of brilliance or impish roguery gave him an almost infallible ability to charm, allure and seduce. Basil Liddell Hart, one of his most ardent admirers, summed up the quality most succinctly when he likened Lawrence to 'a woman who wears a veil while exposing the bosom'. Though Liddell Hart put Lawrence's exhibitionism down to vanity, in fact it was 'reverse exhibitionism': his wish was less to display his beauty and cleverness to the world than to demonstrate his ugliness, suffering and humiliation. Far from being 'in love with himself', Lawrence would write that he despised the 'self' he could hear and see.
Excerpted from Lawrence by Michael Asher Copyright © 2001 by Michael Asher. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 9, 2007
Asher's book seeks to separate the myth of LoA that from reality. The reality Asher uncovers is that of a complicated, largely insecure, and sexually conflicted man. A ' closeted ' homsexual-before there was such a term-and Massochist. It was also interesting to learn that, for all of Lawrence's legend as a warrior, the circumstances leading him to his destiny were rather random, and in addition, he saw combat for only a relatively short period. In this area Asher, a desert explorer and former Special Forces soldier himself, gets great credit: his description of the geo-politics of Lawrence's world is exhaustive, drawn not only from documents, but also Asher's re-creation of Lawrence's journeys himself. It all brings into sharp focus what Lawrence had to face, including his own ambivalence and anguish over knowing that his Arab comrades would never get what they fought so hard to achieve-a country of their own. Asher also goes to great lenghs to point out Lawrence's ' reverse exhibitionsism ' as illustrated when, years after the war, he re-enlisted into the armed forces as a Private under an alias, apparently to seek anonymity. Yet his actions made it virtually impossible for those around him NOT to know his real identity! My one small complaint with this book is that Asher seems to revel in those mysterious instances when the truth cannot be ascertained for certain-when an objective observer could view this as Asher's own failure as a researcher. But all in all, this is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of this region, right along with Lawrence's own ' Seven Pillars of Wisdom ', especially since it is so relevant today.
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