LAWRENCE OF ARABIA:
The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence
By Jeremy Wilson
1,188 pages, $35
By Jeffrey Meyers
445 pages, $24.95
THESE ARE new biographies of two men who, since World War I, in one way or another, have been bouncing the world like a rubber ball. Born three years apart, both Puritans after their different fashions, they are not related. They never met, although T.E. reviewed D.H.'s early novels with great appreciation.
Both were writers of note. T.E., bastard son of an Irish baronet, was, in addition -- habited in the Arab battle dress he affected -- one of the great soldiers of history. D.H., on the other hand, for his anti-war activities was expelled from his home in Cornwall under suspicion of being a German spy. He remained under police surveillance until World War I was over.
T.E. was an asexual ascetic who thought that carnality violated his "bodily integrity." D.H., the prophet of "the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect," was the faun Nijinsky danced and Mallarme dreamed into poetry. Philip Larkin caught this side of him in a witty reference to his most controversial, if far from his best, book:
Sexual intercourse began
In 1963 (which was rather late for me)
The year of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
I reprint this squib in the interests of T.E., who liberated Iraq from the Turks -- he knew it better as Mesopotamia:
Islam burst into flame again in 1917,
A year of dule and tene.
When Lawrence Bey took Aquaba
And the Prophet's flag burned green.
One of the great merits of Jeremy Wilson's gigantic new biography of Lawrence of Arabia is that, as Malcolm Brown puts it admiringly: "This is Lawrence on a camel, thank God, not on a couch." Wilson attempts no psychosexual theories to account for the uniqueness of his hero. He neither accepts nor rejects the various Lawrence myths, letting the brute facts speak for themselves. The result is that his subject, far from being diminished in stature, emerges as one of history's most towering personalities.
In addition to its other great assets, Wilson's book provides far and away the fullest account of the tortuous diplomatic history of France and Britain in the Middle East in this crucial period. Readers of today's headlines will be surprised and perhaps more than a little shocked at Lawrence's stance on the Iraq he did so much to create. He wanted Baghdad to "be the center of Arab independence." He rejected an Arab suggestion that he accept "the highest post in Iraq."
On Aug. 9, 1919, reporting the Peace Conference, Paris Match predicted: "Doubtless Col. Lawrence will return to Arabia. Let us hope that he does not set it on fire."
One cannot help wondering if, 73 years later, his ghost may not be one of the forces setting Islam aflame again.
When David Herbert Lawrence died at 44, on March 2, 1930, Aldous Huxley called him "a being, somehow, of another order." He was that in his creative imagination, in "Sons and Lovers," "The Rainbow," "Women in Love." In his opinions, however, he was astonishingly conventional. He believed, for example, in marriage, noting: "The best thing I have known is the stillness of accomplished marriage," and "The instinct of fidelity is, perhaps, the deepest instinct in the great complex we call sex."
Lawrence's German wife, Frieda von Richthofen, had other ideas. The clash between her innate promiscuity and his no less innate Puritanism sometimes turned their turbulent union into a knockabout farce which Jeffrey Meyers makes the most of in his adequate, if hardly notable, new biography. Meyers calls to witness Katherine Mansfield, who once described Frieda as an "immense German Christmas pudding." It is her wicked eye, too, that records the quarrel in which the onlooker had to duck "to avoid the flatirons and saucepans" -- it was as if Punch and Judy were having at one another in the Ugly Duchess' kitchen.
The notoriety occasioned by the banning of "Lady Chatterley" saddled Lawrence with a false imputation of pornography. Far from being pornographic, he is amazingly clean-minded; and his celebration of sexual ecstasy is in the direct line of Dante's revolutionary "Vita Nuova." Oddly enough, Joyce, an Irish Puritan as Lawrence was an English one, found the flower-decoration sequence of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" dirtily "lush"; and Lawrence retaliated by adjudging Molly Bloom's soliloquy in "Ulysses" the "dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written."