LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

The Authorized Biography Of T.E. Lawrence

By Jeremy Wilson

Atheneum. 1,188 pp. $35

SOMEHOW, in the 939 pages of text and 176 pages of notes, Jeremy Wilson's T.E. Lawrence, despite everything we thought we knew, turns out to resemble Henry Higgins's imaginative self-portrait in "My Fair Lady." "I'm just an ordinary man," Professor Higgins insists. He wants nothing more than "just the ordinary chance/ To live exactly as he likes/ And do precisely what he wants."

This is a low-key Lawrence for readers jaded with images of the haunted, charismatic genius who by his achievements denied himself the privacy he paradoxically sought, and created in his own person a characterization rivaling any in the fiction of his time. Judicious omission rendered imperceptible by the piling up of massive data -- the thousand-plus pages of understated prose -- seems intended to demystify the romantic enigma, the living legend.

Wilson's fact-filled life, his first full-length work, also uses its weight to push earlier biographies aside. Authorized by T.E.'s 90-year-old surviving brother, A.W. Lawrence, its scale and strategies suggest that Wilson felt obliged to furnish responses to biographies perceived as warped in vision -- ones portraying T.E. as masochist, as poseur, as homosexual, as monk, as self-advertiser, as saint, as Arabist, as military phenomenon, or whatever. Relying largely on Lawrence himself, Wilson makes little use of contemporary accounts or reminiscences. "I wish I could say," he told a Times of London reporter before publication, "that a single witness produced something new that could be proved to be accurate."

Except in the small print of a few notes, Wilson seldom argues directly with predecessor biographers. For the most part he ignores them, referring to Lawrence's papers rather than to the sleuths who first used them. Despite all such first-person documentation and quotation, the texture of T.E.'s extraordinary life at almost every point escapes. The bookish scholar, the obsessive archeologist, the unsoldierly soldier, the amateur tactician, the uneasy adventurer, the word-drunk writer, the guilt-ridden child of illegitimacy, the limelight-magnetized loner, the ascetic in sheik's silk-and-gold robes, are all there, but out of focus.

While Wilson's bland Lawrence is not a liar, contradictions are acknowledged in some of his versions of events -- for example, whether or not he was recognized by Hajim Bey, who homosexually brutalized T.E. when he was captured near Deraa in 1917. He is not a poseur, according to Wilson, although he is seen wearing Arab dress in postwar European settings. Scrupulous about concealing his identity in the ranks, he announces his secret only to close friends, and to the editor of the Daily Express, while hobnobbing with public figures in his private's uniform. Wilson's celibate T.E. even reveals a trace of heterosexual interest, yet the evidence is an interview with a lady in her eighties, undertaken by a biographer whom Wilson otherwise faults for "misinterpretation through very abridged quotation." While -- barring small details -- T.E., for political reasons, according to Wilson, "glosses over" Arab failings in Seven Pillars of Wisdom and "often tells less than the whole truth," he is credited with largely accurate history-telling. Yet in addition to his own inventions about himself, he fabricates Arab leaders like Feisal into heroes of epic although their "Arab Revolt" was a sideshow into which they were goaded with bribes of British gold and promises of booty that brought wealth to Arabia before oil did.

A sensation when printed in the Sunday Times of London in 1968 was the accusation that Lawrence had paid a service colleague to administer nine beatings to him over 12 years, possibly a form of delayed penance for Deraa. Wilson first scoffs on grounds that the accuser otherwise lied; then he concurs on vague grounds of "independent evidence." Also without verification is an arrangement by which T.E. had himself whipped into shape in such disciplines as riding or swimming by requesting the regimen under a false name for an "adult" nephew, with the instructor required to send the fictional "uncle" a report. Wilson assures us that such a pattern of bizarre behavior is "usually totally independent of a person's everyday life . . . In Lawrence's case . . . there appears to be no way in which it affected his career."

Notwithstanding such guarantees, Lawrence's retreat into the ranks, after he ended the 1914-18 war as a colonel showered with honors, seems a pathological recourse that dramatizes his sickness of soul. Although T.E.'s confidant David Hogarth described this episode to Bernard Shaw as a way "to have the padlocks riveted onto him," Wilson sees it only as T.E.'s "desperate attempt to escape from his popular reputation." He faults Shaw for giving advice that, according to Wilson, forestalled a book contract for an abridgment of Seven Pillars that would have furnished Lawrence with "the money he needed to leave the Air Force and pursue his other plans." Yet later, with the contract signed, Lawrence would threaten suicide if not permitted to leave the Army and (at the lowest level) rejoin the RAF.Obviously the padlocks were more compelling than the pounds and shillings.

The reader may wonder, too, how Wilson determined that if a publisher had offered Lawrence a contract to translate, anew, the Arabian Nights, "the work would have filled his off-duty time for several years, and . . . kept him from the final revision of Seven Pillars." Could anything have derailed the memoir which Lawrence knew was the masterwork of his life? ON THE plus side there are new clues for future biographers to follow up. We learn, for example, that Lawrence did not have to leave the RAF before the expiration of his second enlistment in 1935, and could have stayed on despite his age (46). "You have now become an Institution in the R.A.F.," the designated future chief of staff, Sir Geoffrey Salmond, wrote to him. "It seems difficult to imagine you as anything else." Lawrence's commanding officer called him in to inquire whether T.E. had any grievances. The secretary of state for air, Sir Philip Sassoon, wanted to know why T.E. had chosen to leave. He was unhappy with routine duty, he explained. Base officers were finding it awkward to put him in charge, even covertly, of interesting work incompatible with his lowly rank. Meanwhile he lied to a friend, "I can't enlist again -- too old, which is a sad word to write."

Perched on the masochistic side of asceticism, Lawrence nevertheless wanted to have it both ways. Finally, despite friends and advocates in the highest places, he couldn't. He died, apparently accidentally, a few months later, hurtling from his careening motorcycle. In Wilson's account it could not be described less dramatically. An ordinary event in the life of an ordinary man.

Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh Professor of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, has written biographies of Beardsley, Whistler and Shaw.