Outside, the weather has grown bleak and wintry, and north of Washington the world is digging out after a major snowstorm. What better time, then, to turn to the Middle Eastern adventures of the youthful T.E. Lawrence, the Oxford-educated archaeologist who, as this book ends, discovers an astonishing destiny? For who could ever have imagined that, in the midst of World War I, a young scholar would lead the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire and by the age of 30 become the stuff of legend? I have read somewhere that, Winston Churchill excepted, Lawrence of Arabia is the most written-about Englishman of the 20th century.
For many of us, David Lean’s epic film of that name — one of the greatest movies of all time, visually sublime yet heart-shatteringly intimate — is all we know of Lawrence. So journalist Anthony Sattin’s detailed account in “The Young T.E. Lawrence” of his subject’s first 25 years reveals, in effect, the pre-history of that hero, the story of how an English youth with a passion for chivalric romance actually came to live out his boyhood dreams.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), known as Ned to his family, started life with a secret. He believed he was illegitimate. In fact, his parents were unmarried. His father had once been Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, an Anglo-Irish baronet with four daughters and a sour wife. When a young Scottish woman named Sarah Lawrence arrived at his Irish manor as the new governess, she was immediately adored by her new charges — and soon by Sir Thomas as well.
Lawence’s father renounced his title and property, adopted a new name and, with the woman he loved but could never legally marry, relocated to England. Fortunately, he was able to retain a substantial annuity, and so his second, not quite licit, family was never in financial straits. As Sattin makes clear though, Lawrence — the second of four sons — never got on with his mother from whom he always yearned to escape.
He did this first through his obsessive studies and extreme adventures. Ned made brass rubbings and collected artifacts unearthed at local construction sites, volunteered at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and in 1908 even bicycled 2,400 miles around France, making careful drawings and measurements of medieval churches in preparation for an Oxford history thesis.
Yet already Lawrence had discovered that he longed for something more than an academic life. Quoting Shelley, he wrote, “I love all waste and solitary places; where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.”One day an assistant keeper at the Ashmolean suggested a challenging research project: “Why don’t you go to the Holy Land and try to settle once and for all the long contested question as to whether the pointed arch and vault were copied or developed from Eastern sources by the Crusaders, or whether it was they who taught their use to the Arabs?”
Lawrence first wrote to Charles M. Doughty for advice. Author of the magisterial “Travels in Arabia Deserta”— which is composed in a dithyrambic, pseudo-biblical prose that either enchants or repulses — Doughty was properly discouraging: “I should dissuade a friend from such a voyage, which is too likely to be most wearisome, hazardous to health & even disappointing.” Still, he advised, if Lawrence did go he would need a mule or horse, as well as a guide.
Good counsel, even though the 21-year-old Lawrence ignored it. Instead he walked from one half-ruined crusader castle to another, carrying only his camera, a water bottle, a German pistol and a dog-eared copy of Baedeker’s “Handbook to Palestine and Syria.” On these wanderings his love for the Arab people and their austere landscape and culture grew, then deepened. Sattin speculates that Lawrence also picked up the secret of modern guerrilla warfare during a visit to the mountain stronghold of the Assassins, a medieval terrorist-like cult. The great Muslim general Saladin had once besieged this Assassin castle in 1170:
“Saladin already knew about the reputation of his adversaries and, concerned for his safety, had had his tent surrounded by guards and also by a ring of chalk and ashes, which would show the footprints of anyone daring to cross. In spite of these precautions, the great warrior woke in the night to find a note pinned to a poisoned dagger inviting him to withdraw or die. He had superior numbers and huge battle experience, but Saladin recognized that he had been outplayed and immediately retreated down the mountain.”
As Lawrence wrote much later in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” his memoir of the 1916-18 Arab revolt against Ottoman rule and of the tribal forces he captained: “Suppose we were . . . an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back drifting about like gas?” Modern armies, by contrast, “were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We would be a vapour, blowing where we listed.”
By the time Lawrence got back from his first Middle Eastern pilgrimage, he felt that he would “have much difficulty in becoming English again.” Unsure of his future, he nonetheless applied for a postgraduate degree studying “Medieval Lead-Glazed Pottery from the 11th to the 16th Centuries.” Ultimately he was allowed to use his fellowship money to underwrite a stint at a Hittite archaeological site in Carchemish.
He spent most of the next four years there, excavating and photographing, learning several Arabic dialects, exploring the terrain during holidays and meeting or partnering with some of the legends of modern archaeology, including Flinders Petrie and Leonard Woolley. He also became a good friend of a young diplomat named James Elroy Flecker, author of that wonderfully “Oriental” poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” Flecker, it turns out, actually hated being posted in the Mideast.
At Carchemish, Lawrence grew devoted to a young Arab named Dahoum. Countering widespread speculation that theirs was a homosexual relationship, Sattin cites Lawrence’s own testimony, as well as a letter to the gay E.M. Forster , that he never had sex with anyone (leaving out the brutal rape he suffered when captured by Turks). Sattin also argues against Lawrence’s supposed involvement with British intelligence in the run-up to World War I. Rather, he suggests that the Englishman increasingly identified with the Arabs and their yearning to break free from the shackles of their Turkish overlords. All they needed to achieve autonomy, he felt, was the right leader. Who might it be?
Speaking of his own impossible dream, Abraham Lincoln once said, “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.” So it turned out for Lawrence. By war’s end, though, he realized that the British and French were going to double-cross the Arabs to maintain their spheres of influence in the Middle East. All his heroic efforts would culminate in betrayal and compromise. “ ‘One of the sorest things in life,’ Lawrence wrote dejectedly, ‘is to come to realize that one is just not good enough.’ ” That’s a universal truth, yet in the case of Lawrence of Arabia, even failure has seldom looked so enviable, so magnificent.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE YOUNG T.E. LAWRENCE
By Anthony Sattin
Norton. 316 pp. $28.95