In response to:
Rigging the Lawrence Case from the September 29, 1977 issue
To the Editors:
Having printed Mr. Nigel Dennis’s estimation of my T.E. Lawrence under the title “Rigging the Lawrence Case” [NYR, September 29], you will perhaps allow me to show why I consider his review inaccurate where it seeks to cut and unfair where it conceals? I have no intention of defending my use of metaphor, but note that Mr. Dennis uses crime imagery (I hope metaphorically) no less than a dozen times in his first column. Nor do I intend to argue whether Arab princes (who flee the sun) go ivory when angry (as British colonels go plum-colored), though it is my impression, after twenty-nine middle-eastern years, that they do. Nor do I contest Mr. Dennis’s right to dislike my portrait though I suspect that the author of the century’s most brilliant atheist play (The Making of Moo, 1957) may be one of those referred to by the columnist in the September Encounter: “We do not like to have our myths destroyed, more especially if they are myths which have been created in our own lifetime, when it seems as if men have lost both the material and the faculty for myth-making, and anyone who engages in such a task must be prepared to meet the indignation of those who feel that they have been stripped of some precious possession.” The columnist, incidentally, found that one of the merits of my book was that it increased one’s admiration of Lawrence.
But when Mr. Dennis writes that “we are astonished to read that one night, in a crowded village house, ‘Lawrence snuggled close to Dahoum in “a most royal heap of quilts, all, wonderful to say, nearly deserted,” ‘ “deserted does not imply that I am pushing Lawrence unnecessarily close to Dahoum (Dr. Mack’s candidate for the dedication of Seven Pillars), but that the quilts were for once clear of fleas: I inserted the quotation because it shows Lawrence’s Georgian style and echoes previous adversions to insects. Mr. Dennis omits the introduction to my sentence: “The talk having turned to the supernatural, no one wanted to go out into the dark, and the entire party (Lawrence estimated them as twenty-four) slept together in a tiny house no bigger than an English study.” This plainly paraphrased Lawrence’s letter of December 16, 1912 to Hogarth, his mentor, and showed (since the party included the host’s wives and children) that Lawrence must indeed have been close to Dahoum.
Mr. Dennis claims that it is verifiably untrue that Lawrence “expressed an obsessive dislike for women under sixty” and that when I wrote that he “excluded nubile women even from the norms of politeness” I relied “entirely on Lawrence’s snubbing of one woman who had a tendency to gush.” Apart from his general statements belittling women as writers,1 attacking the suffragette movement2 and their bodies,3 we have his admission that “I take no pleasure in women. I have never thought twice or even once of the shape of a woman: but men’s bodies, in repose or in movement—especially the former, appeal to me directly.”4 He wrote to a service friend: “The cottage will never be less than partly yours, whenever you want it, unless some scurvy married couple borrow it from me again. I don’t like women in my place anyhow….”5 He could indeed be friendly to the wives of patrons (such as Winifred Fontana, whose husband was Consul in Aleppo) or friends: Celandine Kennington’s husband was immortalizing Lawrence in pencil and stone while Florence Doubleday’s husband was publishing him in America. But the two women selected to memorialize their friendships in T.E. Lawrence and his Friends were appropriately Millicent Candy, seventy-eight at the time they met, and Lorna Norrington, eleven. As evidence for his rudeness to nubile women I could have added Gertrude Bell before the war (thirty-six at the time he “squashed” her6 at Jerablus) and after the war the hostess at whose table he disdained all food.7
Mr. Dennis seems close to “rigging” in his omissions. To the satisfaction of most serious English reviewers (including Glubb Pasha, no stranger to Lawrence’s arena)8 I have established that the ordeal at Deraa (hitherto taken to explain his post-war oddities) was a myth. This is no mere fleck in the tapestry. As Phillip Knightley (co-author of The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia) wrote: “If you accept Mr. Stewart’s thesis—and I do—then the core of virtually every Lawrence biography collapses like a desert sandcastle.”9 Mr. Dennis might at least have mentioned this thesis: if only to refute it.
Nigel Dennis replies:
I take Mr. Stewart’s points in order:
1) I used one metaphor consistently in my review. I hope it was a good one, because bad metaphors make bad prose. I thought that most of Mr. Stewart’s metaphors were very bad and helped to make his book as bad as it is.
2) “We do not like to have our myths destroyed…” Lawrence has never been a myth to me, nor have I even found him very likable. But he has always been an extremely interesting puzzle, and I don’t like to have this puzzle destroyed by a writer who solves it by leaving most of it out.
3) “…deserted does not imply that I am pushing Lawrence unnecessarily close to Dahoum.” I made the mistake of thinking it did—not having been told about the fleas—because Lawrence had just been said to have “snuggled close to Dahoum” and it did not occur to me that the snuggling was side by side but not cheek to cheek. Not that it matters, I think, because the whole snuggling business is one of Mr. Stewart’s inventions.
4) As evidence that Lawrence “expressed an obsessive dislike for women under 60,” Mr. Stewart quotes his “belittling women as writers,” opposing the suffragettes, liking men’s bodies more than women’s, and not liking women living in his cottage. I think this only shows that Lawrence’s inclinations were homosexual, which is not the same thing as harboring an “obsessive dislike” of the other sex. Mr. Stewart doesn’t choose his words carefully enough—a point that I am sorry not to have mentioned in my review.
5) “I have established that the ordeal at Deraa… was a myth.” Wrong word again. Mr. Stewart means: “I have tried to show that…etc.,” which would be quite strong enough. I was not convinced by Mr. Stewart’s argument, but I hope it will prove to be correct one day. It will not make Lawrence any less interesting, and it will be a feather in Mr. Stewart’s cap.
February 9, 1978
“All the women who ever wrote original stuff could have been strangled at birth, and the history of English literature (and my bookshelves) would be unchanged.” Letters, p. 450. ↩
Home Letters, p. 252. ↩
Letters, p. 524. ↩
From “Confessions of Faith,” Bod. Res. MSS, C52; quoted John Mack, p. 425. ↩
Letter to Jock Chambers, 26.1.35; Bodleian. ↩
Letters, p. 106. ↩
Henry Williamson; Genius of Friendship, T.E. Lawrence; p. 10. ↩
Books and Bookmen, August. ↩
New Statesman, July 8. ↩