The Letters of T. E. Lawrence

edited by David GarnettDoubleday, Doran, $5.00]
BERNARD SHAW was right. Lawrence was inescapable. ‘You didn’t keep quiet,’ be warned, ‘and now Lawrence you will be to the end of your days and thereafter. . . . You created him and must put up with him as best you can.’ He was J. H. Ross then, about to enlist in the Air Force. He was Smith later, and after that T. E. Shaw until he died, but Lawrence would not be suppressed. Now he is T. E. Lawrence, plain, without identifying title — neither Colonel, which he was, nor ‘of Arabia,’ that artificial and typically journalistic honorific. But, now that he is dead, to be known as Lawrence wouldn’t bother him. He said that the opinion of posterity meant nothing. It was incidental if the dead lived; only the sympathy and warmth of the living mattered.
Those he had as much in his genius for friendship as in his abilities. In this collection are letters to Lady Astor and Aircraftsman Knowles, to Curzon and Bernard Shaw, to Noel Coward and Lloyd George. At least a hundred and sixteen hopelessly different people, as many celebrities as not, found his letters over a period of thirty years worth keeping.
The first letter was written at the age of seventeen. Lawrence seems to have escaped a formative period. Fully baked, he skipped callow adolescence. The last, written at forty-six, is the telegram he had just sent to Henry Williamson when he met with his fatal accident. In between lies the solution to the puzzling problem which was Lawrence.
Only Mr. Garnett, who edited the collection, can know how much material was discarded. With unostentatious skill his selection clarifies that strange and magnificent character.
Only when necessary do his own notes supply a lead. Most of the letters belong to the post-war period. The years of the Arab Revolt have only small space. Possibly that was unavoidable — certainly it is quite proper. The significance of the collection is personal. Seven Pillars of Wisdom satisfied history.
If mystery surrounded Lawrence, it was largely his own fault. Much of it was spurious, heightened by those many who, claiming acquaintance with him, were always ready to supply sensational answers.
There was only one genuine mystery in his life about which anyone can have legitimate curiosity. Why did he waste himself enlisting, not once, but, with queer persistence, thrice?
He was abnormal, of course, but so is a saint, so is any tremendous person. He had a conscience whose growing demands he had to satisfy. Lawrence must not be allowed to contribute in any way to the support of Ross, Smith, or Shaw. He wanted to suffer, perhaps to prove to his own satisfaction that he could, and he was conscious of the wish.
‘It is terrible,’ he wrote, ‘to hold myself voluntarily here until the burnt child no longer feels the fire.’ Mr. Garnett points the answer. ‘ There are rational and logical explanations why Lawrence enlisted, but the final and most compelling one was an irrational urge to subject himself to men most obviously his inferiors.’
His friends tried to persuade him, but his mind was made up. Bernard Shaw wrote to him: ‘A callow and terrified Marbot placed in command of a sardonic Napoleon at Austerlitz and Jena would have felt much as your superior officers in command of Lawrence. You talk about leave as if it were a difficulty. Ask for three months’ leave and they will exclaim with a sob of relief, “For God’s sake take six, take twelve, take a lifetime, take anything rather than keep up this maddening masquerade that makes us all ridiculous.” I sympathise with them.’
It was no good. As Ross he enlisted in the Air Force, only to be turned out when his identity was disclosed and the whole pack of the press turned on him. He enlisted in the Tank Corps, only to return at last to the Air Force with determination in excess of intelligence.
As he had assumed command of the Arab Revolt, so the Air Force became permeated with his views. From the ranks he kept up a correspondence with Air Force officers from its chief down. He took amused pleasure in the difficulties of achievement from the bottom as he overcame officialdom by the logic of his suggestions.
He was always ready to admit and, at the time, no doubt sincerely believed in his own inferiority, yet he knew that he was incongruous, a unicorn in a racing stable, a beast which did not fit. The truth was that he did not fit precisely in any subdivision of society. He fitted his fellow men as some fluid fits any queer-shaped jar, filling it to the crevices and overflowing. In his strong craving to be liked, none was made aware of any deficiency in himself. Yet none could have contained him. He was too big and he always held something of himself unreachable.