T.E. Lawrence — The Garnetts

The Essential T. E Lawrence

Image: pinterest

First published in 1951 by Jonathan Cape, The Essential T. E. Lawrence is an attempt by editor David Garnett to create, out of Lawrence’s own writings, a biography of the man who became Lawrence of Arabia. Garnett succeeds at every level by using extracts from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Arab Bulletin, and The Mint, plus many letters to his mother, John Buchan, Bernard Shaw, Edward Garnett, and Mrs Thomas Hardy, to name but a few.

David Garnett was a legendary member of the Bloomsbury Group, literary editor, critic and author, whose novel, Aspects of Love, was turned into the stage musical of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Weber in 1989, eight years after David’s death.

David Garnett. Image: Standpoint

David was the son of the publishing editor, Edward Garnett, and it is only right that his son should have been the one to bring The Essential T. E. Lawrence to the reading public.

Edward Garnett. Image: The Times

David’s mother was Constance Garnett (née Black), who was also an author, and one of the first translators into English of the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the plays of Anton Chekhov, with her translations outlasting many later ones.

Constance Garnett with David. Image: wikipedia

The Garnett family were undoubtedly one of the most influential literary families of the first half of the 20th century, with David Garnett’s introduction to The Essential T.E. Lawrence, a wonderfully lively, informative, and absorbing piece of writing:

“ After he had been told of T.E. Lawrence’s death, Sheikh Hamoudi strode up and down a stone-flagged hall in Aleppo, exclaiming in his grief:

“ ‘ Oh! If only he had died in battle! I have lost my son, but I do not grieve for him as I do for Lawrence…I am counted brave, the bravest of my tribe: my heart is iron, but his was steel. A man whose hand was never closed, but open. Tell them…Tell them in England what I say. Of manhood the man, in freedom free; a mind without equal; I can see no flaw in him.’

Shekh Hamoudi. Image: Penn Museum

“ Whatever more we can discover in the pages of analysis and self-analysis which follow in this book, that verdict given by a man belonging to an earlier and nobler age will stand. It cannot be reversed, but only supplemented.”

Garnett reminds us that T.E. Lawrence received a devoutly Christian upbringing, and for many years worshiped at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford, where he also taught Sunday School, and was, for two or three years an officer in the St Aldate’s company of the Church Lads Brigade. But unlike his brother Bob — who became a medical missionary in China — T.E. lost his faith as he grew, and as the artist Eric Kennington observed, “…he became a rationalist.”

Garnett’s brilliant introduction, with biographical gems, gives a real feel for the man that became Lawrence of Arabia:

“ Lawrence was from his childhood far more interested in history than any other subject. This took many forms. He went bicycling all round the south of England, making rubbings of monumental brasses. ‘Cut out and pasted on the walls of his bedroom were life-sized figures of knights and priests, with Sir John D’ Abernon and Roger de Trumpington, a Crusader, in pride of place.”

The book is broken up into three parts: Archaeology, War & Diplomacy, and The Royal Air Force.

In the first part the twenty-one-year-old Lawrence writes, on the 29th August 1909, from the Middle East, to his mother:

Dear Mother, Another chance for a note, this time hurried. I wrote last from Tripoli. I went thence to Aarka and then to Kala’at el Hosn, passing one night on a house roof, and the second in the house of an Arab noble, reputed, as I was told next day, of the highest blood; a young man very lively, and rather wild, living in a house like a fortress on the top of a mountain: only approachable on one side, and there a difficult staircase. If you keep this note I can tell you all sorts of amusing things about him later: name Abdul Kerim. He had just bought a Mauser, and blazed at everything with it. His bullets must have caused terror to every villager within a mile around…

That is a not an untypical letter to his mother, which must have frightened her to death at times; but Lawrence was never one to mince words.

This first section is full of such wonderfully descriptive stuff.

A young Lawrence. Image: Maarten Schild

Garnett goes on to describe, in some detail, Lawrence’s life thereafter, most notably with pieces from Seven Pillars, such as this one:

Sunset came down, delightfully red, and after the feast the whole party lay round the outside coffee-hearth lingering under the stars, while Auda and others told us stories. In a pause I remarked casually that I had looked for Mohammed el Dheilan in his tent that afternoon, to thank him for the milch camel he had given me, but had not found him. Auda shouted for joy, till everybody looked at him; and then, in the silence which fell that they might learn the joke, he pointed to Mohammed sitting dismally beside the coffee mortar, and said in his huge voice:

Ho! Shall I tell why Mohammed for fifteen days has not slept in his tent?’ Everybody chuckled with delight, and conversation stopped; all the crowed stretched out on the ground, chins in hands, prepared to take the good points of the story which they had heard perhaps twenty times. The women, Auda’s three wives, Zaal’s wife, and some of Mohammed’s, who had been cooking, came across, straddling their bellies in the billowy walk which came of carrying burdens on their heads, till they were near the partition-curtain; and there they listened like the rest while Auda told at length how Mohammed had bought publicly in the bazaar at Wejh a costly string of pearls, and had not given it to any of his wives, and so they were all at odds, except in their common rejection of him…

This wonderfully descriptive piece is just the start of a long story by Lawrence, told in a style that mimics Auda’s own masterful and elongated story-telling, bringing laughter from Auda, who is still rejoicing in the victory at Akaba, and the joy, just discovered, of mimicking another.

This is T.E. Lawrence the observer at his best, with Garnett’s selection of pieces from Seven Pillars, a joy to rediscover, or discover for the first time, proving once more that Lawrence was a writer able to bring situations to life in just a few sentences, with beautifully crafted portraits of people at ease, and often in danger.

Prince Feisal with Lawrence (sitting 3rd from the right). Image: Pinterest

Much later in the book, Garnett gives us a letter from Lawrence to Thomas Hardy’s wife, Florence, written from Karachi on the 16th of April, 1918, three months after the famous poet and novelist’s death:

Dear Mrs Hardy, You should not have bothered to answer my letters: you know that these letters to the person left behind when someone dies are such vain, inadequate things.

One thing in your letter pleases me very much: you say you have failed him at every turn. Of course you did: everybody did. He was T. H. and if you’d met him or sufficed him at every turn you’d have been as good as T. H. which is absurd: though perhaps some people might think it should be put happier than that. But you know my feeling (worth something perhaps, because I’ve met so many thousands of what are estimated great men) that T. H. was above and beyond all men living, as a person. I used to go to Max Gate [Hardy’s home] afraid, & half unwillingly, for fear that perhaps it would no longer seem true to me: but always it was. Ordinary people like us can’t hope (musn’t presume to hope) that we could ever have been enough for T. H. You did everything you could: more than any other person did: surely that’s not a bad effort? You thought him worth more: I agree: but life doesn’t allow us an overdraft of service. We can give just all we’ve got.

That one letter alone gives us a real insight into Thomas Edward Lawrence.

Lawrence in the 1930s Image: pinterest


Michael Yardley — Backing into the Limelight (Harrap, London, 1985); Richard Aldington — Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry ( Collins, London, 1955); Desmond Stewart — T.E. Lawrence ( Hamish Hamilton, London,1977); Anthony Sattin — Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man (John Murray, London, 2014); Helen Smith — The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett (Jonathan Cape, London, 2017);Caroline G. Heilbrun — The Garnett Family (George Allan & Unwin, London, 1961); Robert Graves — Lawrence and the Arabs (Jonathan Cape, London, 1934); T.E. Lawrence by His Friends — Edited by A.W. Lawrence (Jonathan Cape, London, 1937); The Letters of T. E. Lawrence — Edited by David Garnett (Jonathan Cape, London, 1938); Neil Faulkner — Lawrence of Arabia’s War (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016); T.E. Lawrence — Revolt in the Desert (Folio Edition, London, 1986); and of course, T.E. Lawrence — Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Jonathan Cape, London, 1935)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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