British Empire Books

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

AuthorLawrence, T.E.
Originally published1926
Original publisherPrivate
This publisherPenguin
This Edition1962
ISBN No.0140181229

Opinions about this book vary from classing it as a literary masterpiece to that of being written a mocking fraudster. It certainly is an interesting read, but it should also be a good lesson to the historian that there is always more than one side to any story.

The book details Lawrence's role in the Asia Minor theatre of war in World War I. He goes into great detail about his life and relations with the Arabs in their revolt from their Turkish overlords. His experiences were definitely adventurous and breathtaking and he provides an insight into Arab history that the West would otherwise rarely a chance to see. However, all his derring-do and exploits has to be set against the fact that this is an autobiography. And, as such, it does verge into realms of truth that are disputed by many, particularly Arab, scholars. Lawrence is a self-publicist par excellence. He passes off fantastical exploits in a self-deprecating manner of excuses and apologies. He knows only too well that he who writes history is the one who makes history. Many Arabs are sceptical of his exploits and play down his importance in their own history of liberation. Only, we do not have access to many other written records and so are keen to take on Lawrence's version as being the 'authentic' history. Many question his detailed memory of events, people and places without the aid of notes and diaries. This book has the feel of being written for posterity, but as long as we take this into account, we can still learn a lot from this fascinating book.

Lawrence of Arabia is a very powerful cultural icon to the west, brought about partly from his experiences, partly from this book, but also from the 1962 David Lean film production. The film portrays the Arab Revolt as some backswoods Arabs overcoming the Turks with their primitive weapons and animals. It therefore came as something of a surprise to read about how much technology and how many British, French and Empire forces he could also call upon for this Arab revolt. Armoured cars, ships, planes, and explosives all had a significant role to play in Lawrence's campaign to oust the Turks. It is interesting to read about the combination of the old and new to fight what was essentially a guerilla war; the kind that would become common as decolonisation started after World War II.

Lawrence can be brutally blunt about who he respects and who he dislikes in the theatre of war. Some of his comments about General Allenby are positively fawning, I guess because Allenby gave him the freedom to do what he wanted. Comments about others can be less than respectful. The book can also verge into the positively homo-erotic at times. Lawrence's account of his capture and his comments on issues of gender are suggestive of some deeper feelings and thoughts, but cannot be substantiated to any satisfactory degree.

Lawrence also falls into some deeply cynical and ugly terminology that betray his era and nationality. He talks of no amount of Arabs being worth the life of a single Englishman and he is consciously aware of the deals and shennanigans going on between the Allies to keep the Arabs away from any meaningful political autonomy.

Taken altogether it is easy to admire, but difficult to like the character portrayed in this autobiography. He had a unique experience in a fascinating part of the world, but his cynicism and prejudices constantly bubble up through his conscience. The book is also a long tome, and one that can be both beautifully written but also repetitive and uninspiring for long tracts. For all these faults, this book is still a classic of imperial literature and one that any student of this period would gain much from reading.

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by Stephen Luscombe