The British Empire Library

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

by T. E. Lawrence

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.

Additional Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
I read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom half a century ago in a hippy hotel in Kabul. The urban squalor of my surroundings - a bed in a dormitory cost a shilling a night - contrasted strongly with the majesty of Eawrence’s style, the intense, candescent, highly-wrought prose in which he described Arabia. Yet I had spent enough time sleeping in the deserts of Iran, watching the sun inching above the horizon, to be able to imagine how he and his companions had lived for years 'in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven’; how by day the sun had 'fermented us and we were dizzied by the beating wind’; how at night we were 'shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars’.

The Seven Pillars is a magnificent account of the Arab Revolt against Turkey in the First World War. Winston Churchill regarded its author as 'one of the greatest beings alive in our time’, and John Buchan thought him 'the only man of genius’ he had ever known. Yet Lawrence himself, the most self-critical of men, came to feel that his book was 'entirely contemptible, an unconvincing bag of tricks’. He wished 'that Arabian business’ had never happened, and he was long tormented by the feeling that he had helped betray the Arabs, whose nationalist aspirations were thwarted by the French and British mandates established in the Middle Ikist. Lawrence inspired my interest in the Arab World and led (though very indirectly) to my first jobs in Beirut and Cairo. Later my work took me to Western Europe and, later still, to India and the East.

It was while writing a biography of Rudyard Kipling that I caught up with Lawrence again. In the archives at Harvard I found an almost illegible draft letter in his handwriting which revealed that the two men met in 1918, sat up for two nights while the desert hero 'talked very much’ until Kipling, 'wanting perhaps to go to bed, told [him] to go and write a book. Well,’ Lawrence exclaimed four years later, 'I did it’.

In 1922 Kipling agreed to read the draft of The Seven Pillars on condition that Lawrence never revealed the fact. Alas he did not care for the book - the prose style of the two authors could hardly have been more different - nor did he much like Lawrence himself, though he softened his hostility on learning that the 'poor chap’ was illegitimate. It 'explained the whole uneasy soul of the man’ and confirmed one of Kipling’s 'pet theories that the wrong side of the blanket doesn’t breed the worst sort’. Lawrence did indeed have an uneasy soul. In his early thirties he renounced fame and influence and literary glory, and sought anonymity under assumed names in lowly jobs in the Arm and the RAF. His only joy was the motorbike that eventually killed him.

British Empire Book
T. E. Lawrence
Originally 1926, this edition 2000
Penguin Classics
Review Originally Published
Spring 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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