How to Achieve Immortality: The Beastly Book of Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia. Were it not for T.E. Lawrence’s ambition to write an historical classic worthy of a place in the pantheon with Gibbon, Hume, and Carlyle, the name “Lawrence of Arabia” might mean nothing to the general public today. His story likely would have remained an interesting yet obscure bypath in World War I history.

 

T.E. Lawrence always knew he was going to write a book about the Middle East. He had already named it. Even before his military exploits in the area, he had written a story of adventures in the Middle East called Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This 1913 effort was later burned by the dissatisfied author, a presage of events to come.

 

During his legendary participation in the Arab Revolt, Lawrence kept extensive notes on characters, events, and settings with an eye towards publishing an account after hostilities ceased. The first manuscript, Text I, was nearly completed in 1919 using these notes. Lawrence then burned all his notes, presumably satisfied they had served their purpose.

 

And promptly lost the manuscript.

 

Lawrence in 1919, the year of Text I
Lawrence in 1919, the year of Text I

 

There is talk that he misplaced his valise at Reading station, perhaps while changing taxis, but some friends and biographers hint that the manuscript may have been stolen for political reasons. Regardless, his 250,000-word draft was gone.

 

Dejected but convinced that he was meant to make a great contribution to literature, Lawrence started again from scratch. He created Text II in 1920, completed in 400,000 words. (At 150,000 more words, I have to wonder if perhaps he overcompensated for the loss of the first manuscript.) The first three chapters of Text II appeared in the American journal World’s Work in 1921. However, Lawrence was severely disappointed with this draft, calling it his “Boy-Scout book.” He started on a third draft.

 

When Text III was completed in 1922 at a relatively slender 335,000 words, Lawrence burned the manuscript of Text II. Besides the first three chapters already printed and a single page now housed in the Bodleian Library, Text II was gone. Lawrence just really should have stayed away from matches, that’s all I’m saying.

 

Uneasily satisfied with Text III, in 1922 Lawrence arranged for the compositors at the Oxford Times to print eight copies meant to be proofs he could lend to friends for advice on revision. This is technically the true first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Of the eight copies, six survive: two in the British Library, two in private hands, one at the Bodleian, and one at the Huntington. Of the last two, one was destroyed, and the other was broken apart. The last that appeared on the market, Lawrence’s own copy, sold for $850,000 more than ten years ago.

 

This time, Lawrence had the presence of mind to retain the manuscript, which he gifted to the Bodleian. A slight presumption, perhaps, but Lawrence was vindicated in the end.

 

Lawrence asked some friends of his to look over the Oxford copies. Just some casual buddies like George Bernard Shaw, E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rudyard Kipling. As friends they were much too nice in their criticism but still offered excellent suggestions which Lawrence took (for the most part). He used these revisions to prepare the first real publication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: the 1926 Subscriber’s Edition.

 

The 1926 Subscriber's Edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This copy is in the original binding by Best.
The 1926 Subscriber’s Edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This copy is in the original binding by Best.

 

The Subscriber’s Edition was cut by about 170 pages after the advice of Forster and others—I’d say for the better, though some scholars disagree. Now the fun part: 170 copies were printed for subscribers who paid 30 guineas up front. That’s the equivalent of over $2000 dollars today. Seem like a lot of money? Lawrence actually lost money at that price.

 

Lawrence was a major bibliophile and was deeply involved in the production of the edition. He insisted each copy be unique “to hinder and perhaps intrigue the bibliophiles.” For example, he used at least seven different binders. The illustrations are frankly superb and intimately reflect Lawrence’s taste. The book Lawrence gave birth to weighed a healthy five pounds, and he adored it.

 

Lawrence rather lost his mind over this book. According to the authoritative biographer Jeremy Wilson, “in the belief that he could heighten his creative powers, he had deliberately subjected himself to near starvation and lack of sleep.” Lawrence wrote of this period, “I nearly went off my head this spring, heaving at that beastly book of mine” (will resist further use of the “birth” metaphor here).

 

The production proved so expensive that Lawrence was forced to sell his Fourth Folio Shakespeare, among other things, to support the printing. Eventually in 1927 Lawrence gave in and created an even more abridged “trade” edition, Revolt in the Desert, to pay debts from his gorgeous Subscriber’s Edition.

 

Revolt in the Desert, Lawrence's "sellout" abridged version from 1927.
Revolt in the Desert, Lawrence’s “sellout” abridged version from 1927.

 

Lawrence refused to reprint his great work, the 1926 Seven Pillars of Wisdom in all its typographical and aesthetic glory, promising no new editions would appear in his lifetime. In May of 1935, he died in a motorcycle accident. Six weeks later, his publisher came out with a new edition.

 

Jonathan Cape's 1935 edition of Seven Pillars, bound in half pigskin.
Jonathan Cape’s 1935 edition of Seven Pillars, the limited edition bound in half pigskin.

 

Lawrence always had a sense of epic hovering over his writing, which he seems to have fulfilled. The book, originating in his frustration over the outcome of the revolt, eventually evolved into a personal souvenir clothed in the ornaments of legend. Winston Churchill called it one of “the greatest books ever written in the English language.”

 

Others, including Lawrence himself, disagreed. “What is the perversity,” he wrote, “which makes me, capable of many things in the world, wish only to do one thing, bookwriting: and gives me no skill at it?” Either way, the book carries itself like an act of heroism and remains a proud heritage of bibliophiles.

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. erikhaun says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    I’m curious. What is your own opinion of Lawrence’s writing? Would you agree with his own self-criticism or would you agree with Winnie?

  2. Loving your blog right now, 43 years old in a couple of weeks and I’ve never read any Lawrence nor seen the film bio. I’ll be doing both in the near future thanks to you. Keep it up.

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