Found: Lawrence of Arabia's lost text

A previously unknown version of 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' is up for sale
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The Independent Online
A Typescript of an early version of Lawrence of Arabia's classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the story of the Arab revolt against the Turks in the First World War, has turned up at a Chichester saleroom.

Experts say it is an entirely new text, earlier than any other surviving draft of the book, and sheds light on two of the greatest T E Lawrence's mysteries: what was the original Seven Pillars like, and was it really stolen from Lawrence at Reading station in November 1919?

Lawrence's official biographer, Jeremy Wilson, who helped authenticate the typescript, says: "This is a truly remarkable discovery and it tells us something unexpected: the lost Seven Pillars was nothing like the masterpiece Lawrence later created. Indeed, the quality of the writing in this early draft will fuel speculation that he did not lose the original manuscript at Reading - as he claimed - but destroyed it."

The find comes at a time of renewed interest in T E Lawrence. On 29 April, Bonhams is to auction a 1913 painting - exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1988 - of Lawrence's close friend in the desert, the Arab boy Dahoum. And in May, a small private printing company, Castle Press, will publish for the first time the whole text of the 1922 Seven Pillars (Lawrence cut 80,000 words - nearly a quarter - from the original manuscript.)

The newly discovered typescript belongs to a Yorkshire man who does not wish to be identified. He bought it years ago with other items at a local auction. Last December he took it to Stride's auction house in Chichester for possible sale.

The typescript, a 79-page foolscap carbon copy, was in an envelope addressed to Ralph M Robinson Esq, Grey Gables, Great Missenden, Bucks. Across one end, in another hand, is scrawled "Col Lawrence first chapters". Inside was another envelope addressed to "L Curtis Esq, 175 Piccadilly". On the back is a pencilled note in shorthand, only some of which can be deciphered.

It reads: "My dear Ralph, L came in about 10 minutes after you left ... but it is important that it is written ... wanting in a narrative which is ... that you should see. This narrative is now waiting to be typed which it cannot be for another 2 to 3 weeks. I think it best therefore to send you down the original by registered post so that you may look it through tomorrow and Sunday, make any notes that you want, and return it to me either by hand on Monday or by registered post."

Wilson established that the address on the inner envelope was in Lawrence's handwriting. Robinson turned out to be a writer who had worked on the Encyclopaedia Britannica staff before the First World War when Curtis had been a contributor. His family came from Skipton and he was buried in the Wharfedale village of Kettlewell.

Wilson says that the evidence he gathered provides a basis for reconstructing a likely history of the typescript. "The date is around Christmas 1919. Lawrence has lost the original manuscript of Seven Pillars at Reading and has started to write it all over again but then given up. He has lent the manuscript of what he has written to his friend Lionel Curtis in order to have it typed at his office in Piccadilly. Curtis knows that Robinson is working on an article on the Middle East so he sends him the manuscript.

"Robinson, grateful for the loan, has it typed. He probably returns the top copy of the typescript with the manuscript, keeping a carbon copy for himself. It is with his papers when he dies. What happened to the top copy? If Curtis kept it, it was probably lost with his other papers in a fire in 1933. If he gave it to Lawrence, then Lawrence would have burned it in 1922, when he destroyed the second draft."

Wilson's only reservation was the quality of the writing in the typescript. "The text was broadly similar to the 1922 Seven Pillars but with bits left out, and so much worse. It was as though someone without much literary talent had memorised the 1922 text a paragraph at a time and had then tried to re-write it later, making lots of mistakes."

One explanation for the difference between the versions, one written in 1919, the other in 1922, could be that in the intervening period Lawrence taught himself how to write. He later told E M Forster: "While I was trying to write I analysed most of you and found out, as far as was within my fineness to see, what were your tricks of effect, the little reserves and omissions which gave you power to convey more than the print says."

This pursuit of perfectionbacks up the theory that Lawrence's original manuscript was not stolen but burned. Writing to Bernard Shaw about the 1922 text, Lawrence said: "When I finished it, I burned the whole thing for the third [emphasis added] time. The contrast between what I meant and felt I could do, and the truth of what my weakness had let me do was so pitiful." As he was talking here about the third manuscript, this would imply that he had burned both the previous drafts, including the one "stolen at Reading". Stride's will auction the typescript on 2 May. It is estimated to fetch pounds 20,000-pounds 30,000.

Secrets revealed

The full text of Seven Pillars may clear up other mysteries about Lawrence's role in the Arab revolt. In reducing the text, he cut out numerous personal reflections, some of which could be revealing. Examples include his conversations with the Arab leader, Feisal, about Lawrence's true role in the Arab revolt, his confession that the flogging and sexual abuse at Deraa left him with a masochistic longing "like a moth towards a flame", and his recollection of this event a few weeks later when he was present at the official British entry into Jerusalem.

The historical record also fell victim to his cuts. Scholars have been perplexed by a published narrative which, because of the cuts, does not always account for Lawrence's time or seem to square with independent records.

Jeremy Wilson says publication of the full text should solve some of these puzzles.