Manuscript reveals dark side of Lawrence of Arabia's sex life

Matthew Beard
Saturday 31 January 2004 01:00 GMT

An unexpurgated version of T E Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom has fuelled claims that the author was a sado-masochist.

The original 1922 edition of the wartime masterpiece to be published next month includes a lengthy account of Lawrence of Arabia's rape by Turkish forces which scholars believe may have been invented for his own "delectation".

Much of Lawrence's life is the subject of debate but signs of his alleged sexual deviancy first emerged when letters showed he paid a man to beat him with birches. Philip Knightley, a Lawrence expert, believes the rape scene in the latest version, which is 200 pages longer than the 1926 original, bears the hallmarks of a fantasist.

He said: "It was so redolent of the sort of sado-masochistic literature that you get in the Charing Cross Road. It sort of cried out that this is Lawrence writing for his own interest and delectation.

"Lawrence continued these sado-masochistic practises with the help of a man called John Bruce. Bruce was paid to birch Lawrence and then write an account of Lawrence's bearing under the birching. The letters were collected by Lawrence who read them again and got two kicks for his buck, so to speak."

The original manuscript, which has previously been read by only a few scholars, has prompted a debate about whether Lawrence, a British Army liaison officer in the First World War, considered suicide.

Jeremy Wilson, author of Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography, said the text shows that Lawrence felt guilty after he encouraged the Arabs to rise up and fight. He knew they would not get an independent state in exchange for their help because France and Britain had other plans.

Wilson told BBC Radio 4: "When he realised how duplicitous his role was he became upset about it and went off on a spying mission to Damascus but the point is he was hoping to get killed on the way. There is no reference to that in the final text but there is an allusion to it in this [original] text."

Knightley disputed this interpretation, saying: "I doubt that Lawrence ever felt the guilt that a lot of his supporters attribute to him. It seems to me he knew only too well what he was doing. He was aware that Britain wanted to break up the old Turkish empire and make sure that Britain got its fair share. In the scramble of all the colonial powers the Arabs were betrayed."

The original version also offers a less flattering view of the Arab leader Faisal who later became the King of Iraq. In the original, Lawrence describes Faisal as "a very weak man, an empty man. You were able to use Faisal to get what you wanted."

Seven Pillars typified Lawrence's skill at observing people, places and events. Among the most memorable passages are the vivid descriptions of desert landscapes and the Bedouin tribespeople he lived with during the Arab Revolt. The romantic story of his campaigns in Arabia appealed to a British public sated with horrific accounts of trench warfare on the Western Front.

The new details will further fuel debate about the enigmatic author who is the subject of much disagreement among scholars. Some even question his claim that the first draft of Seven Pillars was stolen when he was changing trains at Reading station in 1919. Only six copies of the original manuscript exist, including one previously owned by George Bernard Shaw with corrections from the author and now kept in the British Library in London.

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