The names of Sir Walter Raleigh and Vansittart both occur in this family history; the Chapmans did emigrate from Leicestershire to Ireland; and Killua Castle is in Westmeath. On the other hand, the statement that "he was of mixed race" seems curious, as the Chapmans mostly married Anglo-Irish landed gentry like themselves. "His mother was Island Scottish in feeling and education, but her parentage was part English, part Scandinavian," wrote Lawrence to Liddell Hart who included it in his biography. 10
Lawrence must have given Lowell Thomas the "Galway" and the crusading 12th century "Sir Robert Lawrence." Since his father was really Sir Thomas Robert Chapman, Lawrence with his peculiar sense of humour, would think it funny to invent a crusading "Sir Robert" among his ancestors. And his father's change of name explains why Thomas Edward so contemptuously abandoned "Lawrence" for "Ross" or "Shaw," why he insisted on his friends calling him "T.E.", and even such a trifle as the ' T. E. Lawrence' (in quotes) on the title-page of Revolt in the Desert and on the title-page and binding of Liddell Hart's biography.
This irregular situation of a father who had four daughters by his wife and five sons (of whom T. E. Lawrence was the second) by another woman is obviously the clue to Lawrence's abortive career and tortuous character. Of course the fact must not be abused and dragged in to explain everything -- he had his own remarkable gifts, and was as powerfully influenced by his environment in some respects as he violently reacted from it in others -- but with this knowledge we can dissipate much of the legendary "mystery man," understand many things which otherwise are enigmatic, and find compassion rather than repulsion for at least some of his questionable actions and traits. "Call me Ishmael!" -- the opening words of the Moby Dick he took as one of his literary idols -- suited him quite as much as Melville. All his life he was helplessly entangled in a secret which was not his, baffled by it, tongue-tied, forced to habits of dissimulation and mystifying.
For a man whose most obvious characteristic was an abnormal vanity -- including of course its identical opposite, abnormal selfdepreciation -- the unwanted possession of the Secret was a Nessus' shirt, a perpetual crucifixion. And it was all the more maddening because intellectually and morally he didn't care, he was emancipated
from the obsolescent sense of sin, though he cared immensely for personal, social and mundane reasons. Through it he was led to a false relationship and a clash of personality and will with his mother, from which he eventually retired to the anti-feminine refuge of a barrack room. There were moods when he wanted to reveal the Secret (which after all wasn't such a secret that it wasn't known to some and guessed by more) especially when he had reached such a position of world notoriety that it could not have injured him. He was compelled to maintain the Secret to please the false susceptibilities of others, yet another highly-gifted man sacrificed to 19th-century snobbery, hypocrisy, philistinism and "respectability" in a generation which was supposedly in violent revolt against them, he above all!
Full confirmation of this situation is amply provided by Lawrence himself in some of the large collection of letters exchanged between himself and Charlotte Shaw (Mrs. Bernard Shaw) and lately made available to the public by the Library of the British Museum. The Lawrence letters are catalogued as Additional M/S 45903,4, are contained in five folders and cover the years 1923-1935. They include a large amount of musical and literary criticism of the records and books she sent him, and complaints of the conditions of his life in the R.A.F., but, in Mrs. Shaw, Lawrence seems to have found about the only relationship he really wanted with a woman, that of a substitute mother. Perhaps I should add that Lawrence wanted these letters made available to his biographers even during his life-time, but Mrs. Shaw objected, though she seems to have kept all his letters to her.
The most important letter was written by Lawrence on the 14th April 1927, shortly after the publication of Revolt in the Desert, when he had been exiled to Karachi where he was evidently lonely, cut off from all his intellectual friends, and, according to him, a self-constituted prisoner in the camp seven miles outside the town. This intellectual loneliness must have been hard to bear even for a man so self-centred and so self-sufficient, and perhaps prompted the confidence. But he had already confided other personal secrets to Mrs. Shaw, and an even stronger motive must have been the wish that in his lifetime at least one sympathetic person should have his version of the tragedy which he felt had ruined his life -- somebody sufficiently important to see that in due time the information was handed on. This must have been in his mind, because only about two weeks earlier he had written Mrs.
Shaw that sooner or later somebody would want to write his biography and that unpublished letters would be the main source. Mrs. Shaw has preserved what he wanted known and could find no other means to pass on.
The letter contains frank and penetrating (but in no way resentful or exaggerated) judgments on both his parents, to which we shall have to refer when we come to consider the effect of their characters on him. The more important was the mother, who had had a strict Calvinist upbringing in the Isle of Skye and had been a children's nurse. Lawrence says that an overwhelming sense of sin and guilt possessed her because Lawrence's father had left his wife to live with her; and that she strove to atone for her sin by making him and her sons intensely religious. 11 One of them became a missionary.
The second child of this union was Thomas Edward, who according to his mother was born in "the small hours" of the 16th August, 1888. He was registered as born on the 15th by his father, whose name is given as "Thomas Lawrence," by occupation "gentleman," with the address of Gorphwysfa, Tremadoc, Carnarvon, Wales. 12 The only significance, attached to this birth in Wales is the fact that, when Lawrence became an Oxford undergraduate, the chance of his birthplace being Wales enabled him to be entered at Jesus College which was usually frequented by Welshmen. Lawrence was only just over a year old when he left Wales, and for a number of years the family lived a wandering life. Between 1889 and 1891 they lived in Kirkcudbright ( Scotland) for nearly two years; after three weeks in the Isle of Man and three months in Jersey, they lived in Dinard, France, until the spring of 1894, when they returned to England, first to Langley on the edge of the New Forest (Hampshire), and afterwards, in September, 1896, they settled permanently in Oxford. According to one school of thought, the moving of young children from one place to another is supposed to give them "a sense of insecurity." If so, this may possibly have been one of the several factors he mentions which determined in later life his taking refuge in the "security" of the R.A.F. ranks.
A good deal has been made of Lawrence's precocity, and examples have been collected both from those who knew him in his early years and from his own writings. It must be confessed that many of these are trifling, and the solemnity of his hagiographers (one might call them
the Lawrence Bureau) so unsuspecting that the instances they cite often strike an outsider as either ludicrous or highly improbable or both. Before going any further I must warn the reader of some Lawrence peculiarities which will have to be often stressed. He was vague about numbers, except when it suited him to be precise; from quite early times he liked to tell romantic or Irish stories -- Milesian tales, they might be called -- about himself and his astonishing achievements; and he had so practised and abused the habit of "leg-pulling" or "kidding" that he confesses that he had himself lost sight of the boundaries dividing fact from fiction. If he did not know when he was or wasn't telling the truth, how can others?
Probably the tangle can never be sorted out, and that is exactly what Lawrence wanted -- at one and the same time this confusion gratified his vanity, his sense of superiority, and diverted attention from the "Secret."
We learn from his mother's reminiscences that Lawrence was big for his age, a strong and active child who could pull himself over the nursery gate before he could walk, and that before he was three he learned the alphabet simply from listening to the lessons given his elder brother. 13 His elder brother assures us that at the age of five Lawrence could read the newspaper upside down, and that this accomplishment in later life enabled him to practise the economy of reading the newspaper of the man opposite in a train. He climbed a steep ladder into a loft at the age of two, and later led the others in a twelve foot jump from the top of a shed. He invented stories for them, in which their animal toys played the part of soldiers defending a tower. 14 Before he was six he had picked up a child's fluency in French at Dinard; at seven he was taken on a steamer to see the ships of the Royal Navy at the Spithead Review, disdained the sight, and was found reading Macaulay in the cabin; before he was ten he had learned to take rubbings of the sepulchral brasses he went to see in English churches. 15 Add to this that before he was eight he could swim and ride a pony and was an energetic tree-climber.
These little facts are vouched for by others, and certainly indicate a certain precocity of mind and body. To these may be added Lawrence's own references to his early childhood, all implying a fabulous precocity. in later life he told one correspondent that he was able to read at the age of four, mainly police news, he said; and that he began learning Latin
at five. 16 He improved on this in conversation with Liddell Hart, and claimed that he "knew French as a boy, and could read and write before he was four. 17 When he joined the R.A.F. and was transferred to Farnborough after his recruit's course he became impatient at being compelled to spend nine months on photography. Characteristically, he complained direct to R.A.F. Headquarters in a personal letter to Air Vice-Marshal Swann (whom he had met once), explaining that he was "already as good as the men passing out," and adding that he had been taught when he was four by his father whom he described as a pioneer photographer. 18 Moreover, in June, 1931, he wrote a naval officer that his father had yachts and that he used to go sailing with him -- again from his fourth year. 19 He told Liddell Hart that he had learned to handle boats from his father, a keen yachtsman.
Photography and yachting are certainly unusual acquirements for a child of three. But "at the age of four" and "in my fourth year" should not be taken literally, and mean nothing really more than "when I was a child." Lawrence was always vague about numbers and dates (there are virtually no dates in his history thesis or in the narrative of his war book) either because he was too lazy to bother, or affected disdain for such petty accuracies. It was seldom that he reported any fact or episode involving himself without embellishing them and indeed in some cases entirely inventing them. If he wished to put himself forward as an infant prodigy his Irish imagination took no more account of years than in other stories it took of probability or common sense.
When Lawrence was eight and his eldest brother ten -- with others coming along -- there arose the problem of education. Clearly something more serious was required than lessons from an English governess or French monks and gymnastic classes at St. Malo. The decision was made to move to Oxford where there was a High School, from which in due course the boys might hope to pass on to the University. They settled at 2 Polstead Road, which remained the family home until 1921.
The influence of Oxford on T. E. Lawrence was very strong indeed. It was never really shaken off, though modified in the war, and definitely repudiated in the "common man" phase of the Tanks and the R.A.F., when he even attempted to change his Oxford accent into "garage English." Oxford, he declared, was "heaven" -- from eighteen to twenty-one. Not much of its ancient glamour touched him
during his school days, and that glamour itself had been considerably vulgarised even in 1896. Max Beerbohm, who came to Oxford that year as an undergraduate, considered it ". . . a bit of Manchester through which Apollo had once passed," and "in a riot of vulgarity" he found "only remnants of beauty." 20
Some of the "memories" of Lawrence's schooldays embalmed in print are very trifling -- thus we are told that the four boys all wore the same dark blue and white striped jerseys, and rode to and from school on bicycles always in line and in order of seniority. 21 Possibly this shows that posing and publicity began early. More to the point is the question of how much he owed to his school. It was not what in England is called a Public School (i.e., a private and expensive school for the upper class) and hence carried none of the old-school-tie prestige.
The suggestion has been made that, with his very lofty standards of what was due to him, Lawrence resented having to attend this "townee" school; but, so far as I can discover, no positive evidence for this has ever been brought forward. But Lawrence's account of this school is in sharp contrast with that of his brother who praises the headmaster as "marvellous," the staff as "excellent and willing," the governing body of dons as "splendid," and adds: "The statement has been made that Ned did not enjoy his schooldays, but this is quite a mistake." 22 Lawrence himself did not share this view. He said that apart from reading, writing and French (which he knew before he went to school) what he learned came from the books he read for himself -- "school was usually an irrelevant and time-wasting nuisance which I hated and contemned." 23 In the autobiographical letter to Hogarth already quoted, Lawrence says that at school he was educated "very little, very reluctantly, very badly." 24 This is perhaps only another example of having too high a standard and of making a good story, for he could hardly have learned Latin and Greek or even mathematics and history by private reading. He is said to have won prizes every year. 25 Nevertheless he failed to get a history scholarship at St. John's College, though later he managed to win a history exhibition. 26
What are we to make of this violent repudiation of his school-days, this haughty disclaimer of any obligation to instructors who evidently are only too anxious to claim him as theirs? It is almost as contemptuous as Gibbon's stately disdain for "the monks of Magdalen." Yet
Lawrence did not disdain his University years; and his success as an undergraduate must have depended on his former training. It is said that after 1900 the scholarships he won at school paid all his fees for education. But what are we to make of his statement that he "worked at mathematics until nearly 18," when he changed to history, 27 if compared with the positive declaration of his friend and school-mate T. W. Chaundy (afterwards a lecturer in mathematics) that Lawrence encouraged Mr. Chaundy to do his algebra for him? 28 Yet when at the end of his school career he took the Oxford Senior Local exam., he is said to have passed in nineteen different papers, was 13th among the 120 Firsts out of 10,000 competitors, first in English Language, third in Scripture. 29 Lawrence in later life evidently wanted it to be thought that he had done this purely on his own without any real assistance from the school.
It is tempting to write this off as just another example of his "Ishmael" attitude -- the contemptuous brushing off of conventional authority and institutions, the wish to owe everything to himself alone -- and no doubt that must be taken into account. But behind this is the undeniable fact that much of what he learned out of school was more important to his life than what he learned in school. Never mind his "before I was four" nonsense. To have learned to use a camera was more useful than mathematics and Latin for illustrations to his thesis and the very ample photographic records of his part in the desert war. So, too, early experience with yachts and canoes may have helped his later work of testing speed-boats. He unconsciously helped to make himself, and wanted to believe -- or others to believe -- that he had done it all. But were these achievements so remarkable?
He never had any interest in any branch of biology, unless a brief phase of collecting fossils be so considered, and turned away in boredom from a collection of wild birds to study the latrines of a medieval castle. The intense preoccupation with religion in his home put into his hands the Oxford Helps to the Study of the Bible, and his school gave him as prizes two books on ancient Egypt. With his own pocketmoney he bought Layard's two volumes on Nineveh, which may have stimulated his interest in the Middle East, for along with the account of his excavations Layard tells his readers something of the history and geography of the area with lively accounts of contemporary Turkish and Arabian life. 30 It is characteristic that with his almost complete
indifference to natural science he picked up some of its technical terms and long afterwards was able to use them correctly. 31
While he was still only in the fifth form, and presumably about fifteen, Lawrence was already well-known for his interest in archology. With another school-fellow he spent his pocket-money in buying up old coins, bottles and pipes found by Oxford workmen digging foundations, and cycled to local churches taking heel-ball rubbings of the brasses which he hung round his room. The two boys haunted the local museums (especially the Ashmolean) and libraries, and worked up theories about church and college architecture. From copying brasses they went on to study any fragments of biography they could find about the people commemorated. They dabbled in heraldry and armour, visiting the Tower of London and the Wallace Collection; and from these went on to medieval enamels and tooled leather, illuminated manuscripts, the then recently discovered relics of ancient Crete, William Morris's Kelmscott Press, which passed on to ambitious projects for a new printing of Froissart with illustrations by contemporary artists. Gradually Lawrence's particular interests concentrated on Gothic architecture and especially medieval castles and fortifications. 32
Now if all these interests and explorations really occurred when Lawrence was only fifteen they form another set of examples of the precocity which is claimed for him -- though of course the same thing would be equally true of his companion, C. F. C. Beeson, who shared them with him.
All this is credible if the period is not set back too far and if we refrain from mythologising Lawrence into an infant Hercules strangling cultural serpents in his cradle. The interests themselves are the usual schoolboy "collecting" and "exploring" manias conditioned by residence in a university town filled with antiquities and antiquarians. From an early age, say 14-15, Lawrence frequented the Ashmolean, and imitated it within his means -- brass-rubbings for sculpture, coins and bottles for ushabtis and ancient pottery. Whether instinctively or from imitation he agreed with Oxford, as we have seen, in his indifference to natural science. If his youthful cycling had as objective a church with old tombs instead of an afternoon's fishing or looking for birds' nests, that again was wholly in keeping with the spirit of the place. The turning of his antiquarian interests towards the Middle
East is easily explained by the religious atmosphere which surrounded him both at home and without, whether "worshipping" at St. Aldate's or parading with the Church Lads' Brigade. Middle Eastern archology was approved, not as proto-history or science or art, but because it was held to show that the Bible is true. Fortunately he found a more intelligent view when he came to know personally the Ashmolean keepers, Hogarth and Leeds.
At this point we come on one of those stories which Lawrence told about himself to his friends and hagiographers. These anecdotes, which are never to his disadvantage, whether explained as the Milesian tales of a wild Irishman unable to see the absurdity of his assertions, or as "leg-pulling," do not recommend Lawrence as a good witness, but did serve the purpose of self-advertisement. Here is the story:
" Lawrence's knowledge must be pretty extensive. In six years he read every book in the library of the Oxford Union -- the best part of 50,000 volumes probably. His father used to get him the books while he was at school and afterwards he always borrowed six volumes a day in his father's name and his own. For three years he read day and night on a hearthrug, which was a mattress so that he could fall asleep as he read. Often he spent eighteen hours a day reading, and at last got so good at it that he could tear the heart out of the most formidable book in half an hour." 33
Unfortunately for this story, 6 books a day for 6 years doesn't make much more than 13,000; to read 50,000 in that time he would have had to perform the impossible feat of reading 25 a day for 2,000 days -- and what about going to school and lectures? A less fantastic version of this tale turns up in V. Richards' Portrait and in Liddell Hart's book, with the 50,000 omitted, but with the borrowing 6 books a day in his father's name and his own retained, and the poetic thought that Lawrence "sensed" a subject as a bee finds nectar. 34 Evidently Hart had done some figuring, and examined Lawrence on the subject; whereupon Lawrence explained that Graves had quite misunderstood him about the Oxford Union books, what Lawrence meant was that he had read all the books he wanted to read -- he had not, for example, read any of the theological books, of which there are many. 35 And Liddell Hart gently rebukes Graves for "faulty proof-reading" -- a side-stepping of the issue. But, as a matter of fact, Lawrence "read
and passed every word of" Graves' book, "though he asked me to put a sentence in my introduction making it seem that he had not." 36 And, again according to Graves, Lawrence gave him the whole paragraph, including the 50,000 books, the father's borrowing when Lawrence was at school, the 6 a day, the reading day and night for six years "often 18 hours in a day reading" and "the tearing the heart out of a book in half an hour. 37
The sentence to which Graves refers runs as follows: " Unfortunately, owing to pressure of time my completed typescript could not be submitted to Shaw before publication, and I apologise to him for any passages where my discretion has been at fault." 38 We hear much of Lawrence as a "wonderful friend." In this case he furnished Graves with stories (the 50,000 books tale is very far from being the only one) which any reader might reasonably query, "read and passed every word" and then "asked" the biographer to make an ambiguous statement which exonerated Lawrence and left the responsibility to his friend. It was, to say the least, unscrupulous of Lawrence to compel his friend to a seeming responsibility for the many false or exaggerated stories of his own superiority which Lawrence foisted through him on a credulous public.
IN SPITE of numerous reminiscences, the account we have of Lawrence in his boyhood is not satisfactory. It is really more a portrait of his interests than of him, and the evidence is weakened by the fact that none of it is contemporary while the accounts were mainly written in an atmosphere of posthumous hero-worship heightened by the sense of loss at his recent death. Naturally, these early friends tend to recollect evidence of his precociously developed intellectual powers. The fact that the collection of published letters is incomplete may partly account for the peculiar impersonality of the earlier ones, which contain so much about his antiquarian interests and so little about himself. No childish letters have so far been produced (if any exist) and the earliest is dated two clays before his 17th birthday -- he is at Colchester on a cycling tour with his father, they have visited the Roman gate and the churches, on which Lawrence gives his learned opinions, with sketches. 1 The letter shows a strange lack of warmth and human interest, as if written mainly to preserve a first-hand memorandum of his church and castle hunting.