Lawrence knew that the book was unique – no one else had experienced the Arab Revolt as he had, and for the first ‘heroic’ era of the struggle there was no other European witness to gainsay him. All his life he had practised the arts of intrigue and mystification, and he knew perfectly well that the best way to arouse interest in his work was to conceal what lay in it for as long, and from as many people, as possible. Though he had originally thought to make money out of Seven Pillarsfor he had revived the idea of building a medieval hall with Vyvyan Richards and starting a printing-press at Pole Hill near Ghingford – the finished version was not to be published until after his death in 1935. A limited subscribers edition (the Oxford version) was completed in 1922, but not issued until 1926, at Ј30 per copy. Predictably, perhaps, Lawrence refused to reveal how many copies had been printed. In the same year, an abridged version of the book entided Revolt in the Desertfrom which most of the personal and controversial matter had been expurgated – was published to enormous popular success, but was quickly withdrawn as soon as Lawrence thought it had earned enough money, making himself, as George Bernard Shaw commented later, ‘the talk of the town’, 8and adding a further impetus to public interest.

Winston Churchill wrote that Seven Pillarsranked with the greatest books ever written in the English language and called it ‘an epic, a prodigy, a tale of torment’. 9The book also received high praise from distinguished figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells and many others. Lawrence wrote Vyvyan Richards in 1923 that he was aware that it was ‘a good book’ but added that it ‘was not as good as it should have been’ 10– that is, it was not as good, he felt, as Moby Dickor War and Peace.It was an aspect of Lawrence’s competitive nature that he should aspire to equal the works of Tolstoy, Melville and others, and it was also typical that he should feel that he had fallen short. Indeed, he seemed to grow less and less satisfied with Seven Pillarsover the years, frequently referring to it as ‘my shit’. He was convinced that it was a failure, and would accept no praise for it, dismissing any approving comments as flattery, and considering them a tribute to the legend he had become. He was partly, but not entirely correct in this. Seven Pillarsis a masterpiece of technical ability: it displays a wit and a mastery of language which is far out of the ordinary. Yet it has its faults. Lawrence himself commented that it had no unity, was too discursive, dispersed, heterogeneous: ‘I’ve shot into it,’ he wrote, ‘as a builder into his yard, all the odds and ends of ideas which came to me during those years.’ 11Lawrence was a superb descriptive writer, but the narrative of Seven Pillarsis occasionally so oppressively overwhelmed with detail that the story itself is obscured: ‘the paint,’ as St John Philby observed, ‘is too thick on the canvas.’ 12Lawrence’s passion for concealment and whimsicality is counter-productive, because writing is about the clear communication of ideas, whereas some of his passages are opaque. The book’s greatest fault, however, is its lack of spontaneity: Lawrence’s emotions seem artificial – there is no ecstasy, little real passion: there are likes and dislikes, but little genuine love or hate. Lawrence has often been called ‘a poet’, yet he wrote almost no poems. He became a ‘man of letters’ after the war, but he was never a ‘writer’ in the sense that his friends Forster, Hardy, Sassoon, Graves, Shaw and others were writers. If he had not been ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Seven Pillarswould have remained a remarkable book, but it certainly would not have had the same impact on the world: The Mint,his second book, might not have been published at all. He himself suspected this: when he tried to submit articles to various newspapers and magazines later under an assumed name, they were rejected. Lawrence was a famous man who had one magnificent story to tell, who told it magnificently. He found himself a niche among the great artists and writers of the age, but was never quite certain that he belonged there.

Indeed, Lawrence’s post-war career is in many senses an essay in the exigencies of fame – a phenomenon which was perhaps less well known or understood in his era than it is today, in the age of television. At the end of the millennium we are familiar with personalities who are ‘famous for being famous’, as the saying goes, and we are aware that fame obscures all truth and rides in an ethereal dimension of self-perpetuating fantasy. We know now that fame need have little connection with talent or accomplishment, and can often be entirely the result of presentation. Other than stars of the screen, Lawrence was perhaps the first international megastar of the century, and ‘Law-rence of Arabia’ was created by its first major publicity campaign. Lawrence’s fame began almost as soon as he arrived back in Britain after the war, when he was interviewed by newspaper correspondents who found him surprisingly ‘unassuming’ for a hero. They did not know, of course, that this apparently guileless exterior had been carefully cultivated by Lawrence from childhood and, coupled with a sense that there was more concealed which he was too modest to reveal, was guaranteed to pique their interest – as, by Lawrence’s own admission, it was fully intended to do. Even at school this quality had been noticed by his teachers: time and time again it had worked to Lawrence’s advantage: with Hogarth, with Feisal, with Allenby, and now with the press. Predictably, they became avid for more and more about the strange ‘Colonel Lawrence’. It was in 1919, though, when the American journalist Lowell Thomas opened at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with an illustrated lecture, eventually entitled ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’, that the myth of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was firmly established.

In 1918, Thomas had been commissioned by the American government to produce material which would generate enthusiasm for the war among the American people. Finding that the Western Front, with its dirt, disease and monotonous stalemate, presented no image worth carrying home, Thomas had been steered by John Buchan, Britain’s propaganda chief, to the more photogenic Eastern front. In March 1918 Thomas had met Lawrence in Jerusalem, and the arch-propagandist in Lawrence had immediately recognized the efficacy of publicity. He had arranged for Thomas to visit him in Aqaba, where he had not only posed for him happily in Arab costume, but had succeeded in getting him permission to film the Bedu. Thomas wrote later that it was not Lawrence himself, but his fellow British officers who tended to be camera-shy. Although Thomas returned to the United States too late for his material to perform its original function, his post-war presentation in London was a phenomenal success. It quickly boosted Lawrence to superstar status: in Britain alone it was watched by more than a million people, including the King – who asked for a private showing. It succeeded by harnessing a series of heroic archetypes which appealed deeply to the subliminal consciousness of a people whose nation had just survived a devastating war. In a very real sense, ‘Colonel Lawrence’ redeemed the souls and the seemingly pointless deaths of thousands of Britain’s young men. Thomas claimed that Lawrence had been regarded by the Arabs as ‘a sort of supernatural being’ who had been sent from heaven to deliver them from their oppressors; he declared that Lawrence had done more to unify the Arabs than anyone since the age of the ‘Great Caliphs’. Lawrence had achieved this, he said, by ‘transforming himself into an Arab’ and wandering around the Arabian deserts with only two companions, persuading individual tribesmen to join the revolt by pure rhetoric. This ‘youth’ had, he said, become virtually the ruler of the Holy Land of the Arabs and the commander-in-chief of thousands of Bedu. It was a compelling picture: the messianic nature of the story was just what the audience wanted to hear. It also expressed precisely the kind of mythological, archetypal images in which Lawrence himself had always liked to deal. In early 1920 he wrote to Sir Archibald Murray, his former Chief in Cairo, who objected to certain comments Thomas had made about him in the lecture, noting that he himself had to ‘sit still’ while Thomas called him ‘Prince of Mecca’ and ‘other beastly things’, 13yet a year earlier Lawrence had announced to the King of England that he was ‘a prince among the Arabs’ and even used the title ‘Prince of Mecca’ deliberately in the 1922 edition of Who’s Who. The truth was that Lawrence loved Thomas’s lecture, was fascinated by it, went to see it several times, and hated himself for loving it. Lawrence called the publicity ‘rank’, yet when Thomas asked him what his attitude to mis-statements would be, he answered that he would neither confirm nor deny them. Thomas, who, unlike Lawrence’s later biographers, had actually met Lawrence during the campaign, wrote that he revelled in being the leader of an army, a strategist, and a maker of history: ‘he got a real thrill,’ he wrote, ‘out of the kudos that accrued from his success.’ 14

Thomas’s presentation was an exercise in mass manipulation, and its effects were staggering: within weeks many who had opposed or criticized Lawrence were praising him unreservedly, realizing that they, too, were accessories in the heroic story. So powerful did the mythical image become that in the ensuing years it was almost impossible for anyone to make a balanced statement about Lawrence: all but the most iconoclastic felt that it was expected of them to pay lip-service to the official version, and to oppose it became almost tantamount to treason. Lawrence’s fame opened every door: prominent writers, artists, poets – many of those who might be thought of as capable of individual and independent views – simply accepted passively the verdict of the crowd. (There were some exceptions: neither Kipling nor Doughty joined in the popular circus.) Such is the overwhelming power of fame: not that Lawrence did not deserve to be famous, but that the fame itself became a fantastic entity quite out of proportion to the reality, bathing everything Lawrence did or touched in a gaudy, neon glow. Lawrence became a ‘hero’, that is, not a creature of flesh and blood living in the real world, but a composite character inhabiting what today we might call ‘cyberspace’ – the collective consciousness – an imaginary focus of human aspirations and desires. He became so bound up with many people’s concept of what it was to be British that any criticism of Lawrence came to be seen in some quarters as an attack on the British themselves. It was not until the 1960s – long after Lawrence’s death – that a writer named Richard Aldington had the courage to stand up and point out the absurdity of the worship of Lawrence as a secular saint – and Aldington’s ‘debunking’ was made with such ill-conceived sarcasm and vitriol that he virtually demolished his own case.

What part did Lawrence himself play in the creation of this legend? There can be no doubt that his sensitivity and his tendency to project the mundane into the mythological played a major role. Mythogeny – the creation of myth – is a two-way process. The hero-in-the-making must have a feeling for the myth he is in – the capacity to reflect what is projected upon him by others – to provide, as it were, the raw material upon which the legend can be built. Lowell Thomas revealed later that Lawrence had actually visited him at Richmond regularly and had consulted with him. Thomas wrote that he had often asked Lawrence if certain anecdotes were true, upon which Lawrence would giggle and reply: ‘History is not made up of the truth anyway, so why worry?’ 15Yet Lawrence’s masochistic nature prevented him from simply accepting the adulation of others. He was not vain: his exhibitionism was, as can be frequently observed throughout his life, not of the narcissistic kind. He felt himself to be fundamentally ‘unclean’ and needed to show this to the world also. His life thus became a ceaseless dialectic between his exultation in his success and his instinctive need for self-degradation. Thomas recognized that Lawrence loved fame, but wanted at the same time to flee from it: ‘He would protest that he wanted to be left alone by the world,’ Thomas wrote,’… but at heart he loved it all.’ 16It was Thomas himself who wrote the famous line about Lawrence having a talent for ‘backing into the limelight’, 17and George Bernard Shaw – no doubt one of the most perceptive men of his day – who called him a born actor, writing: ‘when he was in the middle of the stage, with ten limelights blazing on him, everyone pointed at him and said: “See! He is hiding. He hates publicity.”‘ 18Lawrence pre-empted all these comments, though, when he admitted that he had ‘a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known’. 19His predicament was remarkably like that of J. M. Barrie’s rascally old Etonian, Captain Hook, whose ‘vitals were tortured’ by the reflection that it was ‘bad form’ to think about having ‘good form’, and that one could only truly have ‘good form’ without knowing it. As Lyn Cowan has commented, such a trait is perfectly consistent with masochism: ‘the masochist reveals that he is a forceful actor,’ she has written. ‘He must act, and lives to act, and hates to act. So great is his inner torment that it must hide behind curtains and burst forth on to centre stage.’ 20Lawrence both helped to create and then tried to deny the myth, telling Joseph Conrad that the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ legend was all untrue: that his success had been exaggerated out of all proportion: ‘You see I know how false the praise is,’ he wrote later, ‘how little the reality compared with the legend: how much luck: how little merit.’ 21Yet He acknowledged that the legend had a life of its own, when he announced: ‘Colonel Lawrence still goes on; only I have stepped out of the way.’

At almost the moment when ‘Colonel Lawrence’ was being born, however, Lawrence discovered that he was not ‘T. E. Lawrence’ at all. In April 1919 his father died of influenza, and he flew back from the Peace Conference for the funeral to discover his true identity. Thomas had inherited the Chapman baronetcy from his uncle in 1914, although, of course, he had never used the tide. Lawrence now discovered that he was the son of Sir Thomas Chapman, who was the heir to vast estates in Ireland. His reaction to this revelation is difficult to gauge. From an early age, he had sensed that there was something strange about his parents’ relationship. It cannot have escaped his notice, for instance, that while other children had cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, he seemed to have no relatives at all. He claimed to have known that he was illegitimate before he was ten, but according to notes taken down by Charles Bell of the Ashmolean from David Hogarth, he knew only a garbled version of the story. He believed that Thomas was not his real father, but had married his mother – a servant in another man’s house – after she had acquired some or all of her sons. Lawrence maintained that he had not ‘given a straw’ about his illegitimacy: it had not affected his childhood, and it certainly had not affected his success. Arnie Lawrence, who himself had burst into raucous laughter when Ned first told him the truth, said that his brother felt no bitterness about his inheritance: ‘He cannot possibly have felt any grievance …’ Arnie wrote, ‘because the money had actually come to his father, and why should he regret Bob’s exclusion from the landed estate (but he did once remark how funny it would be if Bob had been able to become Sir Montague)?’ 22Moreover, since Lawrence frequently wrote to acquaintances informing them that his name was ‘not really’ Lawrence, he cannot have felt a great sense of shame. Lawrence’s biographers have frequently attempted to turn his story into a tale of existential guilt over his family circumstances. Apart from some play over his name, and an assertion of his ‘Irishness’ which was new, though, the revelation came too late either to mould his character or to affect his career: when he learned the truth in 1919, he was already on the way to becoming a national hero.