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Military Report on the Sinai Peninsula
Towards 'An English Fourth'
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text
Paperback edition
'The Mint' and Later Writings About Service Life
Boats for the R.A.F. 1929-1935
reports and correspondence


The Forest Giant


Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw
Correspondence with E. M. Forster and F.L. Lucas
More Correspondence with Writers
Correspondence with Edward and David Garnett
Correspondence with Henry Williamson
Translating the Bruce Rogers 'Odyssey'
Correspondence with the Political Elite 1922-1935


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T. E. Lawrence, Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, 1922-1926

Foreword by Jeremy Wilson

Both Bernard and Charlotte Shaw were sixty-five when they met T.E. Lawrence in March 1922. At thirty-three, he was easily young enough to be their son. G.B.S. was a world-famous playwright and a leading figure in the Fabian Society. Charlotte, who had inherited considerable investments, was a fitting companion. Highly cultured, she loved travel, literature, theatre, and fine art.

Lawrence too was famous, but as a war hero. At the time of their first meeting he was still nominally an official at the Colonial Office, where he had been advising Winston Churchill on Arab affairs. His private ambition, however, was to be a great writer. While revising Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his autobiographical narrative of the Arab Revolt, he had dreamed that it might one day rank among the masterpieces of world literature: 'Do you remember my telling you once that I collected a shelf of "Titanic" books (those distinguished by greatness of spirit, "sublimity" as Longinus would call it): and that they were The Karamazovs, Zarathustra, and Moby Dick. Well, my ambition was to make an English fourth.'1

Yet for the previous five years Lawrence had greatly over-taxed his strength, and he was now to pay the price. As he neared the end of the tasks that he had set himself after the war, he was on the verge of breakdown. Activity and commitment gave place to withdrawal and destructive self-criticism. He became convinced that Seven Pillars was a failure.

The reasons for this depression are not hard to find. He had been under increasing psychological stress throughout the guerrilla campaigns of 1917 and 1918, and these had also involved great physical hardship. When the desert fighting ended, he had thrown his energies into another and still more difficult campaign, to win the greatest possible degree of self-government for Britain's wartime Arab allies. The enemy this time was not Turkey, but traditional imperialists in France and the Government of India who sought to divide up the Ottoman Empire between themselves. Finally, after three years of diplomatic struggle and much bitterness, he helped to achieve a compromise which honoured the spirit of Britain's wartime engagements.

During those same three years, he had written three successive drafts of Seven Pillars - one made necessary when the first manuscript was stolen in November 1919. He now wished to show the book privately to critics. As a precaution against a second loss, he had eight proof copies produced during the summer of 1922 at the printing works of his local newspaper, the Oxford Times. Before these were finished, however, the combination of stress and exhaustion had upset his mental balance.

He realised that he was being driven downwards by complex inner forces that he could neither understand nor control. Among them was a need to come to terms with the male rape that he had suffered at Deraa in November 1917. Looking for a refuge, he arranged to enlist secretly in the ranks of the RAF.

It is easy to condemn some of his letters during the next three years - the period covered by this volume - as pointless self-denigration, written by a man who appears to have lost all sense of proportion. The inner conflict was real. At times, Lawrence was close to insanity.

The morbid introspection that dominated these years was already evident in the 1922 Seven Pillars, and that may have been what first drew Charlotte Shaw to Lawrence. Despite her wealth and position, there had been painful family conflicts during her childhood, and her marriage to Bernard Shaw had not always been easy. For a long time, her inner life had been a search for 'spiritual healing', particularly through the teachings of an American doctor, James Porter Mills, whom she had met before the war.

The turning points in the relationship between Lawrence and the Shaws are easy to define. To begin with, he corresponded with G.B.S. rather than Charlotte, though he soon discovered that she admired Seven Pillars. The acquaintance was marred when the Shaws opposed publication by Jonathan Cape of Edward Garnett's Seven Pillars abridgement. Had G.B.S. foreseen the consequences of his forthright intervention, he might have acted differently; but the damage was done and could not be undone.

It would be extraordinary if the Shaws did not understand the role that they had inadvertently played in Lawrence's destiny. This may partly explain the efforts G.B.S. then made to get him a pension, and also Charlotte's growing concern for his well-being.

Following a visit to Clouds Hill in December 1923 - the Shaws' third meeting with Lawrence - she began to send parcels of books, and these provided topics for discussion. One of her deepest interests was her native Ireland. She must have learned early on that Lawrence's father was Irish. Before meeting the Shaws, he had always considered himself to be 'English' (his mother was a Scot and he was born in Wales). Charlotte set out to change that. Many of the books she sent him were by Irish writers.

The next significant development came in July 1924, when Lawrence accepted her offer to proof-read the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars. After much delay, the first proofs were ready that September. He continued sending them in batches until the book was finally completed in 1926. His letters to her provide a unique record of its progress. They also show that, although G.B.S. looked through the first eight chapters, it was Charlotte who read most of the proofs thereafter, consulting her husband only occasionally about specific points.

There were two important events before the book was finished. The first, in June 1925, was Lawrence's threat of suicide, reported to the Shaws by Edward Garnett. Lawrence may never have known that Charlotte had been told, but it is clear from her diaries and the surviving letters that her concern for him strengthened. The second event was his transfer that August to the RAF Cadet College at Cranwell. The Shaws' country home was close to the road between Cranwell and London, and Lawrence soon began to visit them there.

The decision to publish Revolt in the Desert, a popular abridgement of Seven Pillars, meant that Lawrence had to arrange an overseas posting at the end of 1926. It was expected that he would be abroad for five years. He thought that his correspondence with Charlotte had been kept going mainly by the Seven Pillars proofs, and that without them it would end. By this time, however, their relationship mattered greatly to her. By the end of 1925 she was noting every letter she sent him or received from him in her diary, something that she did for no one else. When he left England, her letters and parcels continued. So did his replies.

Very few of Charlotte's letters to Lawrence survive, so there is little direct evidence of her feelings for him except for the notes and symbols in her appointment diaries. However, she carefully preserved his letters and bequeathed them to the British Library. They include, in this volume, some of the most revealing he ever wrote, while the next two volumes contain an unparalleled record of his two-year exile in India.

Jeremy Wilson


1. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 26.viii.22, DG p.360.

Copyright © Jeremy Wilson, 2000



Detailed description

Forewords by Jeremy Wilson:

Vol. I: 1922-1926
Vol. II: 1927 and Vol. III: 1928
Vol. IV: 1929-1935
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