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CATALOGUE

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Works

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

Translation

The Forest Giant

Letters

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

FULL CATALOGUE

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T. E. Lawrence, Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, 1927

Foreword by Jeremy Wilson

T. E. Lawrence left England on 7 December 1926, expecting to remain overseas for five years. Throughout 1927 he was stationed at the RAF Depot, Karachi, in what was then India.

Towards the end of that first year abroad, he wrote, 'I sailed from Southampton, very unhappily, knowing that I would not be happy till I sailed into it again, and afraid that it would be another person who returned. I wonder if the second half was right.'1

The challenge he faced was not just separation from home. The Arabian chapter in his life, which had absorbed so much of his energy since 1910, had closed when he finished with the subscribers' Seven Pillars in December 1926. In January 1927 he had to make a new beginning. That is the starting-point for this second volume of correspondence with the Shaws.

In the event, Lawrence was to spend only two years away from England. But what happened during those years was deeply significant. By the time he returned, in January 1929, there had been a marked recovery in his balance and self-esteem. His mother saw him a few weeks later - they had last met in 1922 - and afterwards wrote to Charlotte: 'It is such a blessing that he is so well - almost like the Ned of the pre-war years.'2 Her maternal insight is borne out by the files of Lawrence's correspondence that we use when editing these volumes. The letters written between 1929 and 1935 show a more constructive attitude than those he wrote between 1922 and 1926. It is true that his moods remained cyclical. Like many other creative people he was prone to episodes of depression; but after the two years in India he seems, overall, to have suffered less from this malaise. When he arrived in Karachi at the beginning of 1927 he was no longer burdened by Seven Pillars - a task that had constantly reminded him of wartime experiences he needed to put behind him. He was free to move on.

The constructive attitude was quickly apparent. While he waited for reactions to Seven Pillars and the reviews of Revolt in the Desert - to be published in March - he set about re-reading Greek literature. The first book he tackled was Xenophon's Anabasis - a work he had studied at an earlier turning point in his life, before going up to Oxford.

In parallel with this more positive approach, there were soon changes in the nature of his service work. During the early years, at Uxbridge and in the Tank Corps, he had spoken in private letters of deliberate self-abasement. Now, however, his superiors sensed that he was ready to deliver more. By the end of 1927 he was performing tasks that called for personal initiative and responsibility. The state of subservience that had earlier appealed to him seemed to melt away. In the years following his return to England, his rank became less and less relevant to the work he did. During the final stages of his RAF enlistment he did not wear uniform.

The turning point is also reflected in the general tone of his correspondence. Even the vivacious mood of his pre-war letters to the archaeologist E.T. Leeds would reappear, in letters to Nancy Astor. He had written nothing so light-hearted during the 1920s.

Taken together, his many letters from India suggest that the readjustment came in 1927, followed in 1928 by a period of consolidation. What brought this change about? The single most important factor was the favourable reception of Seven Pillars, closely followed by public acclaim for Revolt in the Desert. Lawrence had worked at Seven Pillars for eight years, and was troubled by increasing doubts about its merit. He had seen the book as an exceptional opportunity: 'The story I have to tell is one of the most splendid ever given man for writing.'3 He had written and rewritten it tirelessly, until he sensed that he could improve it no more. Had it failed, the blow would have been devastating. But it did not fail. Seven Pillars was hailed as a masterpiece.

This recognition as a writer put his reputation on a new basis. It replaced the 'war hero' legend that he found so distasteful. In December 1927 he told a friend that, 'In the distant future, if the distant f[uture] deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.'4 A year earlier, such a statement would have been senseless; but Seven Pillars and Revolt had changed his stature for ever.

How can that be squared with the scathing self-criticism that Lawrence often applied to his writing? In some cases, his protestations look like false modesty, reflecting a constant need for reassurance. In part, however, they were rational. As he wrote in Seven Pillars, 'The self, knowing the detriment, was forced into depreciation by others' uncritical praise.'5 The book was a magnificent achievement, but no objective critic could claim that it was flawless. Therefore, Lawrence told himself, he should have done it better.

The standards he set himself were impossibly high: so high that he knew he could never attain them. That reflects not only his personality but the cultural values of his upbringing. Unsullied excellence was the only worthy goal; he must never be content with an achievement unless he had given his best. He spoke warmly of other books by writers who seemed to strive after unattainable standards; but he could not be so generous towards his own.

Yet, of course, high principle did not blind him to reality. However much he might lament its flaws, he knew that by normal standards Seven Pillars was remarkable. If he needed reassurance about his calibre as a writer, the reviewers of Revolt in the Desert had supplied it.

Far from abandoning thoughts of further writing, as would have been logical if one took his self-condemnation at face value, Lawrence dreamed during these two years in India of embarking on a new large-scale literary project that would occupy his time and energy after his enlistment ended. Here, too, there is a parallel with the pre-war years. At Carchemish he had thought of writing a background to the life of Christ, or of developing his Oxford thesis into a history of the Crusades. In these 1927 letters he imagines a challenging biography of Roger Casement, first as a project for Bernard Shaw, and then as something he might write himself. In December 1933 he would outline to Charlotte a still more original project, to be called Confession of Faith.

In fact, he began writing again very soon after reading the reviews of Revolt in the Desert. In May he agreed to review, pseudonymously, for the Spectator. In June he took steps to implement his scheme to earn money translating. Soon afterwards he began working on his second book, The Mint.

Meanwhile, the frequent letters from Charlotte kept him in touch with a world that must have seemed desperately remote. A few weeks after reaching Karachi, he told her: 'You cannot conceive how empty, uprooted, withering I feel out here.'6

Almost one in five of the surviving letters that Lawrence wrote in 1927 was sent to Charlotte.7 Doubtless, the frequency reflects the number of letters he received; but the time he must have spent writing to her at such length says much about his feelings. Intentionally or otherwise, she was playing a key role in his recovery. In June, he wrote: 'out here . . . I feel like a sparrow who has flown so high into the blue that he's got fixed there, out of sound and sight. Your letters, cuttings, and books are so many life-lines. Don't people feel obligations to those who throw them life-lines? Of course.'8

There is something about these weekly letters to Charlotte that is at least as important as the wealth of autobiographical detail they contain. They were addressed to a single person, whose attitude he found sympathetic. Other letters may cover, to some extent, similar ground; but they were sent to a scatter of recipients with whom Lawrence had different relationships. The letters to Charlotte provide a far more coherent insight into his thinking.

For Charlotte, too, the correspondence was important. Her friendship with Lawrence made up for something that was lacking in her marriage. After his death, Lawrence's executors returned to her the letters he had kept. Later, when she died, Bernard Shaw read them and was taken aback by their intimacy. He said: 'It takes a long time for two people to get to know each other, and from a diary I discovered lately, and some letters which she wrote to T. E. Lawrence, I realise that there were many parts of her character that even I did not know, for she poured out her soul to Lawrence.'9 The most intimate of her surviving letters to Lawrence are in this volume.

1. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, [c.5 December 1927].

2. Sarah Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 15 March 1929, BL Add. MS 56492.

3. T. E. Lawrence to V. W. Richards, [1922]. Transcript in the TEL Papers, Bodleian Library.

4. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 23 December 1927, MB p.361.

5. SP35 p. 566.

6. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 29 March 1927.

7. Information from Clifford Irwin.

8. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 16 June 1927, see p.113.

9. Quoted in Janet Dunbar, Mrs G.B.S. A Biographical Portrait of Charlotte Shaw (London, Harrap, 1963) p. 7.

Copyright © Jeremy Wilson, 2003

 


T. E. Lawrence, Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, 1928

 

FOREWORD by Jeremy Wilson

After T. E. Lawrence arrived at the RAF Depot, Karachi, in 1927, his correspondence with Charlotte Shaw settled down to weekly letters on both sides. She also sent him books, magazines, press-cuttings and gramophone records. This pattern continued during 1928. It was Lawrence's most regular and in many ways his most intimate correspondence.

Although he kept few of Charlotte's letters, we know their dates from her diary. Most of his letters to her survive. Those from India were often long, like many he wrote at that time. He would fill one or two foolscap sheets, writing or typing on both sides and rarely leaving any paper blank. The result is a rich source of biographical information.

During 1928 his mental balance continued to improve. Buoyed up by the success of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and its abridgement Revolt in the Desert, he completed The Mint. It contains some of his finest writing. He then began work on what was destined to become one of the most successful twentieth-century translations of Homer's Odyssey.

Despite these activities he had occasional bouts of depression. After completing The Mint he went through a trough, as he had after finishing Seven Pillars. This seemed to happen whenever his life changed direction. Singling out what he wrote at these low-points gives a misleading impression. His usual mood was more cheerful.

In India the officers responsible for his RAF work found him ready to take increased responsibility, so they gave him more demanding jobs. When he left Karachi two men were needed to replace him.

His letters from May to December 1928 contain an unusual portrait of life at Miranshah, one of the most remote RAF stations in the British Empire. As the station clerk he grew into the role that Bernard Shaw would later lampoon as Pte. Meek.1 He now dealt directly with his commanding officers. Some took him flying.

In England, Charlotte continued her exploration of his family. In 1927 she had met his younger brother Arnold. In 1928 she met his mother, who had returned to England with her elder son Bob following some years' missionary work in China.2

Shortly after the final letter in this volume, Lawrence's presence near the Afghan frontier became an acute political embarrassment to the Government of India. With little warning he was posted back to England.

Jeremy Wilson

1. 'Private Meek, a character based on Lawrence, appears in Shaw's play Too True to be Good (1931).

2. A. W. Lawrence (1900–91), archaeologist. Sarah Lawrence (1861-1959), Lawrence's mother. M. R. Lawrence, known as Bob (1885-1971), medical missionary.


 

RELATED PAGES

Detailed description

Forewords by Jeremy Wilson:

Vol. I: 1922-1926
Vol. IV: 1929-1935

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