Cookie policy: on we use analytics cookies to understand how visitors use the site. The anonymous information they provide suggests improvements and alerts us to technical errors. For more information, see our cookies page, which also explains how to block or remove cookies.  Search Castle Hill Press


 Untitled 1


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


Check for programme updates on our News page

T. E. Lawrence, Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, 1929-1935

Foreword by Jeremy Wilson


This final volume of T. E. Lawrence's correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw covers five and a half years - a longer span than any of the previous volumes. For Lawrence, it was a period of new activities and commitments, and of new and revived friendships. In the later years, he had also to make provision for his future as a civilian. Like many other people, he found the prospect of retirement daunting and uncertain.

When he returned to England at the beginning of 1929 he was in a far better state of mind than he had been when he sailed for India two years earlier. Completing Seven Pillars - his last task before the India posting - had enabled him at last to distance himself from disturbing wartime memories. Revolt in the Desert, published in March 1927, had not brought disagreeable publicity. In India he was safe from the British press. The reviews of Revolt - many of them excellent - had established his reputation as a writer. At Karachi he had written book reviews and completed another work, The Mint. Then for seven months he had been at Miranshah, one of remotest of all RAF stations. The calm and isolation worked like a cure. While there, he had embarked on a well-paid translation of Homer's Odyssey.

The letters in this volume describe his arrival at RAF Cattewater in March 1929 and, as the weeks passed, his increasing commitment to service duties. Cattewater was a seaplane station, so the workshops dealt with both aircraft and the boats used as tenders. Boats were an unexpected pleasure. On 6 April 1929 he wrote: 'There is a lot of office work: but beyond that a motor boat, to which I'm a spare man, when available. In summer that will be very pleasant'. This was not a new enthusiasm. In his twenties, while working as an archaeologist at Carchemish beside the River Euphrates, Lawrence had arranged to have a canoe shipped out from England. Before that he had spent many happy hours in punts and canoes at Oxford.

In the autumn of 1929 he became part-owner of an American Biscayne Baby speed-boat. This seems to have vied with his motor-cycle as an outlet for his love of speed. The following spring he told Charlotte 'I get a great deal of new satisfaction out of her'. He shared the boat with his Commanding Officer. They used it experimentally for RAF work, including target-towing. It showed them how useful fast work-boats might be. Lawrence drafted letters to the Air Ministry, urging new and faster seaplane tenders

The value of speed for rescue was demonstrated by a tragic incident in February 1931. A flying boat crash-landed just a few hundred yards offshore and quickly sank. Help arrived too late to save many of the crew. Soon afterwards Lawrence was sent to Hythe, on Southampton Water, as part of a team that would oversee trials of a new, faster type of launch for the RAF.

From his first days at Cattewater it was clear that he would be working much longer hours than at Miranshah. Completing the Odyssey had to take precedence over correspondence, so his letters became shorter and less frequent. He finished the translation in August 1931 and put off the idea of any new writing project so long as he remained in the RAF. Instead, he became deeply committed to work on the boats being developed and built for the service.

Testing boats and engines was physically and mentally tiring. In the evenings he felt little inclination to read or to write letters. He discouraged Charlotte from sending books. As a result, their correspondence slowed. Without the parcels of books, there was no need for letters discussing them.

There is probably no significance in the brevity of Lawrence's letters in this volume. From India - where he had plenty of free time - he wrote many long letters, including those to Charlotte. During these final RAF years almost all his letters were shorter, if not obviously hurried. If he had settled down, after leaving the RAF in 1935, he might have written longer letters again.

There were also factors on Charlotte's side that affected the correspondence. One was advancing age. In January 1929 she was 72; by May 1935 she was 78. During these years she was repeatedly ill, sometimes seriously. Her engagement diaries show frequent visits to doctors. To avoid cold weather, the Shaws travelled abroad in winter. Absence for weeks at a time caused breaks in the correspondence, which therefore lost momentum.

When in England Charlotte, like Lawrence, had other commitments. Between July 1930 and February 1932 Constables published thirty-two volumes of the Collected Edition of the Works of Bernard Shaw. The proof-reading alone was an immense task. The rhythm of frequent and regular letters, established while Lawrence was in India, survived 1929 and 1930 but slowed in 1931. By 1934 their letters were only occasional, even when Charlotte was well.

The correspondence was supplemented by Lawrence's visits to the Shaws in London, Ayot St Lawrence, and occasionally at the Malvern Festival. During these years he probably met the Shaws more often than he met any other civilian friend (except perhaps the Knowles family, his neighbours at Clouds Hill).

While accepting the cumulative effect of all these factors, it nevertheless appears that by 1933 the friendship was less significant to Charlotte than it had been during 1927-8. There seems in particular to have been a change in 1931. Among other things, she abruptly stopped noting all their exchanges of letters in her diary that year. There could, of course, be another explanation - she might have felt that her diary was no longer sufficiently private.

She must nevertheless have sensed that Lawrence's service work had acquired a new importance. Previously, he had used the ranks as a refuge - a place where he performed limited duties in exchange for food and lodging and cheerful companionship. To an outsider, the core of his life had remained intellectual: reading, writing, listening to music, and corresponding with friends in the British intellectual élite.

By contrast, his work on boats was now a consuming interest. He was first and foremost a mechanic. Robert Graves, another 'intellectual' friend, was disconcerted by the change. He could not conceive that someone with Lawrence's interests and talents could derive such deep satisfaction from practical work. Charlotte, too, must have felt isolated, since art and literature were central to her life. Lawrence seemed to have set aside the interests that underpinned their friendship.

At one time, the friendship had mattered deeply to Charlotte, so in one way or another the change must have hurt. Their weekly letters during 1927 and 1928 had been evidence of commitment on both sides. Charlotte must have been aware, during those years, that Lawrence was giving more time to her than to any other friend. Back in England, his letters were shorter. He could and did spend time with others - women as well as men.

Charlotte remained jealous of her relationship with Lawrence. After his death she kept his letters, but showed them to no one. She bequeathed them, with the manuscripts he gave her, to the Library of the British Museum. Until this edition, relatively few of them were published.

For a biographer, Lawrence's letters to Charlotte between 1929 and 1935 are an invaluable source of information. Moreover, the weakening of this long-standing friendship says much about the degree of his commitment to working on boats.

Bernard Shaw gave Charlotte's portraits of Lawrence by Augustus John to the National Portrait Gallery in 1944. There was also, in Charlotte's possession, a large collection of Lawrence's photographs. Some of these went to the Bodleian Library, one or two to the National Portrait Gallery, and more to the Library of the British Museum. The great bulk, however, remained at Ayot St Lawrence and were eventually deposited, with Shaw's remaining photographs, in the British Library of Political and Economic Science (the library of the London School of Economics). Most are wartime photographs, duplicates of the collection formed by Lawrence that is now in the Imperial War Museum. Also, there are many duplicate prints within the Shaw collection - but no indication why or when they were made.

It is difficult to assess the role of Bernard Shaw in this relationship. Knowing and occasionally meeting Shaw was doubtless, at the outset, Lawrence's main motive for accepting Charlotte's friendship. Yet to Shaw, who was so deeply involved in the wider worlds of theatre, politics and the arts, Lawrence must have seemed little more than a curious misfit. Shaw's comments about Lawrence were so often inaccurate that it seems unlikely he ever gave Lawrence serious thought. While Shaw's observations about him were often witty, they were also often shallow.

Bernard Shaw called Lawrence an actor (Lawrence likened the two Shaws to bacon and eggs). After Charlotte’s death, Shaw read her correspondence with Lawrence and was surprised - perhaps disagreeably - by its intimacy. She had confided private thoughts to Lawrence that she had never confided to her husband. As others have noted, Shaw’s comments about Lawrence in later years seem coloured by antipathy.

Jeremy Wilson


Detailed description

Forewords by Jeremy Wilson

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

To ask us a question,  click here >>

We accept payment by PayPal, Mastercard and Visa (via Paypal 'guest' service), or sterling cheque drawn on a UK bank