Book review: Young Lawrence, by Anthony Sattin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man

by Anthony Sattin

John Murray


"The dreamers of the day are dangerous men," T.E. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), "for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

Few dreams could be more dangerous than the desire to free the Arab race from its Ottoman chains. Anthony Sattin's quest in writing the first biography of Lawrence as a young man is to see how a bright, diffident English boy living with his parents in Oxford came to dream so unusually and so seductively.

Lawrence's dream seems to have begun with an obsessive childhood interest in brass rubbing: he went all over Britain and France in search of medieval knights. He volunteered at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, and later embarked on a walk around Syria followed by a job on an archaeological dig in Carchemish between Turkey and Syria.

The Lawrence that emerges is far more English than Peter O'Toole's flamboyant impersonation in the 1962 film would suggest. Lawrence wandered around Syria clad in a bespoke suit and hobnailed boots. He insisted on walking, even when his guides were on horseback. He was especially English in his understated response to hardship. "I have had the delay of four attacks of malaria when I had only reckoned on two," he told his mother, informing her nonchalantly that he had been "robbed & rather smashed up" by a group of armed robbers.

It was only after Lawrence met an ambitious young water carrier, Dahoum, that he started imitating the ways of the natives, adopting the costume of the man he came to love. Sattin is decisive when it comes to answering the vexed questions of whether Lawrence worked as a spy before the war (he didn't), and whether he was in love with Dahoum (he was). According to his later confidant E.M. Forster, Lawrence was "intimate" with and "passionately devoted to" Dahoum, although sexually the relationship was unconsummated.

The relationship with Dahoum matters because for Sattin it explains why Lawrence fought for the Arabs in the war, which arguably is why we need a biography of Lawrence as a young man. In 1919, Lawrence revealed in a letter that he had led the Arabs into revolt partly because "I liked a particular Arab very much, and I thought freedom for the race would be an acceptable present".

This is a romantic explanation for a political act - but then the young man who became a legend while in his 20s was a romantic.

The Observer