You play an outstandingly successful role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, a revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein of Mecca to secure independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and create a single unified Arab state. You serve with the forces of the Emir Feisal, one of the four sons of Sherif Hussein. You develop a strategy that prevents the Turkish forces at Medina from reaching the Palestine front. Working with local tribesmen and using your knowledge of the region, you secure the supply route at Akaba. You travel by camel across the Sinai peninsula to ask the British for supplies.
After the war, you write a thousand-page book describing these events that, if anything, understates your remarkable personal role in history.
And then you leave the manuscript in the refreshment room at Reading Station while changing trains there around Christmas in 1919.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The great work of Thomas Edward Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — looks like it was always destined to have a difficult birth. The title, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, doesn’t really belong to the book. It was the title of an earlier work, in which Lawrence described his adventures in seven cities across Arabia. He burned this first step into the realms of authorship but, with an obvious fond memory, named the later work after it.
Lawrence wrote most of the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in France during the spring of 1919, while at the Paris Peace Conference. After the railway-related loss of that first manuscript, Lawrence rewrote the book from memory. He had to. Like so many reckless authors, he had destroyed (burned, probably) most of his working notes, some written on army message pads while in Arabia. Some notes were also in the stolen briefcase. The rewrite took Lawrence three months. Unusually for a lost-manuscript author, he preferred his original work. “It was shorter, snappier, and more truthful than the present version,” he wrote in a letter to Frederic Manning in 1930.
Lawrence sold the first three chapters of his second draft to Robert Graves, who published them in an American journal, The World’s Work, between July and October 1921. Those three chapters are all that remain of the 400,000-word second draft. Lawrence wasn’t satisfied with it and, sticking with the proven successful method of dealing with poor quality prose by pyrotechnic means, burned it with a blow lamp in 1922.
It was the third draft — although he still considered it “diffuse and unsatisfactory”, it escaped pyrotechnic attentions — that became the first edition of the book. The original manuscript of that draft is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
However, Lawrence published the first edition mainly to circulate to friends and literary critics, not the public. Just eight copies were typeset and printed at the works of the Oxford Times newspaper; it was cheaper, in those days, than getting copies typewritten. This is the version of the book the world now calls the “Oxford text”. Lawrence corrected six copies of the proofs and had them bound. Of the original eight copies printed, only those six copies remain at large in the world. Lawrence’s own bound copy, in which he made further amendments in response to the comments of his readers, was sold at auction at Christie’s, New York, in May 2001. The buyer paid nearly one million dollars.
What happened to the lost manuscript? Lawrence telephoned Reading Station from Oxford an hour after the discovery of the loss, but there was no sign of his writing. Despite articles, offers of a reward, and pleas in the press, no one came forward and nothing of the original manuscript was ever recovered.
There are those who say that there was no thief at Reading, but that Lawrence, true to form when it came to manuscript destruction, burned the pages. Or lost the briefcase deliberately. It wouldn’t have been difficult. It was in a bank messenger’s bag — the kind, Lawrence said later, that usually holds gold. Tempting.
If that “more truthful” version of The Seven Pillars had ever been published, would it have become the enduring masterpiece we have today? Or did Lawrence, between 1919 and 1922, teach himself how to write? In 1919, he was a soldier. By 1922, after correspondence with E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw, he wanted to be a writer. He wanted to produce a book that would be “an English fourth” on an exclusive bookshelf that contained Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Melville’s Moby-Dick.
In The Sunday Times in August, 1920, Lawrence wrote about the country he called Mesopotamia — the one which we would later call Iraq:
“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows.”
I’d say T. E. didn’t need too many lessons on writing. But if that Reading manuscript ever turns up, we’ll know.