The heroes of my schoolboy reading back in the Fifties were mostly men of action, like Tarzan, Berry and Biggles (though I did read Worrals books too). These were nonchalantly modest, clean-limbed fellows ready for a scrap, if there was a chance of delivering a knockout punch to the half-shaven chin of Evil. I was reassured to discover that such fictitious protagonists had their real-lite counterparts and to read of the true exploits of the pilot Douglas Bader, the spy-master Colonel Oreste Pinto and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. Although I was reluctant to lose my heroes, I was not very much older before I gathered that there was something not quite right about T.E. Lawrence. Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, which came out in 1955, denounced its subject as a bastard (literally), a liar, a charlatan and a pervert. It also disparaged the importance and the achievements of the Arab revolt, mocked Lawrence’s literary style and queried his knowledge of medieval French poetry. Reading Aldington’s book is a bit like standing under a waterfall of venom.
The relentless ferocity of his denunciation was and is really rather shocking. What was behind it? The first thing to note is that Lawrence went to Oxford. As an Oxford man myself, I have no hesitation in identifying Aldington’s main problem as being that he did not: he went to University College London. ‘Untruthful! My nephew Algernon? Impossible! He is an Oxonian.’ This quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest served as the epigraph to the Life of Lawrence. Aldington, punching air, suffered for most of his life from the conviction that he was either being persecuted or, at the very least, neglected by the British establishment. It was hard to know who or what the establishment consisted of, but Aldington was pretty sure that one of its decision-making bodies was the dinner table at All Souls, and of course, from 1919 onwards, Lawrence was a fellow of that college. According to Aldington, ‘All Souls was “a sort of weekend club” forwell-known Oxonians of large private means or high salaries residing in London.’ (Aldington was never rich.)
Secondly, Lawrence had had a ‘good war’. British casualties were light on the Egypto-Palestinian front. Deeds of individual heroism were highly visible. There were Arthurian echoes in Lawrence’s account of the brotherhood of arms, the ceremonious diction of the desert Bedouin and the mounted combats in the wilderness. At the end of it all, Lawrence was made into a celebrity by Lowell Thomas’s wildly popular travelling illustrated lecture, ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’. This was the sort of war the public paid money to see. Aldington, on the other hand, like millions of other British soldiers, had had a terrible war, much of it spent in icy, water-logged, rat-infested trenches. Before the notoriety which came from his Lawrence book, Aldington was chiefly known for his anti-war novel, Death of a Hero (1929), which told his readers bleak things about the war, things they would have preferred not to read about: ‘all suffered from diarrhoea due to the cold. There was the added diversion of frequent visits to the latrine. Those in the line were primitive affairs of a couple of biscuit-boxes and buckets, interesting from the fact that the Germans had fixed rifles trained on most of them and might get you if you happened to stand up inopportunely.’
Lawrence, for his part, was contemptuous of the way the Generals had squandered lives on the Western Front. He seems to have thought the Arab Revolt, with its mobile tactics and light casualties, a model for the way wars should be fought. In this he was echoed by his admirer and biographer, the military historian, Basil Liddell Hart, although an anonymous reviewer of Anthony Nutting’s Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive in the TLS was to mock this notion that all wars could be won by adopting Lawrence’s tactics: ‘No one ever defeated an enemy by avoiding him: all that can be done by avoiding the enemy is to leave him to someone else to defeat. Otherwise he will never be defeated.’
Thirdly, as far as Aldington could see, the aim of the Arab Revolt was to cheat the French of their rightful empire in Syria, which had been promised to them by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. This, he believed, was why The Seven Pillars of Wisdom had placed such stress on the Arabs’ achievement in liberating Damascus from the Turks. (In fact, Australian troops were first to enter the city.) Despite undertakings given to Georges Picot and Colonel Brémond, Lawrence and his allies in Cairo were out ‘to biff the French out of Syria’ if they could. However, they failed and, in Aldington’s mind, the French occupation of Syria, from 1920 onwards, was the best thing that ever happened to the place. That the Syrian Arabs might have had a claim on their own land never occurred to him. He was a passionate Francophile, who lived in France and mostly translated and wrote about French literature. Anglophobia was the other side of his Francophile coin, but while hating the English, he still hoped that one day they would reciprocate with love and admiration.
Fourthly, Aldington had spotted the homosexual themes in The Seven Pillars. T.E. Lawrence, he fulminated in a letter to Lawrence Durrell, ‘was the mouthpiece of a powerful clique of Oxonians ... The whole mixed with Cairo buggery – O good Lord!’ As he saw it, Lawrence of Arabia had posthumously become a gay icon. In a later book, Frauds (1957), he dealt mercilessly with such miscellaneous charlatans as Lambert Simnel, George Psalmanazar, the 18th-century literary impostor, and Maundy Gregory, the honours-salesman and broker for the Zinoviev Letter. In the chapter on Gregory, he suggested that Gregory’s homosexuality explained his cult of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom ‘with its homosexual passages which are piously committed to memory by the fraternity’. Although Aldington managed to remain on friendly terms with Norman Douglas and Pino Orioli until their deaths, it was a close-run thing, for both were homosexual. ‘Norman himself was apt to describe some of the men he disliked as “the wrong kind of sod, my dear”,’ Aldington wrote, adding immediately: ‘It was my misfortune never to meet any of the right ones, except Pino and himself.’ Like Rupert Brooke (with his ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’) Lawrence had placed a curious stress on the ‘cleanness’ of the war and the warriors he evoked in The Seven Pillars, but Aldington was not having any of this. There was nothing clean about ‘unwashed desert homosexuals’.
The establishment, which had driven Norman Douglas out of England, just as it forced D.H. Lawrence and Aldington himself to leave the country, was a sinister mix of Oxonians, prudes, sodomites and Jews, who controlled the publishing houses, the reviewing press and therefore the taste of the public. Aldington was a determined outsider, like Henry Williamson and like his friends, Wyndham Lewis and Roy Campbell. They were all writers who were never quite fashionable in their own lifetimes and not likely to be in the future. All of them held cantankerous, right-wing opinions. There were aspects of Fascism which Aldington admired and he was complacently anti-semitic, though he stopped well short of approving of the Holocaust. An écorché vif, he wrote of himself: ‘I am vain, quick-tempered and impatient’.
Aldington was fiercely loyal to his friends, though that loyalty was never uncritical, to say the least. In his would-be nostalgic portrait of Norman Douglas in Pinorman (1954), he lamented his old friend’s taste for guttersnipes as well as his propensity for plagiarism, slack writing and literary amateurism. His posthumous handling of an earlier friend, in D.H. Lawrence: Portrait of a Genius, but ... (1950), had been similarly aggressive. Claude Durrell affectionately dubbed Aldington ‘Top Grumpy’. Her husband, Lawrence, a friend and admirer of Aldington, provided a memorable portrait of him in The Alexandria Quartet. Pursewarden, the Quartet’s embittered poet, aphorist and Anglophobe, had at first been modelled on Wyndham Lewis. As the cycle of novels progressed, however, Aldington supplanted his old friend. He seems to have been more successful as a sitter for characters in other people’s novels than he was as a writer. Besides starring as Rafe Ashton in his former wife Hilda Doolittle’s novel Bid Me to Live (1960), and as Robert Cunningham in D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod (1922), he may have had the misfortune to furnish the model for Sir Clifford Chatterley.
Aldington’s maledictory novel, Death of a Hero, has not worn well. The parents of George, the ‘hero’, are parodic monsters. The wife, Elizabeth, and the mistress, Fanny, are the sort of predatory women who can and do drive a man to his death. George nourishes ambitions to break into the world of letters, for reasons that are mysterious, since he despises that world: ‘In the course of his peregrinations George became temporarily acquainted with numerous personages, whom he classified as morons, abject morons and queer-Dicks. The abject morons were those editors and journalists who sincerely believed in the imbecilities they perpetrated.’ (There is much more in the same vein.) At first, war comes as a relief from family life and London society, but while George values the comradeship of the trenches, he is increasingly sickened by the canting society he is supposed to be defending, particularly its women – they in turn swiftly lose interest in his sufferings on their behalf. Contemplating his mistress, George realises that ‘of course he was boring her. She and other people wanted to forget it; of course they wanted to forget it.’ George dies while acting as a runner on the Front in what is clearly a kind of suicide. The novel’s title is ironic: George is no ‘hero’, but a sad, embittered victim and the whole book is written in a sustained tone of sarcasm. Many readers must have sympathised with Elizabeth when she demands of George: ‘Why are you so full of moral indignation?’ The book’s chief compensation are Aldington’s superb descriptions of landscape.
Aldington wrote for a living. He was prolific, but much of what he produced was hack work – his Introduction to Mistral (1956), a pious biography of the Provençal poet, is pretty dull. The book which best deserves reprinting is The Strang Life of Charles Waterton (1782-1865), a biography of the recklessly eccentric naturalist and taxidermist, published in 1949. Here was a rumbustious, unaffected figure whom Aldington could admire without reservation. Squire Waterton had a perfect contempt for social conventions. ‘Why do we keep our jugular veins in everlasting jeopardy?’ was his verdict on the necktie. He comes across as a Barone rampante avant la lettre, for he ‘was so accustomed to climb trees on every fine day either to read or to watch birds or both that it never occurred to him how strange his naive references to it must sound to those who had long been incapable of such feats, if they had ever practised them even when boys or girls’. He was also a man of firm religious convictions who was addicted to uncouth taxidermical jokes: ‘The English Reformation Zoologically Illustrated’ was one of the most striking exhibits at Walton Hall. ‘Titus Oates, Cranmer and Bishop Burnet were illustrated from reptiles of the lowest order,’ while ugly monkeys stood in for other Protestant worthies. Characteristically, Aldington’s book includes an appendix listing the errors of earlier biographers – among them, Norman Douglas and Edith Sitwell.
The University of Southern Illinois holds the Aldington archive and Fred Crawford’s Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia is an archive-driven crawl over a hitherto neglected patch of literary history. It is heavy with quotation from all the relevant acrimonious correspondence. The book is mainly concerned with the way a fairly miscellaneous assortment of Lawrence admirers, including Graves, Liddell Hart and Churchill, attempted to suppress Aldington’s biography. Crawford suggests that the affair contains lessons about ‘the nature of publishing and ... the control of information by hidden censorship. The history of Aldington’s book includes virtually every means by which a determined and energetic opposition can impose on an author. Such methods remain legally available today.’ But the point is surely that the attempted censorship by the Lawrence gang failed completely. Moreover, the gang failed despite Aldington’s lack of influential friends, his incapacity to compromise on anything and his having written a virulent and sometimes wrong-headed book. The only person to emerge with credit from the affair is the publisher, William Collins, whom Aldington maligned but who resisted every pressure to cancel what he had contracted for.
Aldington was industrious and his portrait of Lawrence was fuelled by careful research. Inevitably there were many documents which he was not allowed to consult in the Fifties, but which have since become available. Substantial biographies of Lawrence by John Mack and Jeremy Wilson, in 1976 and 1989 respectively, have denigrated Aldington’s achievement. Nevertheless he got quite a lot right and it was never again going to be possible to treat Lawrence as simply the preux chevalier, the schoolboyish hero of derring-do romance. Michael Asher in his fine biographical study, Lawrence the Uncrowned King of Arabia, does not attempt to do so. Asher, who has travelled by camel and by foot where Lawrence went before him, is intensely aware of the genuine feats of endurance and courage performed by his hero. But he knows the hero is flawed. He has read Aldington and he has carefully noted Lawrence’s boastful exaggerations. He talked to the Bedouin and checked tribal memories against claims advanced in The Seven Pillars. Having spent years wandering about in desert environments, he is particularly good on the desert Arabs who fought alongside Lawrence and their attitudes to such things as railways and homosexuality. (They were fiercely opposed to both.) Asher has also made a careful study of how to dynamite railway lines and is emphatic about the courage needed to carry out that sort of sabotage. He makes it clear that, although Lawrence was frequently and repulsively mock-modest, he had a lot to be mock-modest about. He writes well and has new things to say – not an easy thing in this desperately overcrowded field. His life of ‘the Uncrowned King of Arabia’ has the balance that Aldington’s polemic so lamentably failed to provide.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.