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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 in preparation
'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 (forthcoming)
Correspondence with Henry Williamson

FULL CATALOGUE

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T. E. Lawrence, Correspondence with Henry Williamson

Foreword by Jeremy Wilson

For many years, the only source-material for the relationship between T. E. Lawrence and Henry Williamson was in the accounts written by Williamson himself, notably his contribution to T. E. Lawrence by his Friends (1937), and his book Genius of Friendship (1941). As is clear from the letters published here, these accounts reflect a personal view of the relationship which T. E. Lawrence, on his side, almost certainly did not share.

Williamson portrays himself in these letters as a man whose daily life was spent in intellectual isolation. Against this background, he created the vision of a uniquely special friendship with Lawrence, and this became extremely important to him. Yet the vision surely owed much more to Williamson's imagination than to reality or reason. The same kind of distortion is evident in his semi-autobiographical fiction. Indeed Lawrence - or rather the personality that Williamson imagined Lawrence to be - began to appear as a character in Williamson's novels, very thinly disguised as 'G.B. Everest'.

Reading these letters, it seems to me that Williamson allowed reality and fantasy to intermingle in his everyday thinking. When that happened, the first casualty - as the editorial notes in this volume show - was often the truth. Nevertheless, there were other times when he could write with disarming honesty and self-criticism. Whatever the forces that drove him on occasion to fantasise, he did not really deceive himself.

For Lawrence, there was I think a single factor which outweighed all others in his relationship with Williamson. In the field of literary craftsmanship, Lawrence was a well-qualified judge. When he first read Tarka the Otter in 1928, he recognised at once that its author had extraordinary power and skill as a descriptive writer. He was, as he admitted, fascinated both by the art of creative writing and by creative writers. This fascination had drawn him into friendships with poets and novelists such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and E.M. Forster. 'I put Williamson very high as a writer,' he told one angry critic – and the qualities of Williamson the writer would have been far more important to him than the shortcomings of Williamson the man.

The development of their relationship followed much the same path as Lawrence's earlier friendship with Robert Graves. As Williamson became better established and more confident, he had less need of Lawrence's helpful criticisms and encouragement; or at any rate Lawrence felt that there was less that he could usefully offer. Gradually, their evident differences became more significant than the interest that had drawn them together.

Just as Graves, while writing Lawrence and the Arabs, had offended Lawrence by pandering to commercialism, so Williamson damaged their relationship in 1933 by including 'G.B. Everest', unasked, as a character in The Gold Falcon - even quoting from his letters. Lawrence knew that personal publicity could abruptly end the life he was enjoying in the RAF (as had happened in 1929, and would happen again later that year, when he was taken off speed-boat work following an article in the press). He made light of The Gold Falcon, but must nevertheless have felt that any closer friendship with such an unpredictable novelist would be a risk.

He was nonplussed when Williamson told him about the complications that had arisen from extra-marital entanglements (here again there is a parallel with Robert Graves). It is tempting to read into Lawrence's silence some kind of personal inhibition; but in truth, friendships often falter when one party or the other makes an unwarranted assumption of intimacy.

These factors took their toll. Lawrence remained in touch with Williamson. They saw each other again, very briefly, in 1934. But in general, for one reason or another, they did not meet. During the same period Lawrence found time to see friends who lived much further afield.

Despite these reservations, I think that there really was an unusual quality in their relationship. Williamson is revealed here as a skilful and supremely observant writer, but nevertheless a man who was introspective, egocentric, insecure, and intensely lonely. Exactly the same words could be used to describe Lawrence. While the two were different in so many ways, the similarity that Williamson sensed was real. He was writing to someone he knew would understand.

From the letters themselves, we seem to learn more about Williamson than we do about Lawrence. Yet in fact the correspondence says much about Lawrence: about his willingness - when he valued the person concerned - to listen and to provide whatever support he felt was within his means. It is surely significant that Williamson's letters were among those he kept. Not many are missing, on either side, from the series published here.

Soon after Lawrence's death, a close friend of Williamson's drew him into the fascist movement. In publications written the following year Williamson suggested that Lawrence, in his final days, had been keen to arrange a meeting with Hitler. The contents of this volume (notably Williamson's letter of 10 May 1935) show that this claim had no basis.

Yet, in a way, the fiction is also explained in these letters. Clearly, there was in Williamson's mind a very close identification between Lawrence and himself. On more than one occasion he appears to be transferring to Lawrence what are in reality his thoughts about himself. By extension, he could easily have become convinced that Lawrence, had he lived, would have shared his own admiration for Hitler.

Copyright © Jeremy Wilson, 2000

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