• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

The Boy in the Mask. The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia by Dick Benson-Gyles

Writing.ie | Non Fiction

By Justine McGrath at www.thebookclubcafe.com

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In his forward Malcolm Brown states that although initially reluctant to write a foreword to yet another book on T.E. Lawrence, upon reading it, he soon changed his mind: “the author, a practised journalist as well as a gifted writer, has imposed order and clarity on complex argument and analysis while retaining the romance and evocative lyricism of an enthralling narrative.” Malcolm Brown.
Quite the accolade, and as a reader, I totally agree with Mr Brown.

Dick Benson-Gyles became intrigued, obsessed and fascinated by the life of Thomas Edward Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia, after seeing the David Lean film of the same name. He states that “Since then down the years Lawrence has haunted me with a quiet, questioning persistence.”

The author began his quest and his study of Lawrence while at Trinity College Dublin, where he was fortunate to meet various people who opened doors to him and revealed knowledge of the background of T.E. Lawrence, whose family originated from county Westmeath. This is the first part of the biography and it is quite a story. A family story of such scandal, intrigue, mystery and abandonment, that if you made it up, no-one would believe you.

An undergraduate who the author knew at Trinity, by the name of Audrey Naper, introduced him to various owners of some of the great estates in county Westmeath, where Thomas Chapman, Lawrence’s father came from. Benson-Gyles followed every lead and enthusiastically visited every family who was open to talking to him about the Chapman family.

Most people who are aware of Lawrence of Arabia, know of T.E. Lawrence due to his incredible exploits in the Arabian desert during the First World War, where he earned the Victoria Cross for bravery and fought and led numerous successful campaigns. He was a brilliant military strategist and an immense leader of men.

What is much less known is his family background. How his father left his first wife (who came from a prominent Irish family) and four daughters, and ran off to England with the governess, and had a second family with her. She was called Sarah Lawrence and Chapman changed his name to hers. T.E. Lawrence was their second born son – born in Wales. As his first wife would not grant him a divorce, Thomas Chapman and his wife Sarah lived their whole lives in fear of being found out.

T.E. Lawrence found out about his illegitimacy at a young age and it was to affect his whole life. His other four brothers did not find out till much later on.

These chapters of the book make for fascinating reading, and the author describes both how he researched and discovered all of his material, while telling this intriguing tale. He writes exquisitely and is at home giving factual information and writing lyrically about either his own or Lawrence’s travels and exploits. His style adds depth, interest and beauty to what could otherwise have become an overly detailed, overly factual analysis.

After an in-depth look at his family life, Benson-Gyles turns his attention to ‘The Boy in The Mask,’ the why of T.E. Lawrence’s secrecy about so many aspects of his life, and how he presented this enigmatic persona to the world. The author discusses the attack and rape of Lawrence at a place called Deraa at the hands of the Turks, and how this affected his whole life. He also hid behind a mask for many years due to the stigma and the shameful secret he had carried his whole life of being illegitimate.

The author also shows what a paradox Lawrence was. He was secretive, sometimes a liar and at times a show off. There is a great quote in the book by Lowell Thomas which illustrates this point. He quoted an old Turkish adage: “He had a genius for backing into the limelight.”

The final third of the book looks in more detail at “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” the book Lawrence wrote, which was dedicated to S.A. For years academics, historians and biographers have been theorizing as to who or what the dedication S.A. means. Benson-Gyles is no different and before putting forward in detail at least three different theories, he wraps up the book with his own personal belief as to who the dedication is for. Having spent a lot of time with the person in question, I initially wondered was he swayed by personal feeling; but he does back up his theory with plenty of factual evidence, so it is certainly a theory worthy of consideration.

Personally the mystery of S.A. was not the most interesting part of this book, although I have no doubt that for others it will be. For me, it was learning about the family background of T.E. Lawrence and how events in his life made him the intriguing persona he became.

This is a stunning biography. It is compelling, lyrical and contains detailed research, travel writing, in-depth analysis of a personality and a fascinating story. The author’s personal quest and exhaustive research has become a book that will sit alongside other great biographies, and I am sure will be referred to and deservedly praised for many years to come.

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