Shifting Sands, an exhibition at the British Civil War Centre in Newark, examines the perennially fascinating story of T. E. Lawrence—a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia—from multiple perspectives: historical, archaeological and personal.

Pursuing clues in Lawrence’s brilliant work on the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, archaeologists have discovered places like Tooth Hill—a Lawrence campsite—and the remains of trains destroyed by Bedouin raiders on the Hejaz Railway. Authentic relics from the campaign—such as an Arabic nameplate torn from an Ottoman train—mingle with a replica of a Lewis gun (no, it didn’t come from the department store) used by his camel-mounted guerrillas to bring the historical Lawrence of Arabia to life.

The personal perspective of Lawrence is even more compelling. What it reveals is a sensitive man whose life was profoundly shaped by shame.

Illegitimacy

The main source of this was Lawrence’s parents. His father Thomas Chapman was an Anglo-Irish nobleman who eloped with a working-class governess, Sarah Junner. They adopted the name of Lawrence and settled in Oxford. Junner was herself illegitimate. In 1888 she gave birth to a son, Thomas Edward, known as Ned. Ned apparently learned his parents’ secret at a young age and never truly assimilated it. Ned’s own illegitimacy meant he was disgraced from birth, an outsider rejected by every strata of prudish Victorian-Edwardian society.

Shame of illegitimacy is not simply about an inferior social or legal status. It is a shame of the body and, above all, a shame of extramarital sex, which was in those days—and, frankly, still is—an infallible sign of moral deficiency. The developing psyche, unable to distinguish between marital and extramarital sex, extends this shame to all sex. Like all who suffer from deep shame, he hated both his physical body and his sexuality. Ned’s small stature—5’5”—didn’t help. Lawrence’s dislike of his own body suggests that he may have interpreted this—internally at least—as a physical manifestation of his supposed moral inferiority.

Inevitably, all this had a splintering effect on the personality. In his blog The boyish side of TE Lawrence, Maarten Schild writes that, “He did not seem to have a clear-cut, one-dimensional identity (this is who I am), but only a fragmented one, almost like multiple personality (I am many).” Schild attributes Lawrence’s enduring enigma and fascination, in part at least, to this trait.

Peter Pan

Lawrence was also a Peter Pan figure who never grew up, what the writer Cyril Connelly called “perennial boyishness”. This too, is entirely consistent with the mechanics of shame and relates to the body fears mentioned above. When the fear of adult sexual responsibility is overwhelming, the pliable psyche responds by clinging to boyhood. Ralph Isham, an American businessman who befriended Lawrence after World War I, wrote that, “His hatred for his body was a boy’s hatred; his fear of women was a boy’s fear…”

Lawrence retained into adulthood a sense of wonder and playfulness that is beaten out of most of us by social regimentation. But it came at considerable cost. His younger brother Arnold wrote that, “A childhood like his would create an unbalance [sic] in anyone’s mind.”

Lawrence’s shame-based negation of his own body (with its inherent sexuality) also drove him towards idealism. He became fascinated by the Middle Ages, in the tales of King Arthur and the Grail legends, with its knights fighting to defend the honour of women elevated to demi-goddesses where they were, mercifully, sexually unavailable.

Here the cause-and-effect chains of shame-based behaviour become evident. Conceived during a morally repugnant sex act, young Ned grows up with a fear and loathing of sex that locks him into the arrested development of “perennial boyishness” and drives him instead towards idealism, surfacing as a fascination with stories whose only female participants are asexual.

Here the cause-and-effect chains of shame-based behaviour become evident. Conceived during a morally repugnant sex act, young Ned grows up with a fear and loathing of sex that locks him into the arrested development of “perennial boyishness” and drives him instead towards idealism, surfacing as a fascination with stories whose only female participants are asexual. Cog, meet gear.

The Middle East

From 1907 Lawrence read history at Oxford. Here his fascination spread to the Middle East, which he saw as a latter-day Arthurian world in keeping with the Orientalism of his day. The veiled Muslim women, simultaneously desexualised yet made more mysterious, were part of the appeal. If you want to know how completely male-dominated this world was, watch David Lean’s monumental Lawrence of Arabia and play ‘spot the female character’.

In 1910 Lawrence joined the British Museum excavations at Carchemish in northern Syria. Drawings from this period, attributed to Lawrence and his colleague Leonard Woolley and exhibited in Shifting Sands, are exquisite.

Early in 1914 Lawrence and Woolley were recruited by British Intelligence to provide cover for covert map-making in the region. They conducted a seemingly legitimate survey of the Negev Desert while agents in their team drew military maps. Lawrence was in England when the war broke out but, within months, was drafted into the new Arab Bureau intelligence unit in Cairo.

The rest, as they say, is history. Impelled by his idealism and his moral belief in the justness of the Arab cause, Lawrence’s part in the Arab Revolt is truly inspiring. I shan’t repeat it here. Neither is there any reason to dwell on claims that he was homosexual. What is far more relevant to the impact of shame on Lawrence’s life is his post-war career (for want of a better word).

Like father…

Rejecting all the trappings of fame that his war service brought him, in 1922 Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an Aircraftman—equivalent to the Army’s lowest rank, Private—under the name of John Hume Ross. Forced out the following year when his identity was exposed, Lawrence adopted the name T. E. Shaw and re-joined the services.

Notice the pattern: Lawrence’s father changed his name to cover up his socially shameful relationship, which Lawrence never came to terms with. Yet Lawrence himself lived as a Bedouin raider and—not once but twice—changed his name to hide his own past. Much as Lawrence may have been ashamed of his family past, he was unable to stop himself repeating the behaviour. Shame replicates from one generation to the next; this destructive multi-generational behaviour is very hard to arrest.

Speed

The last trace of shame in Lawrence’s life lies in his love of motorcycles. He died in 1935 after crashing a Brough Superior SS100, one of the fastest machines of its day. As a motorcyclist, I can attest to the power of speed—particularly the visceral sense of speed imparted by a motorcycle—to soothe constant, low-grade feelings of inferiority and anxiety. It took me a long time to realise that all my years of high-speed motorcycling were both a form of therapy and a potentially fatal dalliance with self-harm. In Lawrence’s case it was the latter.

None of this detracts from the brilliance and fascination of T. E. Lawrence. However, when the emotional mechanics of his life are compared with other historical figures afflicted by shame—such as round-the-world solo yachtsman Donald Crowhurst and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson—a coherent picture of shame-based behaviour begins to emerge. The way shame manifests is unique to each individual, but the underlying mechanics are extremely consistent.