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Book of the Month - Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a triumph by T.E. Lawrence

The RUSI Library purchased this book on the 29th of July 1935, in the very first month of its publication by Jonathan Cape.

This edition of Lawrence’s text was published within weeks of his death in a motorcycle accident in May 1935 at the age of 46. By August 1935 the third impression was printed and by September 1935 the book had gone into five impressions: an indication of its popularity. The reverse side of the title page provides an indication of the publishing history of this book by its edition statements: ‘Privately printed 1926’ and ‘First published for general circulation 1935’.  It’s a history that Lawrence was deeply and personally involved with: emotionally and financially.

Lawrence kept extensive records of his experiences throughout 1916-1918 and by December 1919 had a draft for most of the book we know now as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He lost this travelling on a train, something not unknown to many of us but unlike Lawrence we don’t make the national newspapers! Despite the coverage of the manuscript’s loss in the press it wasn’t recovered. Both Robert Graves in his 1927 book, Lawrence and the Arabs, and Jeremy Wilson in his 1989 authorised biography of Lawrence, have described this incident as theft. Graves asserted ‘a political motive’ and hazarded ‘that one day the lost text may reappear in certain official archives’. To date the lost draft, which Lawrence referred to as ‘Text I’ has not reappeared and this episode still adds a curious glamour to the book’s story.

Within a few months Lawrence worked from memory to complete ‘Text II’, a manuscript he titled ‘The Arab Revolt’ which is now held by the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. This manuscript is authenticated by a letter from Lawrence’s brother and is the earliest surviving manuscript of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence disliked this version as a literary text, although he described it as historically accurate and he wrote another draft, ‘Text III’ (Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. Hist. D.112) that was completed by February 1922. He planned to have copies of ‘Text III’ typed up but found it was cheaper to get the text typeset by the Oxford Times on a proofing press. He had eight copies printed and because they are printed copies, and not typed copies, they are the first ‘edition’ in bibliographical terms. Lawrence retained all eight copies and chose who read them, so they were not legally a published work. This proof-printing is known as the ‘Oxford Text’ of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The privately printed text of 1926, referred to above, is the ‘Subscribers’ Edition’ for which Lawrence edited the 335,000 words of the ‘Oxford Text’ down to 250,000 words, and added the subtitle A Triumph. It was a beautifully illustrated limited print run of 200 copies published in 1926 and printed in London by Roy Manning Pike and Herbert John Hodgson. Each copy was uniquely hand-bound and the illustrations are by notable artists: Eric Kennington, Augustus John, Paul Nash, Blair Hughes-Stanton and Gertrude Hermes. The fastidiousness taken in the making of the book illustrates how emotionally involved Lawrence was with it and all of the experiences it encapsulated. Financially, the book was a disaster: each copy cost Lawrence three times what each subscriber had paid. Facing bankruptcy Lawrence undertook the production of a heavily cut version for general publication. This was his 1927 Revolt in the Desert which was only 130,000 words long and became a best-seller.

The first commercially produced copy of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph, using the text of the 1926 ‘Subscribers’ Edition’, was printed in 1935 after his death because he had refused any further issue of it during his lifetime. The RUSI copy will now be securely held in the Rare Books & Archive Store, where importantly the temperature, humidity and light levels are controlled in order to preserve the rare and unique collections so that they can continue to be enjoyed well into the future.

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