Most people who are familiar with director David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia will also be aware of the original story that it has been based on. Titled The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence’s wartime memoir has become an iconic book of the First World War narrating the heart-rending story of a British soldier caught between his allegiance to his native country and his new found friendship with the Arabian Desert tribes.
The novel itself has often been considered a crucial text of the war canon in addition to being a historically significant documentation of the Great War. But what if someone were to tell us that the book we read so widely today was, in actuality, considered by Lawrence to be an inferior version of the original manuscript he had once written?
T.E. Lawrence wrote the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919 while at France for the Paris Peace Conference. On his journey home for Christmas, however, he lost the manuscript while changing trains at the Reading station and was later compelled to re-write most of it from memory. The re-written second draft took almost three months for Lawrence to complete although, in a letter to Fredrick Manning in 1930, he claimed to have liked the previous version better: “[i]t was shorter, snappier, and more truthful than the present version.”
The first three chapters of this second draft went on to be published in the American journal The World’s Work between July and October 1921. This draft, however, was eventually burned by Lawrence. In 1997, a previously unknown copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was discovered at the Chicester Saleroom, believed to have been written before the final version.
Experts claimed that it shed new light on two pertinent questions concerning the first draft — what it could have been like had it survived and whether it was truly lost at Reading as per Lawrence’s claims. In answering the latter, it seems more probable now that Lawrence himself had destroyed the first manuscript on not finding it satisfactory, an assumption corroborated by several experts who attributed it to the author’s tendency of burning most of his writings.
Jeremy Wilson, the official biographer of Lawrence, additionally stated, “the lost Seven Pillars was nothing like the masterpiece Lawrence later created. Indeed, the quality of the writing in this early draft will fuel speculation that he did not lose the original manuscript at Reading — as he claimed — but destroyed it.” It is presumed that the difference between the version which exists as a bestseller today and the ones that had been previously written, judging by the draft discovered, is owing to the intervening period in between the penning of each.
In 1919 when Lawrence wrote the initial draft, he had been a young soldier returning from war with experiences worth narrating but a preliminary understanding of storytelling. By the time he wrote the final draft of the novel in 1922 which was to go on to attain iconic status, he had begun correspondence with the likes of E.M.Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw arriving at the decision of becoming a writer. In fact, in one such correspondence with E.M Forster, Lawrence wrote, “[w]hile I was trying to write I analysed most of you and found out, as far as was within my fineness to see, what were your tricks of effect, the little reserves and omissions which gave you power to convey more than the print says.”
It cannot be said definitively whether the first draft of Lawrence’s famous novel would’ve proved to be a better version had it survived. His admission that the initial version had been “more honest” certainly seems to suggest that the loss of the manuscript took with it stories that Lawrence did not care to repeat in the later one. Nevertheless, the knowledge of the existence of a first draft in the past will forever keep us wandering if the young British soldier of 1919 had looked upon his experiences as introspectively as the aspiring writer in 1922 who, despite himself, ended up learning “to convey more than the print,” and quite brilliantly too.