Reading T.E. Lawrence’s 19th-Century accounts helps you understand why this area of the world is still a mess.
Known for his (practiced?) eccentricity, T. E. Lawrence was, as described in the unattributed Introduction to his Revolt in the Desert, an “archeologist, philosopher, diplomat and student of military affairs, [with] the genius of a surpassing leader of irregular cavalry.”
Apparently he was also something of an opportunist. Before World War I, while on a more-or-less unofficial mission for the British government, Arab tribesmen mistook him for a man of authority. Lawrence took it from there, coopting the dangerous task of instigating the Arab Revolt against Ottoman-Turkish rule. The revolt, in the complex intrigues of pre-WWI posturing, would work to Britain’s advantage.
An “Oh, no!” moment.
In 1919 he wrote a 400,000-word account of his Arab adventures. He left the book and many photographs in a handbag in the Reading railway station. When he returned it was gone.
Luckily for history, he started again from scratch.
His eccentricity shows in the responses he penned to the poor fellow charged with proofreading his manuscript. The publisher, both, I suppose to share in the amusement and to shield his company from claims of laxity, included in the book the following:
P U B L I S H E R’S N O TE
It seems necessary to explain that the spelling of Arabic names throughout this book varies according to the whim of the author.
The publisher’s proof-reader objected strongly to the apparent inconsistencies which he found, and a long and entertaining correspondence ensued between author and publisher. The author’s attitude can best be judged from the following extracts which show questions and answers in parallel columns [here shown with the question in red and T.E. Lawrence’s reply in blue].
I attach a list of queries raised by F. who is reading the proofs. He finds these very clean, but full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names, a point which reviewers often take up. Will you annotate it in the margin, so that I can get the proofs straightened?
Annotated: not very helpfully perhaps. Arabic names won’t go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some ‘scientific systems’ of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.
Slip I. Jeddah and Jidda used impartially throughout. Intentional?
Slip 16. Bir Waheida, was Bir Waheidi.
Why not? All one place.
Slip 20. Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the ‘chief family of the Rualla.’ On Slip 33 ‘Rualla horse,’ and Slip 38, ‘killed one Rueili.’ In all later slips ‘Rualla.’
Should have also used Ruwala and Ruala.
Slip 28. The Biaaita is also spelt Biseita.
Slip 47. Jedha, the she camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
She was a splendid beast.
Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.
Slip 65. Author is addressed ‘Ya Auruns,’ but on Slip 56 was ‘Aurans.’
Also Lurens and Runs: not to mention ‘Shaw.’ More to follow, if time permits.
Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein.
Good egg. I call this really ingenious.
In the face of such replies to the publisher’s well-intentioned questions, further expostulation was clearly impossible.
I’ve worked with a number of brilliant and, at times, difficult authors and I would work with all of them again, but being cavalier when working with editors or proofreaders isn’t suggested for those with a second book in the works.
Just a write thought.