Seven Pillars

How seriously was Lawrence of Arabia taken in the mid-thirties? I ask because one of the running jokes in Alan Melville’s detective story Death of Anton (1936) about the unreadability of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The novel is set in a circus, and one of the clowns carries a copy of the book around to impress others, but never manages to actually begin reading:

Not reading, merely turning the pages. Mr. Mayhew (for that is his name in real life) has been looking for a suitable place to begin reading the book ever since he bought it, but up to now has failed to find one.

Was this a private joke of Melville’s, or a reflection of a common opinion? Maybe the opinion was only common in the rather camp theatrical circles where Melville thrived. Maybe people like him found it hard to take Lawrence seriously (if only because Lawrence took himself so very very seriously).

Death of Anton is republished in the British Library crime Classics series.  It’s quite a good detective story – better as such than Melville’s Quick Curtain, published in the same series – though that is more entertaining (to me, anyway) because of the theatrical in-jokes.



  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    ‘…Looking back on his first tour of Australia, with F. R. Brown’s side in 1950-51, J. C. Woodcock recently wrote: `For three weeks on the Stratheden the distractions of the world came to an end. Neville Cardus held court among the deck chairs, while Len Hutton won quietly at quoits. Doug Wright of Kent rested his feet, tired from an English season. Alec Bedser did the same.’ Hedley Verity, sailing to Australia for the first time in 1932, experimented new breaks with a tennis ball, and four years later spent his time reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom, while Hammond and Ames became the chess experts (Hammond was pretty expert at most things he turned his hand to). Maurice Leyland on ship usually did nothing more than smoke his pipe, and he summed it all up once by saying: `A multi-millionaire could not have such enjoyment as a cricketer going to Australia.’…’

    from an article in The Cricketer, Feb 1971

  2. Edmund King
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Interesting reference, George! Could it also be a comment on Lawrence’s fraught relationship with the inter-war culture of celebrity: a sense that he was both omni-present, yet also frustratingly inaccessible, both to journalists and readers? So the image of the famous, yet unread (unreadable?) text could stand in for the man himself: ultimately enigmatic.

    I’m thinking along these lines because I’ve just read Edward Owens’s very suggestive 2015 article on inter-war media representations in Lawrence, available here:

    • Edmund King
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Sorry: for “in,” read “of” in the final sentence there.

      • Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the reference. I shall take a look. What I’d really like to know is –
        How much scepticism was there about Lawrence before Richard Aldington launched his attack in the fifties?

  3. Roger
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Seven Pillars of Wisdom was only published – except in a very small limited edition – in July 1935, after Lawrence’s death, so when Melville was writing the book there was probably quite a lot of interest in it and unexpected people – like Hedley Verity – may have tried to read it.

    • Jonathan
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      True, but don’t forget the 1926 abridged subscribers edition (which was the version re-published in the 1930s) or the further abridged Revolt in the Desert, from 1927.

  4. Steve Paradis
    Posted March 30, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Thurber’s “Greatest man In The World” shows that even by 1931 a lot of people in the know were wise to the celebrity industry.

    Click to access GreatestManText.pdf

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