The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia, by Dick Benson-Gyles, The Lilliput Press, Dublin, Ireland, 2016, $30
Author Benson-Gyles has written the latest in a long line of biographies of this most enigmatic of heroes, a man who once said his “self-distrusting shyness held a mask, often a mask of indifference or flippancy before my face, and puzzled me.”
The author experienced his own watershed Lawrence moment in 1962 while watching David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia. So began a quest, beginning in Dublin and followed by visits to the heart of Ireland to throw further light on Lawrence’s origins.
Lawrence’s father, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Thomas Tighe Chapman, deserted his wife and four daughters to elope with their governess, Sarah Lawrence, who was to bear him five sons. Their second, Thomas Edward—known to the family as Ned and decades later to the world as Lawrence of Arabia—was born in Wales in 1888.
The growing family subsequently moved about to avoid discovery before finally settling in Oxford, the children largely ignorant of their parents’ scandalous secret. His illegitimacy increasingly tormented young Lawrence, as did his name. He felt he was a man without roots who should simply have been a Chapman, like his father.
Behind the heroic facade, then, was a man of many parts, a mystery in many ways, who with his dedication in Seven Pillars of Wisdom created yet another. “To S.A.,” it commences, “I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars.…”
Who was S.A.? Biographers have put forward several possibilities. Benson-Gyles, who spent long years researching his identity and, indeed, eventually met S.A., reveals the answer in this fine biography of a most extraordinary military commander and complex man.