Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Dear SIR!

The Gay Love Letters of Lawrence of Arabia

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Photograph of D. H. Lawrence in Arabian costume

T. E. Lawrence (1888–1935), commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia, dedicated Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) "to S.A.", the handsome Arab boy Dahoum nicknamed Sheik Ahmed, with whom he shared his quarters for three years, who died of typhus in 1918. In this famous study of the Arab revolt against the Turks he acknowledged that the soldiers, rather than use the "sordid commerce" of public prostitutes "began indifferently to slake one another's few needs in their own clean bodies – a cold convenience that, by comparison, seemed sexless and even pure. Later, some began to justify this sterile process, and swore that friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was welding our souls and spirits in one flaming effort." Rumours about his private life have supplied a dozen biographies. In August 1992 the London Daily Telegraph uncovered new evidence to suggest that Lawrence of Arabia was indeed actively gay, but a reader contradicted this with a statement from a man who shared barracks with Lawrence who claimed that Lawrence was not a homosexual, merely a masochist. In Seven Pillars Lawrence went on to say that "Several, thirsting to punish appetites they could not wholly prevent, took a savage pride in degrading the body, and offered themselves fiercely in any habit which promised physical pain or filth." The story is well known that in 1917 Lawrence was captured as a spy at Der'a, south of Damascus; Hajim Bey, the governor, tried to make love to him but Lawrence resisted, upon which he was turned over to a gang of soldiers to be tortured and raped. Pain, humiliation and ecstacy released the beast within, which "journeyed with me since, fascination and terror and morbid desire, lascivious and vicious perhaps, but like the striving of a moth towards its flame." After the war he joined the Royal Air Force as a lowly private in order to escape from himself as well as from the fame he felt was unearned. But in order to recapture the experience of the beating he received at Der'a, Lawrence invented an uncle, "R", who gave instructions for the discipline of "Ted", i.e. Lawrence personifying himself as a naughty nephew. Engaged for these purposes was John Bruce, a young Scots friend who had enlisted in the Tank Corps at the same time as Lawrence in 1923. Another service companion sometimes attended as a witness of these floggings, which took place over a period of twelve years: he confirmed that Lawrence was beaten with a metal whip upon the bare buttocks until he ejaculated. Lawrence in his diary occasionally noted, for example, "30 from Jock", his nickname for Bruce; the numbers, from 30 to 75, presumably indicate the number of lashes administered. Bruce sold his story to the Sunday Times in 1969, which was serialised as "The Secret Life of Lawrence of Arabia". The following letters were written to the companion who passed the instructions to Bruce, called "Hills"; both he and Bruce claimed to believe that "R" really existed. These letters are in effect the love letters from a slave to his master.


26 Oct 1934

Dear Sir,
          I am very much obliged to you for the long and careful report you have sent me on your visit to Scotland with Ted; and for your kindness in agreeing to go there with the lad and look after him while he got his deserts. I am enclosing a fee of three pounds which I hope you will accept as some compensation for your trouble and inconvenience.
          From what you tell me, and from the reports of those who have examined Ted since, it is clear that he had a sound thrashing, which was after all what he wanted. I hope he will take the lesson to heart, and not make it necessary for us to repeat it. Please take any chance his friendship for you gives, to impress upon him how wrong it is for him, at his age and standing, to force us to use these schoolboy measures against him. He should be ashamed to hold his head up amongst his fellows, knowing that he had suffered so humiliating and undignified a punishment. Try and drive some sense into his head. [Details of the whippings follow.] . . .
          Hills [Bruce] reports that after the birching Ted cried out quite loudly, and begged for mercy. Can you confirm this, and do you recollect in what terms his plea was made? . . .
          One last question, too, if you say Yes to the main principle – are we at the end of our troubles with the lad? If not, must we give Hills his free hand, or will limited measures suffice? Can Hills be trusted again, or must I look elsewhere? And in that case, do you think your friend would be available or suitable?
          With further thanks for your kindness.
                    Believe me
                              Yours very sincerely,

16 November 1934

Dear Sir,
          I must apologize for having taken so long to answer the additional report you were good enough to send me. Your information was exactly what I needed and I am most grateful.
          You have aroused my curiosity by your remark that from your service with Ted you know something that might replace corporal punishment in making him behave himself. You must understand that this is a matter of the first importance to me and to Ted. By his wishes which I must respect, according to my promise, we are prevented from meeting; but if you can get your information on paper, you would put me further into your debt.
          I note what you say about Hills, and it only confirms my own impression. You will recollect how he came to go to him this time. Ted's punishment at X had proved not enough, due to the inadequacy of a belt for use upon a grown lad, and not through any fault of yours or your friend's. Unfortunately you could not arrange another dose at the time, and while we were thinking about it Ted allowed himself to give offense upon quite another subject. It was with this second offence that Hills dealt with last month. . . .
          I do not know, of course, what your hinted remedy is worth, as a corrective. If it proved effective I might save you and me from a repetition of his punishment. I gather that your friend is not yet available, and it is not fair to the lad himself to keep such a punishment hanging over him for month after month. Yet it is equally impossible for me, having solemnly promised it to him. I always do what I promise, and I have brought Ted to know it. So will you please try to take me into your confidence on this alternative; and please also enquire into the arrangements of the friend who helped you last time, so that we may fall back on him, if necessary.
          Yours sincerely,

11 January 1935

Dear Sir,
          Your letter showed me that I was perhaps being rather hard on Ted, by repeating that punishment at short interval. So upon reconsideration I informed him that it will be indefinitely postponed. I asked him to give you prompt notice that your help would not be immediately required. We will hold our hands and watch to see if the lad justifies this kindness.
          I need not say that I am very much obliged to you for being ready to take the further responsibility. I shall call upon you with confidence if Ted again makes it necessary. Please let me correct one misapprehension in your letter, however. Unless he strips, the birch is quite ineffective. The twigs are so light that even the thinnest clothing prevents their hurting. I fully understand your reluctance to strip him; so I was making up my mind to ask you to use either your friend's jute whip (which you mentioned to me in a former letter) or a useful little dogwhip which I could send you by post.
          If the emergency arises, I shall agree to Ted's coming to you in flannels.
                    Yours sincerely,

SOURCE: John E. Mack, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976).

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