“You will see that your colons before buts and the like are contra-indicated in my scheme, and leave you without anything in reserve for the dramatic occasions mentioned above. You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced in camp life.”—George Bernard Shaw, October 7, 1924 letter to T.E. Lawrence, quoted in Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003)
George Bernard Shaw could insult with such geniality and creativity that, I suspect, most of the recipients of his letters regarded it as a kind of badge of honor. That appears to be the case here in this letter to T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia (pictured here).
What accounts for the Anglo-Irish playwright’s asperity, at least in this instance, is that, after two years of trying to arrange publication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by the leader of the Arab Revolt in the First World War, he had only now gotten his hands on the manuscript. Of course he knew that the former British Army intelligence officer was a brilliant linguist, but—knowing Shaw—I wouldn't have put it past him to be cheeky enough to urge the younger man to master English first before going on to anything else.
Lawrence had been dead seven years before Robert Graves and Alan Hodges took Shaw to task for his own affronts to the English language in The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1942). Still, it’s doubtful that this most enigmatic of men would have felt unfairly abused by Shaw. The playwright had, in the end, provided one of the most glowing tributes to Seven Pillars of Wisdom (“The work is a masterpiece, one of the few very best of its kind in the world”).
(Shaw and his contemporaries might have concerned themselves less with Lawrence’s knotted prose and more with his knotted memories of events. In an article in the Autumn 2014 issue of MHQ Magazine on how Lawrence and a co-founder of modern irregular warfare, Orde Wingate, contributed doctrines that proved fatal to the French at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, Douglas Porch called Seven Pillars of Wisdom “an exaggerated, semiautobiographical account of the desert war that appealed to interwar tastes for desert escapism.")
When Lawrence cast about for a (relative) cloak of anonymity to hide his participation in the Royal Air Force, he took the name T.E. Shaw, in tribute to his growing friendship with the playwright and his wife Charlotte. The playwright acknowledged the compliment and repaid it with Too True To Be Good, his 1932 satire in which “Private Meek”—who drives the top brass up the wall with his unconventional dress, before it is revealed that he is actually a colonel (and military genius) who prefers the rank-and-file where he will have a “freer hand”—is, unmistakably, Lawrence. (See my prior post on how the real-life Lawrence compares to the character depicted in David Lean’s classic film, Lawrence of Arabia.)