T.E. Lawrence, like his four brothers, was illegitimate. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, gave up status and wealth to run away with Sarah Lawrence, the governess to his four daughters. Sir Thomas never divorced his first wife, but left under a lengthy cloud of shame to create a new life with Sarah, the strict, domineering mother of the future Lawrence of Arabia.
Despite, and because of, a lifelong clash of wills with his mother, Lawrence displayed prodigious intellect and ambition from an early age. Korda notes that Lawrence learned Latin at 5 years old and French the following year. Sir Thomas was a pervasive and strong influence, as well, passing along many of his interests, from architecture to classical literature.
From the beginning, Lawrence displayed a character largely resistant to authority and incapable of homogeneity. As a teenager, he lived in a cottage behind his parents’ house, where, in typical fashion, Lawrence spent most of his time pursuing what interested him (including the history and setting of the Holy Land, weapons and armor, coins, heraldry, and more) rather than what formal education demanded.
Several vital mentors helped him through his time in college at Oxford and, later, his brilliant but odd military career. At 5-foot-5, Lawrence was nonetheless formidable, boasting “ice-blue” eyes, a firm jaw, and blond hair. His pain threshold was all but inhuman and his expertise far-flung: marksman, military strategist, diplomat, writer, scientist and more. Korda quotes liberally from Lawrence’s account of his heroics, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” a work that tortured its author even as it dazzled such contemporary literary lights as George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster.