EDWARD WILLIAM LANE1825-28


1801―1825.

The life of a great scholar should not be suffered to pass away into forgetfullness. The Arabs have indeed a proverb, ‘He who has left works behind him dies not’: but although so long as there are students of the life and the literature of the East, the memory of Lane cannot die, the personality of the great Orientalist is rigidly excluded from his writings; they reveal almost nothing of himself. If to stimulate the endeavours of others by the example of a chief of their kind, to encourage fainter hearts by telling them of the strength aud devotion of a master, be one of the ends of biography, this brief and inadequate memoir of perhaps the truest and most earnest student this century has seen will not be deemed superfluous. As the record of half a hundred years of ceaseless labour, crowned with a perfection of scholarship to which even Germany avowedly yields the palm of undisputed supremacy, the life of Lane must needs be written.

Edward William Lane was born at Hereford on September 17th, 1801. He was the third son of the Rev. Theophilus Lane, LL.D., a Prebendary of Hereford; and his mother was Sophia Gardiner, a niece of Gainsborough the Painter. At first his education was conducted by his father, after whose sudden death in 1814 he was placed successively at the grammar-schools of Bath and Hereford, where he distinguished himself by his unusual power of application and by an almost equal mastery of classics and mathematics. The latter formed his principal study, for his mind was bent upon taking a degree at Cambridge, and then entering the Church. This desire to devote himself to a religious profession may have had its origin in the training of his mother, under whose influence his education was completed. Mrs. Lane was a woman of no ordinary mould. Gifted with high intellectual powers, which she had spared no pains to cultivate, she possessed a strength and beauty of character that won not only admiration but affection from all who were privileged to know her. It is easy to understand how great and how good must have been the influence of such a mother upon Edward Lane. He was wont to say that he owed his success in life to her teaching, and the saying, characteristic in its modesty, was doubtless partly true. His success was the result as much of character as of intellect.

The Cambridge project was never carried out. Lane indeed visited the university, but did not enter his name on the books of any college. A few days' experience of university life as it was in the first quarter of this century was sufficient to show him that in living in such society as he was then introduced to, and in conforming to its ways, he would be sacrificing what was to him dearer than all academic distinctions. That his mathematical training had been thorough is shown by the fact that immediately after giving up the idea of Cambridge, Lane procured a copy of the honour papers of the year and discovered that he could without difficulty solve every problem save one; and, as he has often told me, going to bed weary with puzzling out this single stumbling-block, he successfully overcame it in his sleep and, suddenly waking up, lit his candle in the middle of the night and wrote out the answer without hesitation.

The plan of Cambridge, and with it the Church, being given up, and his later training being too exclusively mathematical for him to think of Oxford, Lane joined his elder brother Richard (afterwards renowned for his skill in lithography, which was recognized by the Royal Academy in the election to an associateship) in London, where he spent some time in engraving. Although this profession was also shortly abandoned, the years devoted to it were not thrown away. The taste for art which he had inherited with the Gainsborough blood and which his mother, who had spent a great part of her girlhood in her uncle's studio, spared no endeavour to foster, aided by the mechanical training of the graver, was afterwards turned to admirable results in Egypt. Side by side with his engraving, however, was the growing passion for Eastern things. Lane could not by his nature be idle for a moment, and the hours unfilled by his art were given up to hard reading. To such an extent was this zeal for study carried, that he began to grudge the time necessary for food and exercise. The result of inattention to the ordinary rules of health was a state of weakness that could offer but a faint resistance to the attack of typhus fever which now assailed him. With difficulty escaping with his life, he found his health unequal to the sedentary habits of the engraver. A man who was so weak, partly from the exhaustion of chronic bronchitis, and partly from the effects of the fever, that he sometimes could not walk along a street without clinging for support, was not fit to bend over copper-plate all day. He therefore determined to adopt some other way of life.

As early as 1822, Eastern studies had more than merely attracted Lane's interest. A manuscript grammmar of colloquial Arabic in his handwriting bears this date: and he must have been studying some time before he could attempt a grammar of Arabic, even though it is only an abridgement of other works. From this year or earlier dates that severe devotion to the language and character of the Arabs which for more than half a century filled every moment of his studious life.

It was this taste for Oriental matters, seconded by his weak health, which could ill withstand a northern winter, that determined Lane to visit Egypt. Another motive may have been the hope of a post in the service of the British Government, which, he was informed by those who were qualified to speak, he stood a good chance of obtaining if he made himself well acquainted with Easterns at home. Whatever the motives, in 1825 Lane left England for the first of his three visits to the land of the Pharaohs.