1828-35EDWARD WILLIAM LANE1842-49
“The Modern Egyptians.”
“The Thousand and One Nights.”―“Selections from the Ḳur-án.”
The first thing that occupied Lane's attention on his return to England was naturally to put the final touches to his book and to see it through the press. What with the ordinary delays of printers, and the time needed for the preparation of the wood-cuts, which he drew with his own hand on the blocks, the work was not published till December, 1836, by Mr. Charles Knight, who had bought the first edition from the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.
Those who had advised the Society in the matter had no cause for disappointment in the success of the book. The first edition, in two volumes, was wholly bought up by the booksellers within a fortnight of its publication. The second, the Society's, was to be much cheaper, and was therefore held back until the market was entirely cleared of the first. In 1837, however, it was brought out and stereotyped, with a first impression of four thousand copies, which were speedily disposed of. Two thousand five hundred copies in addition were struck off from the plates, and continued to be sold long after other and better editions had been issued. A third and revised edition, also in two volumes, was published by Mr. Knight in 1842. In 1846 the book was added to the series of “Knight's Weekly Volumes.” Five thousand copies were printed, and half this large issue was sold by 1847. In 1860 my father, E. Stanley Poole, edited the work again, in a single volume, for Mr. Murray, with some important additions; and from this, which must be regarded as the standard edition, a reprint in two small volumes was produced by Mr. Murray in 1871, and is now almost exhausted. Altogether, nearly seventeen thousand copies of the “Modern Egyptians” have been sold, a sufficient evidence of its popularity in England. If it is added, that a German translation was almost immediately produced, with the author's sanction, and that editions have been published in America, some idea will be formed of the European and trans-Atlantic repute of the book.
The reviewers, who do not always echo the popular sentiment, were in this case singularly unanimous in their praise. A feeble but well-meant critique in the “Quarterly Review” could find no fault except with Lane's way of spelling Oriental names, which the reviewer travestied and then pronounced pedantic: the substance of the book met with his unqualified admiration. So it was with, I think, all the criticisms that appeared on the work. It was universally pronounced to be a masterpiece of faithful description.
Oriental scholars, it need hardly be said, received it with acclamation. The distinguished Arabist, Fresnel, after a long residence in Egypt, wrote to Lane from Cairo in 1837: “I have read with a great deal of interest some of your chapters on the Modern Egyptians and felt immensely indebted to you for making me acquainted with so many things of which I should have remained eternally ignorant, had it not been for your Thesaurus.” The following extract from my father's preface to the fifth edition explains very clearly in what the value of the work lies. If they are the words of a near kinsman, they are also those of an accomplished Arabic scholar and one who had lived long in Egypt.
“Of the Modern Egyptians, as the work of an Uncle and Master, it would be difficult for me to speak, were its merits less known and recognised than they are.” At once the most remarkable description of a people ever written, and one that cannot now be re-written, it will always live in the literature of England. With a thorough knowledge of the people and of their language, singular power of description, and minute accuracy, Mr. Lane wrote his account of the “Modern Egyptians,” when they could, for the last time, be described. Twenty-five years of steam-communication with Egypt have more altered its inhabitants than had the preceding five centuries. They then retained the habits and manners of their remote ancestors: they now are yearly straying from old paths into the new ways of European civilization. Scholars will ever regard it as most fortunate that Mr. Lane seized his opportunity, and described so remarkable a people while yet they were unchanged.
“A residence of seven years in Egypt, principally in Cairo, while it enabled me to become familiar with the people, did not afford me any new fact that might be added to this work: and a distinguished English as well as Biblical scholar, the Author of ‘Sinai and Palestine,’ not long ago remarked to me, ‘The Modern Egyptians is the most provoking book I ever read: whenever I thought I had discovered, in Cairo, something that must surely have been omitted, I invariably found my new fact already recorded.’ I may add that a well-known German Orientalist [Dr. Sprenger] has lately visited Cairo with the express intention of correcting Mr. Lane's descriptions, and confessed that his search after mistakes was altogether vain.”(1)
After the “Modern Egyptians” had been published, and his time was once more his own, Lane employed himself in that favourite amusement of learned men, attending the meetings of societies. These bodies, however, had more life in them forty years ago than now, and their proceedings had not yet approached that debatable border line between learning and futility which has now been successfully crossed. The Asiatic Society, which still produces some good work, was then under the inspiriting influence of the Earl of Munster, and the Oriental Text Committee and the Translation Fund were bringing out that long series of works of which many are still most valuable, although some have deservedly died the death. At the meetings of these societies Lane was a prominent figure. Lord Munster regarded him as his right hand and would have his advice on everything connected with the work of the Committee and the Asiatic Society; and any problem in Arabic literature, any inscription that defied Prof. Shakespear and the other Orientalists of the Society, was referred to Lane and generally decided on the spot. But he was not a man to remain long contented with a sort of learned kettledrum-tea existence. He was wishing to be at work again; and the opportunity came very quickly. In the “Modern Egyptians” he had referred to the “The Thousand and One Nights,” or “Arabian Nights” as they are commonly called, as forming a faithful picture of Arab life: and the remark had drawn more attention to the work than when it was merely regarded as a collection of amusing and questionably moral tales to be given to children with due caution. Lane was asked to translate them afresh. In his prospectus he showed that the ordinary English version was taken from Galland's French translation, which abounds in perhaps every fault which the most ingenious editor could devise for the destruction of a hated author. It is thoroughly inaccurate in point of scholarship; it misunderstands the simplest Arab customs and turns them into customs of India or Persia; it puts the whole into a European dress which destroys the oriental glamour of the original; and it mixes with the true Arabian Nights others which do not belong to the collection at all. Our English versions, based upon this, only magnified each vice and extinguished the few merits the work possessed in the French.
In these circumstances there could be no question that a new translation was necessary; and there was no man better able to translate a work illustrative of Arab life than the author of “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.” Cairo in Lane's time was still emphatically the Arab city. It had become the sovereign centre of Arab culture when the City of Peace was given up to the Tatar barbarians and Baghdad was no longer the home of the Khaleefehs. Under the Memlook Sultáns, Cairo, and with it Arab art, attained the acme of its splendour; and the kings who left behind them those wonderful monuments of their power and culture in the Mosques of EI-Ḳáhirah left also an established order of life, stereotyped habits of mind, and a ceremonious etiquette, which three centuries of Turkish rule had not yet effaced when Lane first visited Egypt. The manners, the dwellings, and the dress; the traditions and superstitions, the ideas about things in heaven above or in the earth beneath, of the actors in “The Thousand and One Nights” were those of the people of Cairo under the Memlook Sultáns: and Lane was fortunate enough to have seen them before the tide of European innovation had begun to sweep over the picturesque scene.(2)
Lane resolved to make his translation of “The Thousand and One Nights” a cyclopædia of Arab manners and customs. He added to each chapter a vast number of notes, which are in fact monographs on the various details of Arabian life. Never did he write better or bring together more happily the results of his wide oriental reading and of his long Eastern experience than in these Notes. The translation itself is distinguished by its singular accuracy and by the marvellous way in which the oriental tone and colour is retained. The measured and finished language Lane chose for his version is eminently fitted to represent the rhythmical tongue of the Arabs: and one cannot take up the book without being mysteriously carried into the eastern dream-land; where we converse gravely with wezeers and learned sheykhs, or join the drinking-bout of a godless sultán; uncork ʼEfreets and seal them up again in their bottles with the seal of Suleymán, on whom be peace; follow Hároon-er-Rasheed and Jaạfar in their nightly excursions; or die for love of a beautiful wrist that has dropped us a kerchief from the latticed meshrebeeyeh of the hareem. Those who would know what the Arabs were at their best time, what were their virtues and what their vices, may see them and live with them in Lane's “Thousand and One Nights.”
The book came out in monthly parts in the years 1838 to 1840. It was illustrated profusely by W. Harvey, who succeeded in some slight degree in catching the oriental spirit of the tales; though his work is decidedly the least excellent part of the book. After the first edition, in three volumes, 1840, two others were produced in which the publishers sought to popularize the translation by restoring the old ignorant spelling of the heroes' names. All recognized the value of Lane's work, but they still had a prejudice in favour of their old acquaintances Sinbad and Giaffer, and could not immediately get used to the new comers Es-Sindibád and Jaạfar. Moreover they missed Aladdin, who even under his reformed name ʼAlá-ed-deen was not to be found in Lane at all. To obviate these objections, the publishers produced an emasculated edition reviving all the old mistakes and adding the inauthentic tales. Lane, however, immediately made a strong protest and the edition was withdrawn from circulation. In 1859 my father brought out the second and standard edition of the work, and this has since been several times reprinted; a new issue having been required this year. Although from the size and cost of the book,―a cost due mainly to the illustrations, which (as Lane himself thought) might well be dispensed with,―it cannot in its present form entirely drive out the miserable versions that preceded it, and that still live in the nursery: yet it is on all hands acknowledged to be the only translation that students of the East can refer to without fear of being misled. Every oriental scholar knows that the Notes are an essential part of his library.
After this translation was finished, Lane, since he could not be idle, arranged a volume of “Selections from the Ḳur-án,” with an introduction, notes, and an interwoven commentary. The book did not appear till 1843, when its author was in Egypt and unable to correct the proofs. Consequently it is defaced by considerable typographical errors, and its publication in that state was a continual source of annoyance to Lane. The notion was an excellent one. He wished to collect together all the important doctrinal parts of the Ḳur-án, in order to show what the religion of Moḥammad really was according to the Prophet's own words: and he omitted all those passages which weary or disgust the student, and render the Ḳur-án an impossible book for general reading. The result is a small volume which gives the ordinary reader a very fair notion of the contents of the Ḳur-án and of the circumstances of its origin. In this latter part of the subject there is, however, room for that addition and improvement which thirty years of continued progress in oriental research could not fail to make needful: and such alteration will be made in the new edition which is presently to be published.
The “Selections” were but a παρεργον. Lane was already embarked in the great work of his life, a work to which he devoted thirty-four years of unintermitting labour.
- E. Stanley Poole, Editor's Preface to 5th [Standard] Ed. Modern Egyptians.
- I do not wish this to be taken as a defence of oriental abuses. There always comes a time when picturesque rottenness must give way to enlightened ugliness. But surely it is possible to reform the Turkish misgovernment of Egypt without pulling down the mosques and the beautiful palaces of Memlook Beys which are still to be found in old corners of Cairo. Is it really a matter of necessity for a reforming Turk to wear a tightly-buttoned frock-coat? But Easterns seem to be able to copy only those peculiarities of Europeans which rightly make us a laughing stock to the judicious savage.