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Biography Edward William Lane, 1801-1876: Biographical Sketch

Image: Edward William Lane
Edward William Lane (1801-1876). Wood engraving by Richard James Lane (1800-1872). Reproduced in "The Late Mr. E.W. Lane" in The Illustrated London News 69 (2 September 1876): 213. General Collections, Library of Congress. Call number: AP4.I3

Edward William Lane was born at Hereford on September 17, 1801. He was the third son of the Rev. Theophilus Lane, LL.D., a prependary of Hereford Cathedral. He was educated privately, chiefly by his parents. His mother (a niece of Gainsborough the painter) was a woman of intellect and high principle, and to her he was greatly indebted for the development of his mental and moral qualities. As his attainments both in classics and in mathematics were unusually high, it was resolved that he should go to Cambridge, with a view to entering the Church; but after a short residence there, he abandoned the idea, and joined an elder brother in London, who carried on business as a lithographer and engraver. At the same time, he devoted his leisure to the study of Arabic, in which he soon acquired great proficiency. The double strain of work and study undermined his strength, and an attack of fever, which nearly proved fatal, left his health so shattered that a residence abroad was necessary; and he very naturally turned to the East, where he might at once recover his health and prosecute his favourite study.

Thus it was that Lane came to take up residence in Egypt, in the end of 1825, when he was a young man of four-and-twenty. He resolved to study, not the language only, but also the people. He therefore adopted the native costume, and so complete was the disguise that in public he was generally taken for a Turk. He engaged two professors to instruct him in the Arabic tongue and in the Moslem religion and law. He lived among the people as one of them, assuming an Arabic name and adopting their manners and customs, and even their opinions, so far as conscience would allow. He abstained from eating food forbidden by their religion, and from drinking wine, and even from habits which they thought merely disagreeable, such as the use of knives and forks at meals. He mingled with them in their houses and bazaars. He went into their mosques -- even the most sacred of them, during the most sacred seasons -- when they were crowded with Turks, and he assumed in their midst the regular postures of devotion. To his intimate friends among them he acknowledged the hand of Providence in the introduction and diffusion of the religion of El-Islám; and, when interrogated, he avowed his belief in the Messiah as the Word of God, in accordance with the words of the Kur-án.

The result was that he gained the entire confidence of the Arabs. They even forgot that he was not an Arab. They were familiar and unreserved toward him on every subject. They were at no pains to conceal from him their feelings, their thoughts, or the reason of their actions. He was thus enabled to penetrate into the inner life of the people, to forget for the time that he was an Englishman, and to think their thoughts in their language.

Lane's example has been followed by more recent travellers -- for example, by Francis Parkman, the American, who lived for some time among the North American Indians, and by Arminius Vambéry, the Hungarian, who travelled for two years in the disguise of a dervish among the Tartars of Central Asia. Lane, however, has the merit of having been the first to make so daring an experiment, and of having continued it for a much longer time than his successors.

Lane's Egyptian life was merely a preparation for the great work he had set before himself -- namely, to make the Egyptians known to the world as they never had been before. He spent upwards of three years in the country, -- at Alexandria, at Cairo, at the Pyramids, and up the Nile; and when he returned to England toward the end of 1828, he had with him his "Description of Egypt" in a complete form, and illustrated with drawings made by himself. Though the value of the work was recognized, he failed to find a publisher who would incur the expense and the risk of bringing out the book. At length, by Lord Brougham's advice, its publication was undertaken by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Lane, however, thought that he could improve the book by another visit to Egypt. He returned there in 1833, and remained for two years, during which he obtained much additional information and new insight. "The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" was issued in 1836, in two volumes of the Library of Entertaining Knowledge, illustrated with admirable woodcuts drawn by the author. Its success was immediate. Its accuracy, its fairness, and its completeness were universally recognized. It was characterized as "the most remarkable description of a people ever written;" and it remains to this day the standard authority on its subject.

Two years later, Lane published a new translation of "The Arabian Nights," which was the first accurate rendering of the tales, and is still the standard edition. The numerous Notes he appended to it were afterwards published as a separate work, with the title, "The Arabian Society in the Middle Ages." In 1843, he issued a volume of "Selections from the Kur-án." Before this work appeared, he had returned to Egypt again (1842), for the purpose of preparing what turned out to be the great work of his life -- his "Arabic Lexicon." He spent seven years in the country collecting material. The expense of the undertaking was generously borne by the fourth Duke of Northumberland, and after his death by his widow. Lane worked incessantly at the Lexicon for nearly twenty years before he allowed a line of it to go to press. When at last five quarto volumes of it appeared, beginning in 1863, it was at once accepted by the scholars of Europe as a work of the highest authority. He did not live, however, to see it finished. He died at Worthing, Sussex, August 10, 1876, when he had about completed his seventy-fifth year. The remaining portion of the Lexicon was published (1876-90) under the superintendence of his grand-nephew, S. Lane Poole, who also wrote his Life. Though no British university recognized Lane's merits, he was made a Doctor of Literature at the Tercentenary of the University of Leyden; and the Institute of France elected him a Corresponding Member. In his later years he received a Civil List pension from the British Government.

Reprinted from "Biographical Sketch" in An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians written in Egypt during the years 1833-1835. Paisley and London: Alexander Gardner, 1895, pp. [vii]-ix.