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Edward William Lane

Lane, in Turkish costume

Edward William Lane (17 September 1801, Hereford, England - 10 August 1876, Worthing, Sussex) was a British Orientalist, translator and lexicographer. He is known for his translation of "One Thousand and One Nights", which he censored (removing "immoral"), with the usual XIX-century view on "Victorian morality".

Lane was the third son of the Rev. Dr Theopilus Lane, and grandnephew of Gainsborough on his mother's side. After his father's death in 1814, Lane was sent to grammar school at Bath and then Hereford, where he showed a talent for mathematics. He visited Cambridge, but did not enroll in any of its colleges.

Instead, Lane joined his brother Richard in London, studying engraving with him. At the same time Lane began his study of Arabic on his own. However, his health soon deteriorated. For the sake of his health and of a new career, he set sail to Egypt.

Egypt Edit

He arrived in Alexandria in September 1825, and soon left for Cairo. He remained in Egypt for two and a half years, mingling with the locals, dressed as a Turk (the ethnicity of the then-dominant Ottoman Empire) and taking notes of everything he saw and heard. In Old Cairo, he lived near Bab al-Hadid, and studied Arabic, among others, with Sheikh Muhammad 'Ayyad al-Tantawi (1810–1861), who was later invited to teach at Saint Petersburg, Russia. He returned to England with his voluminous notes in the autumn of 1828.

Lane's interest in ancient Egypt may have been first aroused by seeing a presentation by Giovanni Battista Belzoni. His original ambition was to publish an account of what had remained of Ancient Egypt. The London publisher John Murray showed early interest in publishing the mighty project (known as Description of Egypt), but then retracted. At the suggestion of Murray, Lane expanded a chapter of the original project into a whole book. The result was his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The work was partly modeled on Alexander Russell's The Natural History of Aleppo (1756). The book became a bestseller (still in print), and won Lane a reputation.

Lane was conscious that his research was handicapped by the fact that gender segregation prevented him from getting a close-up view of Egyptian women - an aspect of Egyptian life that was of particular interest to his readers. He was forced to rely on information passed on by Egyptian men, as he explains:

Many husbands of the middle classes, and some of the higher orders, freely talk of the affairs of the ḥareem with one who professes to agree with them in their general moral sentiments, if they have not to converse through the medium of an interpreter. However, in order to gain further information, years later he would send for his sister, Sophia Lane Poole, so that she could gain access to women-only areas such as hareems and bathhouses and report on what she found. The result was The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo, written during a residence there in 1842, 3 & 4, with E.W. Lane Esq., Author of "The Modern Egyptians" By His Sister. (Poole’s own name does not appear.) The Englishwoman in Egypt contains large sections of Lane's own unpublished work, altered so that it appears from Poole's perspective (for example "my brother" being substituted for "I"). However, it also relates Poole's own experiences in visiting the hareems that were closed to male visitors such as her brother.

1001 Nights Edit

Lane's next major project was a translation of the One Thousand and One Nights. His version first saw light in monthly parts in the years 1838 to 1840, and was published in three volumes in 1840. A revised edition came out in 1859. The encyclopedic annotations were published, after his death, separately in 1883 by his great-nephew Stanley Lane-Poole, as Arabian Society in the Middle Ages. Lane's version is bowdlerized, and illustrated by William Harvey.

Opinions vary on the quality of Lane's translation. One comments, "... Lane's version is markedly superior to any other that has appeared in English, if superiority is allowed to be measured by accuracy and an honest and unambitious desire to reproduce the authentic spirit as well as the letter of the original." Yet another, "... [Lane's] style tends towards the grandiose and mock-biblical... Word order is frequently and pointlessly inverted. Where the style is not pompously high-flown, it is often painfully and uninspiringly literal... It is also peppered with Latinisms."

Lane himself saw the Nights as an edifying work, as he had expressed earlier in a note in his preface to the Manners and Customs,

"There is one work, however, which represents most admirable pictures of the manners and customs of the Arabs, and particularly of those of the Egyptians; it is 'The Thousand and One Nights; or, Arabian Nights' Entertainments:' if the English reader had possessed a close translation of it with sufficient illustrative notes, I might almost have spared myself the labour of the present undertaking."

Marriage Edit

In 1840, Lane married Nafeesah, a Greek-Egyptian woman who had originally been either presented to him or purchased by him as a slave when she was around eight years old, and whom he had undertaken to educate.

Dictionary and other works Edit

From 1842 onwards, Lane devoted himself to the monumental Arabic-English Lexicon, although he found time to contribute several articles to the journal of Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft.

Lane's Selections from the Kur-án appeared in 1843. It was neither a critical nor a commercial success. Moreover, it was misprint-ridden, as Lane was for the third time in Egypt, along with his wife, sister and two nephews, to collect materials for the planned dictionary, the Arabic-English Lexicon, when it was being printed.

Lane was unable to complete the dictionary. He had arrived at the letter Qāf, the 21st letter of the Arabic alphabet, when he died in 1876. Lane's great-nephew Stanley Lane-Poole finished the work based on his incomplete notes and published it in the twenty years following his death.

In 1854, an anonymous work entitled The Genesis of the Earth and of Man was published, edited by Lane's nephew Reginald Stuart Poole. The work is attributed by some to Lane.

The part concerning Cairo's early history and topography in Description of Egypt, based on Al-Maqrizi's work and Lane's own observations, was revised by Reginald Stuart Poole in 1847 and published in 1896 as Cairo Fifty Years Ago. The whole Description of Egypt was published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2000.

Lane's manuscripts and drawings are in the Archive of the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

Lane died on 10 August 1876 and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery.


Arberry, A. J.
Oriental Essays. George Allen & Unwin, London (England) 1960.
Irwin, R.
The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Allen Lane, London (England) 1994.
Irwin, R.
For Lust of Knowing. Allen Lane, London (England) 2006.
Lane, E. W.
An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt During the Years 1833, 34, and 35. Partly from Notes Made During a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, 26, 27 and 28. London (England) 1836.
Roper, G.
Texts from Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Role of E. W. Lane. In: Paul and Janet Starky (Eds.). Travellers in Egypt. I.B. Tauris, London (England) & New York NY (USA) 1998, 244–254.
Thompson, J.
Edward William Lane's 'Description of Egypt. In: International Journal of Middle East Studies 1996; 28 (4): 565-583.

Biographies of Edward William LaneEdit

Ahmed, L.
Edward W Lane. Longman, London (England) 1978.
Lane-Poole, S.
Life of Edward William Lane. Williams and Norgate, London (England) 1877.
Thompson, J.
Edward William Lane: The Life of the Pioneering Egyptologist and Orientalist, 1801-1876. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo (Egypt) 2010.


Adapted from the Wikipedia article, "Edward William Lane", used under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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