Monday, October 5, 2009

Scheherazade in England by Muhsin Jassim Ali

Scheherazade in England: A Study of Nineteenth-Century English Criticism of the Arabian Nights (1981). By Muhsin Jassim Ali, a mini review.

This book attempts to capture the reception of the Nights in England throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and despite its breadth does a good suggestive job at getting the ball rolling on critical studies surrounding the Nights. It is one of the few books about the influence of the Nights in European literature on a general level and one of the few focusing primarily on the critical reception of the Nights particularly.

The book’s (forgivable) failings include a sort of patchwork design that never seems to congeal underneath one clear and specific thesis. This is due, I suspect, to the book’s attempts at such a broad topic but what needs to be better stated is what the main argument is beyond the general notion that the Nights and their versions had individualistic influences on England and Europe. Also despite stating that his goal was to differentiate between the versions of the Nights and how the various critics responded to them at times it seems like it’s uncertain which version is being talked about.

One of the many positive things about the book its insistence that the different versions of the Nights were both reflective of different historical periods and also had different impacts as well. This is a main feature of my own study, just in its beginning stages really, but I’d like to insist that each manifestation of the Nights, from Mahdi to Disney and beyond, has its own unique set or sets of varying elements that are both suggestive of some notion of the past versions of the Nights but also carry with them their own unique sets of influences which have varied throughout history quite dramatically.

Another good point is that most of the focus of the book is on what critics say about the Nights in the pages of the periodicals and books of the time, a focus on evidence like this certainly points to some revealing and more general understandings of what the Nights was seen as at the time. This should though be done with caution as many studies I’ve seen (and even done!) have glossed over the journals themselves, several journals of the 19th century for example were decidedly pro-Burton because of Burton’s affiliation with those journals (or anti-Burton if it were the case), and of course the critics and editors all had their own agendas as well, which needs to be accounted for in any serious study.

Here are some quotes and points I found interesting:

“Excepting Sheila Shaw’s remarks on the value of Galland’s version for eighteenth-century fiction (Muslim World, XLIX [1959], 232-38; PMLA, XC [Jan. 1975], 62-68), there is virtually nothing written on the necessity of classifying and interpreting the impact of and responses to such various editions as those of Galland, Edward William Lane (1838-1841), John Payne (1882-1884), and Richard Burton (1885-1888). Central to my argument is the premise that these translations or redactions reveal much about contemporary predilections, and must be seen as significant signs of the prevailing literary concerns of the times” (6-7).

“Beyond the emphasis on the Nights as a useful repository of information, there was a growing concern to verify this information by a study of the original manuscripts. Perhaps it was no longer entirely safe to trust the Galland version. Accordingly, by the end of the [18th] century, critics and scholars were insisting that fully accurate translations of the tales be undertaken. No sooner was the authenticity of Galland’s version vindicated than Richard Hole and others called for an erudite, well-annotated and scholarly edition of the Nights” (27) - with note 45: “For a discussion of the authenticity of Galland’s version, see Gentleman’s Magazine, LX-VIII (Sept. 1798), 757; LXIV (1794), 784; and Monthly Review, XXIX (1799), 475” (35).

“Rather than revealing a uniform and consistent appreciation of Scheherazade’s aesthetics, a careful reading of nineteenth-century literary responses will indicate diverse and varying estimates and evaluations that form integral parts of the raging literary controversies of the day. Whereas the reading public as well as romantic critics saw in the very enjoyment of these recognizable beauties the sole pupose [sic] of reading, others, especially mid-Victorian critics, devoted a great deal of their time and energy to the study and analysis of the tales from contemporary perspectives” (74).

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