Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Growing up with the Arabian Nights

Henry Layard (1817-1894) became famous as the archaeologist who excavated the Assyrian palace at Nineveh, filling the British Museum with giant winged bulls. In this passage from his autobiography he describes his childhood in Italy:

I profited little from my schooling at Signor Rellini’s Istituto, except that I obtained there that acquaintance with the Italian language which in after days was a source of so much pleasure, and of so much use to me. For such general knowledge as I acquired, and for the development of a taste for Literature and the Arts, I was indebted to my father. He was fond of reading, and possessed a small, but not ill-selected library. His favourite authors were those of the Elizabethan age. He taught me to appreciate and enjoy the plays of Shakespeare and Spenser’s “Faerie Queene.” Occasionally he read aloud to me passages from the plays of Ben Jonson, and other dramatists of the time, whose works he did not think it desirable to place in my childish hands. He admired the style of Hume, whose “History of England” I read with him. He was also fond of reciting the verses of “Peter Pindar” with me.

I had my own favourite books in which I was allowed freely to indulge. Before I had reached my thirteenth year, I had read all the novels of Walter Scott then published. But the work in which I took the greatest delight was the “Arabian Nights.” I was accustomed to spend hours stretched upon the floor, under a great gilded Florentine table, poring over this enchanting volume. My imagination became so much excited by it that I thought and dreamt of little else but “jins” and “ghouls” and fairies and lovely princesses, until I believed in their existence, and even fell in love with a real living damsel. I was deeply smitten with the pretty sister of one of my school-fellows. I fancied I had a rival in an English boy of my own age. We quarreled in consequence, and as we were both taking lessons of a fencing master, we determined to settle our differences in mortal combat with foils without the buttons. How we were prevented carrying out our bloody intentions I now forget.

My admiration for the “Arabian Nights” has never left me. I can read them even now with almost as much delight as I read them when a boy. They have had no little influence upon my life and career; for to them I attribute that love of travel and adventure which took me to the East, and led me to the discovery of the ruins of Nineveh. They give the truest, the most lively, and the most interesting picture of manners and customs which still existed amongst Turks, Persians and Arabs when I first mixed with them, but which are now fast passing away before European civilization and encroachments. (Autobiography, v. I, 25-27)

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