This post tells the life story of an Arabic manuscript of folk tales. The manuscript is not particularly old, nor particularly beautiful, but it has a curious tale of its own. My interest was sparked by the spine of the Victorian binding, which does not bear the title or author of the work, but instead describes the book as follows: “Arabic M.S. given to Miss Gurney by Mrs. Leider”. This provenance was obviously of importance to the owner, but who were these women?
It is frustrating when trying to identify women in historical sources that not only are their first names often hidden but that on marriage they usually took their husband’s surname. In Mrs Leider’s case, that surname is likely to have been misspelled. My favourite candidate for the role is a remarkable woman by the name of Alice Holliday, who in about 1838 married the missionary Revered Johann Rudolph Theophilus Lieder in Cairo. Jaromir Malek notes that “the name is sometimes rendered in a distorted fashion, e.g. Leider, Leeder, or Lieders” ( ‘The Monuments Recorded by Alice Lieder in the ‘Temple of Vulcan’ at Memphis in May 1853’ ). For many years Alice Lieder successfully ran the Mission school for girls. Malek paints an intriguing portrait: “Judging by the accounts of travellers who visited Cairo in the 1840s and 1850s and met her there, Mrs Lieder was a very enlightened and exceptionally determined woman who occasionally proved very much too independent for her male contemporaries” – a description reminiscent of Enriqueta Rylands, the founder of this Library.
In his article, Jaromir Malek also relates the story that Mrs Lieder “taught the wife and two daughters of Ibrahim Pasha in his harem” – which leads to a tempting (but unsubstantiated) hypothesis regarding her acquisition of the manuscript. This manuscript was written by a Christian Copt in 1129AH (1717CE), possibly for a Cairo contemporary named Yūsuf Qumṣ. Alice and Johann Lieder had a close relationship with the Coptic community in Cairo (see article by Paul Sedra) and are known to have collected Egyptian antiquities (see the British Museum blog). Indeed, the core of the manuscript collection in the John Rylands Library was formed by Lord Lindsay, Earl of Crawford. His collection of “Oriental manuscripts” began during his visit to Egypt in 1836-7, on which he met Rev. Lieder and acquired through him an illuminated manuscript of the Koran.
To the question “Who was Miss Gurney?” the simple answer is that I don’t know. There are a number of highly educated and cultured women bearing the Quaker family name of Gurney. To narrow it down we can look to the later life of the manuscript. It was sold to the John Rylands Library in 1922 by “Mrs Braithwaite” having previously belonged to “J.B. Braithwaite”. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Joseph Bevan Braithwaite (1818-1905) had a substantial library, which had grown from a collection of books given to him by Joseph John Gurney in 1834. Joseph was particularly close to his eldest sister, the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (the Library holds her heavily annotated Bible). However, she married in 1800 – probably before Alice Holliday was even born. Perhaps “Miss Gurney” was Joseph’s daughter Anna who married John Backhouse in 1843, but died in 1847 aged only twenty seven. Another possible candidate is Joseph’s cousin Anna Gurney (1795-1857), an Anglo-Saxon scholar proficient in many languages. We may never know for certain.
This manuscript (Arabic MS 658 (819)), along with the Rylands’ sixteenth century manuscript of Arabian Nights, is currently on display in Paris as part of the “Les Mille et Une Nuits” exhibition at the Institut de Monde Arabe. If you have any evidence or information about which would help identify the previous owners of this manuscript, I would very much like to hear from you.