Originally compiled in 63 volumes between 1885 and 1900, the DNB was replenished decennially until 1985; supplementary volumes now appear every five years. Until this point, however, people judged unfit at the time of death were just excluded: this volume comprises the collective verdict of a long-delayed court of appeal. Taking account of changing fashion and taste (as well as of mere error), it adds 1,086 well-crafted and generally expert essays to the 29,120 already published. Obviously, such a book is useful only as a work of reference in the context of all the others. Nevertheless, this one is independently interesting, not least for the fun of seeing who was disregarded in the past.
Many names will be as unfamiliar now as they were at the time of their original non- appearance. Others are startlingly well- known. Was it carelessness, or sexism, that resulted in the earlier exclusion of Mrs Beaton, Bessie Braddock, Gwen John and Sylvia Pankhurst? Was it philistine or humourless censorship that caused Gerald Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Charles Laughton and Stan Laurel to be passed over? In some cases, the explanation is simply a time-lag in the building of a reputation (the Bedlam painter Richard Dadd, for instance); in others (engineers, left-wingers), it has been a matter of the erosion of snobbery or prejudice. Often, it was nothing but editorial ignorance. Christine Nicholls, the enterprising editor of Missing Persons, tackled the last problem by appealing through the press for nominations. An astonishing 100,000 flooded in, of whom 99 per cent failed the DNB's rigorous vetting procedure, at least until the next trawl.
This one extends from the 7th century to the 20th, from unjustly overlooked King Ecgfrith, whose lustrous reign 'suffered historically by comparison with Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu', his predecessors as rulers of Northumbria, to Alexander Thom, aerodynamicist and archaeologist, who died in 1985 in his 92nd year. (Ecgfrith was killed in battle near Forfar, exactly 1,300 years before the demise of Mr Thom who 'spent every summer accurately surveying megalithic sites on the west coast of Scotland'. So there is a sort of poetic link.) The business community and science do better than in the past, theologians less well. Although the gender gap is cut (12 per cent of entries are female, compared to 3 per cent hitherto), the addition of some 120 women to the tens of thousands of blokes doesn't do a lot to remedy this particular imbalance.
So who ought to be awarded a niche in the DNB? Ought the pantheon to contain shy violets as well as effective self- publicists? And is fame in itself enough? The editor does not answer this question, but she and her advisers have quite rightly made some highly subjective decisions, confirming the sense of quaintness about the notion of a 'national biography'.
To begin with, there is the problem of 'national', which here seems to incorporate not only the UK but also Southern Ireland before Partition and the colonies up to Independence, provided the 'national' in question is of British rather than local origin: this volume, like its predecessors, is rather thin on members of subject races. But when is a Britisher properly British? According to Nicholls, 'the rule was that entrants must have spent a considerable proportion of their working lives in the British Isles, whether or not they took British nationality'. So card-carrying Americans like Jennie Churchill and Sylvia Plath get in, on grounds of residency (and marriage). So, less explicably, does Alfred Sisley, who was born, educated and lived in France but happened to have an Anglo-French father.
Don't let's carp: Britain is short on painters, so we're happy to have him, along with that well-known British ballerina, Anna Pavlova. In this more open-minded epoch, it is also good to see a few members of the criminal classes, another hitherto discriminated-against group. Robin Hood, unfortunately, is not to be found, but there is a spirited item on Guy Burgess, Soviet spy, while multi-murderer John Christie is splendidly profiled by Ludovic Kennedy.
You have to be guilty: Timothy Evans, hanged for Christie's crimes, seems to have drawn the short straw again. You also have to be caught. Charles Peace (1832-1879), who was to cat-burgling what Christie was to wife-topping, gets here because of his incompetence. He 'showed no early aptitude, and was frequently arrested'. He subsequently learnt how to make a dishonest living, but was eventually taken into custody for murdering his lover's husband. Dispatched by train for trial at the Leeds Assizes, he slipped his manacles, and - though a guard held onto his shoe - leapt from the carriage window. He was later found unconscious in the snow.
Peace was not an educated man. Awaiting the gallows, he composed his own memorial card, ending with the words: 'For that I don (sic) but never intended.' The things people will get up to, just to earn an entry in the DNB. Then again, perhaps he would rather have stayed a missing person.