Should Linda McCartney join Elizabeth I in the revered bible of late, great Britons?

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The publishers of a new version of the definitive guide to the figures who shaped Britain have admitted to inflating the number of women listed to prevent the 60-volume work being dominated by men.

The publishers of a new version of the definitive guide to the figures who shaped Britain have admitted to inflating the number of women listed to prevent the 60-volume work being dominated by men.

The new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - the first overhaul since it was published more than a century ago - is one of the most ambitious publishing projects ever undertaken. Running to more than 60 million words, it will be the largest reference book ever written in English.

Compilers have now increased the number of entries for women three-fold because they felt their contribution had been overlooked. The updated version will put Diana, Princess of Wales on a par with important royal figures such as Queen Elizabeth I.

Oxford University Press is keeping a veil of secrecy over the new entries until publication late next month, but The Independent on Sunday has learnt that among those included are Linda McCartney, the late wife of former Beatle Sir Paul, the diplomat Pamela Harriman, who was also Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law, and the writer Virginia Woolf. It is all the more odd that Woolf never made it into the supplements to the original edition, given that it was compiled by her father, Leslie Stephen. The Russian-born, London-based ballet dancer Tamara Karsavina is among the lesser-known names included.

The number of new female entries has led to cries of "political correctness" and "lowering the bar" by the historian Dr David Starkey - charges the publisher denies. OUP says that many women who did not have a public profile during their lifetimes played important behind-the-scenes roles or made contributions in other areas not recognised when the book was devised in the 19th century.

The original version was published between 1884 and 1900 and updated with supplements that added notable figures who died in the ensuing decades until 1990, but there was no attempt to overhaul any of the previously published biographies. In all, there were just 1,759 women out of the 38,618 entries.

The new edition - to be published on 23 September - sees women making up 5,627 out of the 55,330 subjects covered. Its editor, Brian Harrison, said: "When you look for more women, you find them. We looked at charitable and voluntary activities [and] at the feminist movement, and through that you can include all the women MPs after 1918. There are also a number of women covered in group articles." These include entries on a group fighting for the right of women to study medicine, led by Sophia Jex-Blake.

The overhaul means that the contribution of those women who had previously been listed has been reassessed. The author Jane Austen had merited 1,400 words, but her biography now stretches to 19,400, while George Eliot has gone up from 4,900 to 13,500.

"It's not just because they're women [that the entries have been extended], but because they're great novelists," Mr Harrison said.

The more general portrayal of women in the dictionary has also changed. The entries for men have some explanation of the contribution their wives made to their careers.

But the historian and broadcaster Dr Starkey was dismissive of the new emphasis on women.

"This is typical of a certain type of political correctness that's becoming a part of all our lives," he said. "They have greatly lowered the bar. It is a very conscious attempt to move away from the traditional three Ss of Leslie Stephen: the soldier, the statesman and the scholar.

"We saw it with the re-invention of Mary Seacole, the Crimean War nurse, as opposed to Florence Nightingale.

"The old Dictionary of National Biography reflected England and Englishness in the 19th century. This reflects England as it's seen under Tony Blair."