The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Fresh air in a hall of fame
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The Independent Culture

If you have noticed any writers or academics looking particularly hangdog and down-at-heel in recent years, this may well be because they are contributors to the new Dictionary of National Biography. Some 12,500 of them wrote the 50,000 articles chronicling the lives of nearly 55,000 dead Britons now published in 60 volumes and online. It is a magnificent national pantheon. But the new DNB was even harder to serve than the old, which employed Spartan methods "heartlessly enforced by the editor's vigilance".

The first editor of today's work, the late and much-lamented Colin Matthew, imposed testing tasks on his highly-honoured but lowly-paid contributors - of whom, to declare an interest, I am one. They had to provide abstruse financial and family details about their subjects. They had to give sources and references, which amount to 7.5 million of the 62.5 million words in the dictionary. And they had to struggle with conventions that sometimes seemed perverse. This was especially so in the matter of initial capital letters for proper names, about which the Oxford University Press has a phobia, though it capitulated, so to speak, over Labour Party and Gaiety Girl.

Equally tough are OUP's demands on reviewers, who had only a week to peruse the new DNB over the internet. Faults in its own software made the task harder during my trial period. So this notice can only be a rough draft of criticism, a preliminary attempt to assess one of the greatest literary enterprises ever to see the light of day.

Since editorial control was so strict and the prime purpose was to bring modern scholarship to bear on the subjects, it is reasonable to start with the odd slip. Hannen Swaffer is misspelled; PG Wodehouse's novel is The Swoop! not Swoop; Sir George Barlow was not the third of four sons. Neil Edmonstone's illegitimate family is ignored. "Anglo-Indian" is used inconsistently, sometimes mean- ing Eurasian and sometimes the English in India.

A more general complaint is that some of the articles smack of the textbook. Since so many standard authorities are holding forth on their chosen subjects, there is inevitably recapitulation, though perhaps nothing on the scale encountered by Leslie Stephen, editor of the old DNB, who found one contributor copying out his own articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The writing varies. There is some brilliance, more jargon and much plain, workmanlike prose. Gone, for the most part, is the solemn organ note that signalled the old DNB as the Valhalla of the Establishment.

The entries, too, are more eclectic, though the old DNB was less orthodox and more astringent than its reputation suggests. Stephen believed in the "real value of good, sweeping, outrageous cynicism". All the original subjects, notably a large clutch of clergymen, are included, their texts revised or rewritten. But 13,500 new entries feature a more representative selection of women, provincials, immigrants (Handel, Marx, etc), business and labour figures.

There are also a few jokers in the pack. Two mythical embodiments of the nation are included, Britannia and John Bull, the former first visible in rock reliefs in southern Turkey during the first century AD, the latter born soon after 1700 and "ludicrously obsolete" by 1900. Richard Davenport-Hines pens a suitably incisive essay on Jack the Ripper, "the first sexual killer commanding international notoriety", whose identity remains a mystery.

A number of hangmen also appear. Over the years, the profession apparently attracted a more respectable class of person. Victorian executioners were drunken bunglers who got £10 a drop. To make ends meet, they sold pieces of the rope as souvenirs and did floggings on the side - 10 bob a week with allowances for birch rods and cats. They finished up as entertainers, evangelists or suicides. By contrast, Albert Pierrepoint (1905-92) regarded the job as a sacred charge and left £125,000, having kept a pub called Help the Poor Struggler.

As this suggests, the new DNB is more unbuttoned than the old. It omitted parsons such as Edward Drax Free, guilty of theft, poaching and promiscuity, now vividly brought to life by Brian Outhwaite. Other such revelations abound. Jeremy Lewis gives a hilarious account of Barbara Skelton, who extended her "amorous favours" to King Farouk, even though he looked like "a huge sawdust teddy bear badly sewn at the joints" and lashed her with a dressing-gown cord. In his fine appreciation of Michael Ayrton, Tom Rosenthal makes no bones about his sexual adventures, starting with the seduction of his French mistress at school.

By the same token, the new DNB discloses genealogical facts that the old conceals. It said Charles Metcalfe "never married", whereas he actually had a Sikh wife and three sons, a fact omitted, as Chris Bayly trenchantly observes, "to spare the blushes of Victorian England". John Masters' Indian blood is now acknowledged.

No one showed more graphically than Joe Ackerley, included for the first time, the suffocating effect of such family secrets. True, there are still sexual lacunae. Colin Matthew only hints at Edward VII's whore-mongering. And Sarvep- alli Gopal is silent about the women whose "gross ardours" Nehru did not always resist, as piquantly described in his three-volume biography. But, again and again, the new DNB is a gust of fresh air.

As well as the fresh visual dimension, in the shape of 10,000 portrait illustrations, it has another supreme advantage over the old. Accessible in electronic form, it can be searched and cross-referenced in an exciting variety of ways. Tap in the word "moustache", and you get 390 entries, from Abbas Hilmi's waxed sabres, via Henry James Byron's "luxurious" (presumably, luxuriant) appendage, to Trenchard's soup-strainer, which "gave him the appearance of a friendly walrus". Tap in the word "scandal" and 49 pages of entertainment are there at your fingertips.

In short, despite the griping and nit-picking, this Dictionary of National Biography is a vast cornucopia of delight as well as an indispensable source of information. It is an unrivalled distillation of biographical knowledge and understanding. Many of the articles beggar praise. Alan Bell's offerings are miracles of concision, especially his capsule Leslie Stephen.

Martin Daunton writes with such lucidity as to make economic history seem almost comprehensible. Paul Addison's Churchill (he compares Winston to Richmal Crompton's William) is a miniature masterpiece.

It is unfashionable, these days, to believe with Carlyle that history is the essence of innumerable biographies. But if anything is calculated to change that fashion, it is the marvellous new DNB.

Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley: a panorama of the 1930s' is published by Pimlico