Wives of the famous

THE DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY 1986-90, OUP pounds 50

Between Biffy Dunderdale, intelligence officer, born 1899, and Lawrence Durrell, writer, born 1912, comes the person with the latest birthdate in this last volume of the old DNB. The date is 1945, and it belongs to Jacqueline du Pre. Taking a few liberties with the classic format, Yehudi Menuhin pays her a touching and eloquent tribute, among the best in the book. He guides us through her provenance, her years as prodigy, her teachers, her great performances, her marriage to Daniel Barenboim and her illness. Then, in the space allowed for answering the editor's question, "Any children?" Menuhin writes: "She had no children. In her final years she was saddened by her husband's relationship with Helena Bachkirev and the birth of their two children. At times she gave way to depression." This may have been no secret, but put like that, and in this company, it certainly leaps out of the page.

Compare it with the entry for Dora Gaitskell, Labour Party activist, human rights campaigner and wife to Hugh Gaitskell. "She proved," writes Lord Rodgers, "an affectionate and caring mother, creating a family life of a fairly traditional kind. She was confident in her husband's love and ultimate loyalty ..." It is in the word "ultimate", I suppose, that we are to discern his straying into the arms of Ann Fleming. No raw pain there.

Rodgers may not be wrong, and Menuhin may not be right; it is the charm of the DNB that its biographers so often manage to bend or break the rules, to rise above the format. Some, like Alan Bennett on Russell Harty and Bevis Hillier on Osbert Lancaster, achieve it with writerish flair, while others succeed with a single, tiny insight. This is the editor's achievement. Every entry ends with a list of sources, and most of those lists end with the words "private information" or "personal knowledge", or both.

The Victorian founders of the dictionary might not have approved, but it is probably as a result of this is that we learn a fair amount about people's sex lives. We read of Gerald Brenan that he was "obsessed by sex". Of the aviator Beryl Markham, that she was "exceptionally promiscuous". Of Jimmy Edwards that he allegedly had a long affair with an Australian female impersonator. Klaus Fuchs, we read, "formed a relationship at Harwell with an older woman who had psychiatric problems. She was married to a senior colleague of his who was also his close friend." No stranger to treachery, he. The economist Lord Kahn, meanwhile - rather like the cricketer Gubby Allen - "never married but never lacked for agreeable female company either".

If there is personal detail we like, there is some we could do without. The editor's insistence on naming not only wives or husbands but their parents and even, where possible, the father-in-law's line of business, is at best olde worlde and at worst over the top. If you actually read this volume (and yes, few apart from reviewers will do so) it quickly becomes preposterous. In the Olivier entry, for example, you will discover that Vivien Leigh's father was Ernest Richard Hartley, an exchange broker in Calcutta. The engineer Ben Lockspeiser married Elsie, "daughter of Alfred Shuttleworth, accountant, of Shuttleworth and Haworth, Manchester", and Kim Philby's third wife, Rufina, was "the daughter of an expert in the chemical treatment of furs". And then there is Ewan MacColl, who married Joan Littlewood "who did not know the identity of her father, but was brought up by a stepfather, Jimmy Morritt, asphalter". Mr Morritt's walk- on part may be intriguing, but it is surely irrelevant.

And the whole father-in-law business gets completely out of hand when people marry often, as with Rex Harrison (six times) and Hugh Carleton Greene (four). Husbands of distinguished women, who like scientists are better represented here than in previous volumes, get the same treatment.

The meat of this book, the part of which people will actually make use, is the famous doings of these people who are united only by the fact of having died in a four-year period, so the dates on the cover give a false impression. This is a book about the century, and some of the entries were born not long after the dictionary came into being in 1884. There are several, such as Lady Diana Cooper and Christopher Isherwood, who would have been included in the DNB had they died 50 years earlier, and there are many - very many - who owe their distinction to the war. Even some of the more modern figures, such as the trades union bosses, the Labour Cabinet ministers and the left-wing newspaper editors, seem from a distant time.

Now the series is over, and we must await the "New Dictionary of National Biography", which will take the sundry volumes and shake them all into a single alphabetical order. Wisely, the editors have decided that there should be no expulsions, even of the most insignificant and forgotten figures. Equally wisely, they have decided to edit: remarkable as she was, Queen Victoria (who naturally appeared in a much earlier volume) does not deserve 99,000 words. But they should resist a temptation, evident here, to give almost everybody around 900 words. Don Revie, for example, could do with rather less, and Wallis Simpson rather more.

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