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.

News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower