It's fine, in theory. But posterity is a forgetful beast, and even the mighty Dictionary of National Biography has not been able to take the strain any longer. Too many of its children have disappeared without trace. Someone had to get out there and bring them home.
Missing Persons is the result: an inspired act of scholarship, and a generous one. In a way, the whole thing is a colossal public correction. The original 63- volume dictionary was compiled 100 years ago, and has been updated, in 10- year chunks, ever since. But the selection process, though it seemed encyclopaedic, was far from copper-bottomed. Some big fish slipped through: Wilfrid Owen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwen John, Dorothy Wordsworth, Wyndham Lewis, Bram Stoker, John Cadbury, Charles Laughton and Guy Burgess.
Well, anyone can make a mistake. But can the DNB really have forgotten Thomas Lord, the founder of MCC? It isn't hard to imagine the choleric bat- throwing in the famous old pavilion's Long Room when the members realised that Lord, with his 'formidable' underhand bowling, had not been selected. The DNB is no mere winter tour.
Naturally, our ideas about what is important have changed: plenty of the missing persons are women (the new book contains four times more than previous volumes). Very few military officers, on the other hand, seem to have been forgotten. Pearse and Connolly, I guess, were expelled for being treacherous rotters; and no one knew of Eric Liddell before Chariots of Fire, or Joseph Merrick before The Elephant Man, or Flora Thompson until the National Theatre revived Lark Rise to Candleford.
But the game of who's in and who's out, though intriguing, is not the main attraction. The colourful and industrious pageant of British life is represented, if anything, even more charmingly than ever. We are, in case we forget, a nation of drapers, explorers, suffragists, writers, stationers, spies, toymakers, chemists, vinegar makers, assassins, bare-knuckle boxers, nurserymen, divines, scholars, evangelists and God knows what else.
It is a bracing and rich mixture; and in rescuing from oblivion about a thousand less-than-familiar names, the book offers us a glimpse of a thousand archetypal lives. Best of all, it covers in one volume the whole story of these islands, moving from the age of great names like Alexander the Mason and William of Cornwall to the time of flickering moderns such as Stan Laurel and Donald Campbell.
The sheer range and brevity of it all throws a jolly spanner into the works of Britain's larger biography machine, which continues to crank out lives, and opinions about lives, in a highly efficient and mechanised manner. Already, this year, two brand-new models - the Churchill Controversy and the Wells Assault - have tumbled off the production line. Once more we are reminded that Britain is a nation that prefers authors to books. But what the DNB teaches us is that, as far as biographies are concerned, a page, or less, is the ideal length.
Here, for instance, is Eustace the Monk (1170-1217): 'Eustace studied black magic in Toledo, returned home to become a monk at the abbey of Saint Samer near Calais, and then left the monastery to avenge the murder of his father.' It is a shock to recall that Calais was a sort of offshore bit of Kent back then, but otherwise, what a fantastic sentence] Biography, narrated at this speed, for once has the force of poetry.
The book is full of these beautiful leaps. John Bellingham was an incompetent jeweller who visited Russia in 1804. When he returned, he went to the House of Commons and shot the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, with a pistol. Armed only with the bald facts, we have to wonder: was he a lone gunman, or was there mafia involvement? Probably we won't know for sure until the Oliver Stone film comes out.
Then there's Grey Walter, who 'specialised in classics and then in science' before becoming a top neurologist. What happened? Did he develop a twitch while reading Livy, and realise in a flash that he was more interested in the twitch than he was in the Punic Wars?
And consider this description of the cat-burglar Charles Peace: 'Semi-literate after a cursory schooling, he had a talent for music, being proficient enough with a violin to be billed in his teens
as the 'modern Paganini'. Despite his
artistic pretensions, he was apprenticed to a local steel mill, where two accidents left him with a permanent limp and the loss of three fingers of one hand.'
The star of the book, for my money, is Barbara Blaugdon, a leading Quaker preacher from Bristol. A single column is sufficient to relate a 95-year life in which she was imprisoned 12 times, accused of witchcraft and whipped. She was always being banished - yet never stopped going on about anti-Quakerism. On one tour she visited 'Molton, Barnstaple and Bideford, 'in all of which places a Prison was her Lot' '. She sounds like a real pain in the neck, and a true hero; it is thoroughly touching to find her still chafing away after a quite unjust 300-year posthumous exile.
But we can all find our own favourites, for this a huge and spacious book (730 pages). If it were a biography of Nixon or Kennedy or any modern bigwig, it would only be volume one. As it is, there are hundreds of lives to choose from. Nearly all of them are apt and highly charged with suggestive facts and tantalising dissonances. If the contemporary biography industry exists for no other purpose than to train up enough people to write the smart entries in this ongoing national encyclopaedia, it is probably worth it.