Marvel at this biography of our nation

Even something so immense can only preserve our own prejudices and false judgements

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Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is one of those huge, imperial projects of the Victorian mind which sought to bring everything that could possibly be known about a subject under one metaphorical roof. Like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the
Oxford English Dictionary, the phenomenon of the department store, the Great Exhibition of 1851, or, indeed, the British Empire itself, its air of completeness is alluring and exciting, and only slowly starts to look like a ramshackle and dubious operation. In its original form, it would like us to marvel at what has been included; after a while, we start to wonder at what has been left out, and why.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is one of those huge, imperial projects of the Victorian mind which sought to bring everything that could possibly be known about a subject under one metaphorical roof. Like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Oxford English Dictionary, the phenomenon of the department store, the Great Exhibition of 1851, or, indeed, the British Empire itself, its air of completeness is alluring and exciting, and only slowly starts to look like a ramshackle and dubious operation. In its original form, it would like us to marvel at what has been included; after a while, we start to wonder at what has been left out, and why.

The old DNB is an absolutely extraordinary thing, and a constant pleasure to consult. It is utterly of its late 19th-century period, with its utter certainties of what really matters in life. Royalties, the Church, politicians and the aristocracy are given pride of place, and some of them are treated very extensively indeed - the entry for Queen Victoria is 100,000 words long, which amounts to a good-sized book.

The driving force behind the old DNB was the idea that the lives of the distinguished went to make up the reality of national life. Even to a man as cultured and sophisticated as Sir Leslie Stephens, founder of the DNB, the lives of artists, writers and musicians were not so obviously worthy of respect, and they come off less well. Similarly, there was, at the start, a slight sense that celebrity was not quite enough, and a certain aura of moral exemplitude hung over those whom the DNB treated at greatest length.

That, happily, didn't last long, and with the publication of the supplements - an activity which has continued until extremely recently - a laxer approach has crept in. People who have contributed less than nothing to national life have been permitted coverage, such as the MP John Stonehouse. Very pleasing, too, is the vein of sly joking which has always characterised some of the DNB's contributors, seeing what they can get past the austere editors. Famously, the entry for the lecherous homosexual don Oscar Browning straight-facedly asserts that in later life, he "assisted young Italians, as he had done young Englishmen, towards the openings they desired".

The old DNB is an amazing period piece - fascinating, but long outdated in its attitudes and usefulness. The single most notorious fact about it is that it contains a very small number of entries about women, and many of those accounted for by queens and princesses - the DNB's treatment of even very distinguished women novelists and poets can, in many cases, seem astonishingly brief and dismissive. The small number of entries for women may, in part, be accounted for by the difficulty of women's lives before the 20th century, and the very few fields in which they could possibly make any kind of mark. But that doesn't account for the whole of it, and the DNB's attitude in this area has long ago started to seem embarrassingly dated.

We like to think that we are without blind spots, and our interests are much more inclusive, our freedom to comment much wider. But I doubt it will seem like that in the future. I remember reviewing a volume of a supplement to the DNB a few years ago, and being struck by the fact that there were still, evidently, aspects of people's lives which the dictionary found unmentionable. The project had reached the point where it was happy to describe individual subjects as "womanizers", and to note, without euphemism, when someone was homosexual. However, I looked quite long and hard, failing to find any direct allusion to the fact that some of its subjects had been lesbians - that, until quite recently, may have remained unmentionable.

The oddest omission, I remember, was a very personal one, and one which suggests the curious negotiations and civilities which precede any kind of obituary comment. Through dozens if not hundreds of euphemistic personal descriptions, you would wade, quite unable to find any admission whatsoever that the subject had been, in plain terms, fat. Imposing, yes; sturdy, yes; even, at a push, "substantial"; but to my amusement, no one among the contributors to the DNB ever seemed willing to admit in a single word that the person they were talking about was fat.

The DNB long ago reached the point where its strange emphases and omissions could not be filled by a series of supplements, however well done on their own terms. Twelve years ago a new DNB was commissioned, which now appears in 60 volumes. Most of it has been at least rewritten, if not entirely recommissioned, and evidently to the highest standards. I haven't even begun to read it, but if you sign up on the website, they will send you a random life every day - a charming idea, and the other day I had a really excellent short life of Hazlitt by the very distinguished Jonathan Bate.

Lots of new things about the DNB seem like terrific innovations. I particularly like the idea of ending the entries, where possible, with how much money each person had when they died. I can't be the only person who finds the "Wills" sections in the Births, Marriages and Deaths pages utterly fascinating.

From what I've seen, it looks as if they've got an entirely proper determination to remain aloof and Olympian, even when dealing with very fraught subjects. The entry for Diana, Princess of Wales, is amused in a superior way about those who regarded her as a martyr, asking very properly in what cause she was thought to be martyred. The bishops are apparently down in number, and treated with less automatic respect; in their place are imaginative entries for mythical figures, such as the figure of Britannia or King Arthur, and composite entries for such groups as the Tolpuddle Martyrs - well, I don't know what their names were either.

The controversial aspect of it, it seems to me, is in the evident determination to hoick up the number of women which the book covers. There is no chance whatsoever of getting equal numbers of men and women; even the lesser proportion which the DNB has settled for has required them to cover people who, if they had been men, might not have been found to justify inclusion.

There is, for instance, an entry for Jill Dando. Now, Miss Dando was a familiar figure on television programmes about holidays, and she was murdered in a horrifying way, which for various reasons absorbed the newspapers for a long time. But who in 30 years' time will ever have cause to look her up?

Well, I suppose it's conceivable that some fashionable novelist of the time referred to her casually, and in the end the DNB could prove quite helpful. Moreover, it's completely against the spirit of the DNB to complain about inclusiveness - the more inclusive the better, and with 60 volumes, it would be fairly extraordinary if they'd left out anyone of any fame at all.

But the important thing to remember is that this, extensive as it is, is almost certainly not definitive, or ultimately fair. Even something so immense can only preserve our own prejudices and false judgements, as well as catching a moment, and showing future generations what we thought was important and worthy of comment. In 100 years' time, readers will think the entry on Jill Dando as odd as we think the old DNB's entries on bishops. That doesn't matter: this becomes a historical document as soon as it hits the shelves.

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