This, I regret to say, is the question raised in my mind by the publication last week of the latest volume of The Dictionary of National Biography. Not so very long ago, the DNB was the least prurient of works, ruthlessly excluding all reference whatsoever to the swings and roundabouts of a person's private parts. Indeed, it is only within living memory that reference to marriage and any subsequent progeny has been included.
Any hint of homosexuality (dread word!) was rightly disguised. The entry for Lord Alfred Douglas, for instance, states that "throughout his life, he distinguished himself on the rugger field and in the gymnasium, and his devotion to such manly pursuits allowed him little time for courtship of the sissier sex". And Rebecca West wrote with exquisite tact of Noel Coward, "There was impeccable dignity in his relationships with the young; his manner towards them was always reticent but untouched by pretence." How much more appropriate than the infinitely more vulgar, "He would chase them round the room lunging at their behinds, yelling 'Gerremoff!' at the top of his exquisitely modulated voice."
O Tempora, O Mores! Some 30 years ago I was taken into the confidence of the then editor of the DNB, Sir John "Poppity" Standing, for discussions on who was or who was not worthy of entry.
"I would very much like to enter Somerset Maugham," he suggested.
"Quite, quite." I said in reply. "But let's get back to work." Thenceforward, our talks were always supremely businesslike, revolving around which colleague might write with objective authority on the candidate we had selected. Sometimes we talked in Oxford over a decanter of sherry; at other times we would foregather in a private room at the Gentlemen's Turkish Baths off the Finchley Road. We had our differences, but on one matter we were in agreement: we would never peep through the keyhole into the bedroom of our subjects, nor would we ever rummage through their underwear and/or bed-linen for tell-tale stains.
In retrospect, I would say we acquitted ourselves exceedingly well, never allowing our subject's greater qualities to be subsumed in a spurious mist of depravity, licentiousness and general indecency. This is not to say that one or two of our subjects did not tax our powers of discretion. For example, it seemed to me quite clear that our entry for King Henry VIII should on no account sink to mentioning his unfortunate record in the marital stakes. Not for us to parade details of his indiscretions and infidelities, if any, before an all-too-prurient public. "King Henry VIII was happily married throughout his life, and proved it over and over again," I wrote, and left it at that. And of King Edward VIII, I managed deftly to pull a veil over less fortunate episodes in his life, for instance declaring his reign to have been "a long and happy one", adding that to the end of his days he "remained unencumbered by marriage".
Of all our distinguished entries from the field of medicine, Doctor Crippen proved the trickiest. We decided against mentioning that unfortunate business of the bones in the broom-cupboard, preferring to concentrate on his love of travel, and the way in which he would generously "sacrifice everything he could for the young and the talented". I performed similar acts of responsible authorship upon such diverse characters as Judge Jeffreys ("firm, perhaps - but never less than fair"), Guy Fawkes ("his love of the practical joke may, on occasion, have veered towards the excessive"), and Captain Hook ("overcame his physical disability with notable courage in order to devote himself all the more fully to the pursuit of children").
The standards of probity and decency we set in those far-off days have found little purchase in the most recent edition of the DNB. Not only are we informed when a subject marries more than once, but we are also invited to peer into his darkest secrets. Do we really wish to know that Sir Oswald Mosley "showed fascistic leanings"? Or that the late Russell Harty was "a television personality"? There are some things best left to the imagination - a lesson lost upon the present editors, alas.