British Worthies

David Cannadine

  • The Directory of National Biography, 1961-1970 edited by E.T. Williams and C.S. Nicholls
    Oxford, 1178 pp, £40.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 865207 0

‘Mr Stephen is editing a little dictionary,’ a friend explained to a clergyman foolhardy enough to ask whether Leslie ‘did any writing’. The enterprise in question was the DNB, one of those grandiosely-conceived and indefatigably-executed works of late 19th-century self-regard, comparable to the Victoria County Histories and the Survey of London. Year after year, at three-monthly intervals, the volumes plopped from the press, 63 in all, from Jacques Abbadie in 1885 to William Zuylestein in 1900, containing some thirty thousand pages on which 650 contributors recorded the details of 30,000 lives. And, as with the painting of the Forth Bridge, once this great Victorian monument was completed it was time to start all over again. In 1901, a three-volume supplement appeared, repairing important omissions from the original work, and adding in those worthies who had died since its appearance. Ten years later, another three volumes followed, spanning the decade from the death of Victoria to the demise of Edward VII.

Although he remained a regular and prolific contributor, Stephen had long since abandoned his editorial connection with the scheme. For an enterprise initially conceived with almost jaunty vagueness (‘I have been thinking a great deal,’ he recorded airily in the autumn of 1881, ‘about biographies, universal and otherwise’) had proved to be an unexpected treadmill, as the trials and tribulations of editorship tyrannised and tormented him. Contributors were constantly difficult, insanely verbose, excessively pedantic, obtusely antiquarian; suggestions for inclusion sometimes bordered on the absurd, as when a clergyman submitted a list of 1400 ‘important’ hymn-writers; the labour of reading, writing, checking, co-ordinating, corresponding and proof-reading was prodigious; and the regular deadlines every three months loomed inexorably and inescapably ominous. ‘Accursed’, ‘hideous’, ‘damned’, ‘diabolical’, ‘uninteresting’, ‘repulsive’, ‘infernal’ were some of the adjectives Stephen employed to describe his labours or his contributors. Eventually, in 1891, wifely protest combined with ill-health forced Stephen to relinquish the editorship to Sidney Lee, who had been his assistant since 1883, and it was under his equally indefatigable auspices that the original scheme was completed along with the first two supplements.

Their combined labours produced an enduring monument to national greatness and national enterprise. No other country, as Stephen and Lee frequently boasted with evident relish, could rival the DNB in scale, scope or speed. Austria, Germany, Holland and Sweden had all initiated similar schemes: but they had taken conspicuously longer, produced conspicuously less, and were all conspicuously incomplete. Moreover, by narrowing its scope from universal to British and Imperial biography, the Dictionary could satisfy the ‘commemorative instinct’ of the nation, providing as it did a uniquely comprehensive monument to past greatness. Rhetoric, sentiment and panegyric may all have been eschewed (‘No flowers, by request,’ as Alfred Ainger put it), but it remained the DNB’s purpose ‘to do the state some service’ by ‘helping the present and future generations to realise more thoroughly than were otherwise possible the character of their ancestors’ collective achievement, of which they now enjoy the fruits’. Furthermore, the DNB was a monument to entrepreneurial zeal. Elsewhere, similar schemes were often state-aided – which, it was clearly implied, was one of the reasons why they had failed. But, thanks to the willingness of the publisher, George Smith, to lose £70,000 on an outlay of £100,000, the DNB, ‘in accord with the self-reliant temperament of the British race’, was ‘the outcome of private enterprise and the handiwork of private citizens’.

Thus conceived and completed, embodying ‘the fruit of conscientious industry combined with the power of vivid and coherent delineation’, the DNB was established as an abidingly useful and incomparably wide-ranging work of reference. But it also reflected the limitations of its age and the prejudices of its creators. Written at a time when there was no real established or institutionalised school of historical research, it was riddled with errors and inaccuracies, especially in the early volumes. Stephen’s anti-clericalism ensured that religion received short measure in the early stages (Keble only merited three and a half pages, and St Alban and St Asaph had to wait until the supplement to get in), while Lee’s liking for literati (his first question about a potential subject was ‘what did he write?’) meant that authors were over-represented towards the end. Considering that the venture had been made possible by private enterprise, there were astonishingly few businessmen commemorated, and the number of women was negligible. Moral judgments came thick, fast and firm: there was to be ‘much discretion in dealing with a life’s moral disfigurements’, and only ‘occasionally’ was ‘the admission of sinners to the biographic fold’ allowed.

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