- The Dictionary of National Biography: Missing Persons edited by C.S. Nicholls
Oxford, 790 pp, £80.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 19 865211 9
If anyone living in London around 1800 did not know Martin van Butchell by sight, Butchell himself was not to blame, for he used the most elaborate means to make himself conspicuous. At a time when almost no one but Jews wore beards, Butchell wore a long one – ‘full eight inches long’ – and insisted that women thought clean-shaven men were ‘incomplete’. He was in the habit of carrying a large white bone – it was, he claimed, a Tahitian club, invaluable for beating off anyone who sought to molest him. He rode round town on a white pony, painted sometimes with purple and black spots, sometimes purple all over. Butchell was an empiric who specialised in curing anal fistulae without surgery or the use of caustics or poultices; he also claimed to be able to cure impotence in men and barrenness in women. He displayed the embalmed body of his first wife in the parlour of his house in Mount Street. Every so often he look an entire column of the Morning Post to puff his practice, and his advertisements, written in an asthmatic, staccato prose with almost as many dashes as words, were an extraordinary and entertaining mixture of shameless boasting, radical politics, and testimonials from grateful patients whose every spelling mistake was faithfully preserved.
There is a brief life of Butchell in the first Dictionary of National Biography; it was written by Thompson Cooper, who had an eye for such characters, and who contributed over 1400 biographies, more than anyone else to the original dictionary. Cooper made no claims for Butchell’s importance as a physician, or as an innovator in the history of advertising, which he certainly was. For a person to be included in the DNB, there had to be a ‘probability that his career would be the subject of intelligent enquiry on the part of an appreciable number of persons a generation or more hence’. It was as a once-famous eccentric, a celebrity who had manufactured his own brief fame, that Butchell passed this test.
In the period of Butchell’s greatest celebrity Mary Hays published one of the very best late 18th-century novels, The Memoirs of Emma Courtney; a prolific writer, she also produced a six-volume dictionary of female biography, and may have been the author of an Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women. Understandably, the compilers of the DNB in its early years had a particular predilection for biographers, but they did not read the signs of the times so well as to believe that the careers of women, perhaps especially of feminists, would be of interest to future generations. Mary Hays was excluded, along with her feminist contemporaries, Mary Ann Radcliffe, author of the polemical Female Advocate, and the novelist and writer of children’s textbooks Eliza Fenwick, all of them apparently less important and influential than the fascinatingly insignificant Martin van Butchell.
Women weren’t the only people who found it hard to press for inclusion in the DNB from beyond the grave. Also excluded from the original edition were, for example, William Jardine and Sir James Matheson, the founders of the famous company which bear their name. Their refusal to agree to Chinese requests to desist from the opium trade led to the disgraceful Opium War of 1840-2, a war which Jardine suggested could be brought to an end by a simple negotiation: ‘You take my opium – I take your Islands in return – we are therefore Quits.’ Both men became household names during that war, and whether as the most famous drug-pushers in history, as honourable builders of the Empire, or as respectable Members Of Parliament and bankers – Matheson became one of the biggest financiers in the City – their absence from the original DNB can be explained only in terms of a prejudice of one sort or another, against unconvicted criminals, perhaps, or imperialists, or Scots. Most likely, however, they were excluded because their money came from trade, which seems a bit harsh in view of Jardine’s belief that dealing in opium was ‘the safest and most gentlemanlike speculation I am aware of’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.