Our Island Story

Stefan Collini

  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography edited by H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison
    Oxford, sixty volumes, £7,500.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 19 861411 X

A dictionary is, first and foremost, a practical resource; its usability when subjected to a variety of everyday scholarly demands must be the chief test of its worth. But a work on the scale of The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is bound also to be seen as much more than a reference tool: as, by turns, a statement of national identity, an occasion for communal pride, a showcase for contemporary historical scholarship, a piece of swagger publishing, and, less directly, a stay against oblivion, a giant memorial slab designed to stir thoughts on fame and obscurity, on mortality and immortality.

And then there’s the respectable nerdiness of it all. Leslie Stephen, founding editor in the 1880s of the original DNB, hoped that it would turn out to be one of the ‘most amusing’ of books. This remark may have to be interpreted in the light of the fact that Stephen’s own preferred form of ‘amusement’ involved hanging by his fingertips from a ledge on the Matterhorn in the middle of a blizzard, but it is true that an abundance of pleasure, of a certain kind, is to be had from the 60 volumes assembled by his successors. As ways of simultaneously wasting one’s time while increasing one’s knowledge, they leave skinny tomes such as Wisden or Whitaker’s Almanack standing.

Since its carefully orchestrated launch at the end of September, this extraordinary publication has hardly lacked for attention (‘the greatest book ever’, according to the Daily Mail), and by now readers may be weary of hearing about the 62 million words, the 10,000 contributors, the 587 miles of sewing thread, the four tons of glue, the entries on the earliest known importer of garden gnomes or the 18th-century woman who claimed to have given birth to 17 rabbits. Stephen expressed characteristic anxiety as the moment approached when his first volumes would ‘come before the infernal body of reviewers’ (the original DNB marched through the alphabet at a rate of four volumes per year rather than being published as a complete set), and at a later point, when he guessed the authorship of a forthcoming review in the Quarterly Review, he anticipated the worst from someone ‘who always pays us a big compliment or two and then nags at us all through the article’. The publication of the ODNB has been the occasion for many ‘big compliments’ and rather little nagging. Well-meaning colleagues have rushed to provide me with examples of errors, but since every visit to shelf or screen has left me in a state of head-shaking amazement at the quantity of exact information packed into its pages, I feel no inclination to nag. Moreover, the ODNB, exploiting the resources of electronic publication, will henceforth be a continuing operation, so corrections should be sent direct to Oxford for incorporation in the updatings (the first of which is already online). What it may be appropriate to do here, apart from applauding, is to reflect on the assumptions implicit in the inclusions and exclusions, the style and content of the entries, and the general strategy of the enterprise, and to consider in what ways, if any, these may be thought to differ from those informing the original DNB.

The project of undertaking a national biographical dictionary was first announced at Christmas 1882, and already by March 1885 Stephen was mock-moaning to Edmund Gosse: ‘I have made more enemies in these two years than in ten years of editing the Cornhill. One man signed himself the other day “your justly incensed enemy” – because I had not asked him to write articles already assigned to others and he is not an extreme example of the antiquarian.’ As copy started to arrive, Stephen wailed over ‘the insane verbosity of the average writer’, and he cut some contributions by more than half. One enemy he certainly made was Alexander Balloch Grosart DD, who was invited to contribute several entries for the first volumes, principally on 17th-century divines. As early as October 1883, Stephen was complaining that he had ‘had my usual letter of abuse from that old fool Grosart’, but things took an altogether more serious turn when it was discovered, very late in the day, that Grosart had not only reproduced, without acknowledgment, entries he had already published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but had resorted to inventing some of his sources as well. This discovery entailed much revision and checking of entries, delaying the publication of the first volumes. Stephen feared the whole project would be shipwrecked by this ‘clerical scoundrel’ (‘his DDship gives an extra flavour to my execrations,’ the firmly anti-clerical Stephen noted), but with the help of his indefatigable assistant and eventual successor, Sidney Lee, the ship was put back on an even keel. Curiously, although the Grosart debacle, fully documented in John Bicknell’s edition of Stephen’s letters, is briefly mentioned in Alan Bell’s exemplary entry on Stephen in the ODNB, these misdemeanours make no appearance in Arthur Sherbo’s entry on Grosart.

Thereafter, the DNB maintained its announced schedule most impressively, reaching the end of the alphabet with the four volumes published in 1900, and completing the enterprise with three supplementary volumes in 1901 designed to remedy obvious omissions (as well as providing the opportunity to include the recently deceased queen). The achievement was hailed as bearing out the familiar truths of national character. The dictionary had been undertaken by the publisher George Smith as a piece of private enterprise, with no official or institutional backing, and it had been brought to completion in record time by a very small staff. Less fortunate nations, in whom the spirit of liberty and energy of ‘character’ had been suppressed by centuries of tyranny and regulation, may have committed public funds to corresponding enterprises, but their progress had been slower and the outcomes less glorious. ‘Our British lexicographers,’ the Athenaeum declared in 1900, ‘have had the satisfaction of administering a handsome beating to their most formidable competitors, the Germans.’ Our dictionary had ‘trotted the distance’ in little more than half the time it had taken the initiative-lacking Teutons ‘to waddle through the alphabet’.

The ODNB has operated with a far larger and better qualified team of research editors than Stephen and Lee had at their command, and one assumes that any contemporary Grosarts were picked up early on (though there may continue to be minor alarums, such as the recent spat over the entry for Patrick O’Brian). Nonetheless, a not dissimilar kind of sleep-disturbing responsibility fell on its editor, and the project was fortunate to find the ideal man for the job in the Oxford historian Colin Matthew, who had demonstrated his capacity for the task in his monumental edition of the Gladstone diaries. Matthew became the founding editor of the ODNB in 1992, and much of the credit for both the conception and the early stages of execution of the work clearly belongs to him. When he died suddenly in 1999 at the age of 58, the structure he had created proved its durability, and his successor, Brian Harrison, another Oxford historian, was able to bring the whole enormous project to completion on the date that Matthew had laid down 11 years before. It is tempting to think of Matthew and Harrison as the Stephen and Lee of the ODNB, though Harrison, his task completed, has now stepped down and handed the oversight of the continuing life of the dictionary to a third Oxford-based historian, Lawrence Goldman. An incidental but peculiarly fitting consequence of Matthew’s early death was that he qualified for inclusion himself, an entry done quite beautifully by his friend and colleague, Ross McKibbin.

So what are the criteria for inclusion, aside from being dead? These have been stated in slightly different terms at different stages in the project, but the most inclusive brief formula is that subjects must have ‘in some way influenced national life’. But what individual has not ‘in some way’ ‘influenced’ the ‘life’ of the society in which they lived? On the broadest construal, this would issue in a comprehensive prosopography of everyone who had ever lived in a given territory (and of a good many who lived outside it). In practice, the ODNB has interpreted the criterion in a relaxed and pragmatic way: the emphasis on ‘national’ life is not just a stab at delimiting the geographical spread but has also been taken to mean that a candidate must in some way have come to the notice of a world beyond their own immediate circle. The upshot is a gathering that extends far beyond ‘the Great and the Good’, ‘the establishment’ or ‘the nation’s heroes’, as is suggested by the above-cited cases of Mary Toft (1703-63, ‘the rabbit-breeder’) and Sir Charles Isham (1819-1903, ‘rural improver and gardener’).

The ODNB’s greater inclusiveness is one of the ways it differs not just from its predecessor but also from Who’s Who, often regarded in the 20th century as the ante-chamber to the DNB. In that curious publication, archaic categories such as pedigree and social rank still apply, alongside office, achievement and, erratically, celebrity; its listings evince a certain nostalgia, in a world where it is very hard to say who is who any more, for a time when viscounts outranked baronets, and when cooks and dressmakers knew their place (not at the top of the bestseller lists). The ODNB is in several ways more democratic: mere rank (at least in the modern period, and below a certain level) won’t get you in, but committing a murder that makes you a ‘household name’ will (indeed, being the victim of murder will do it as well in some cases).

Broadly speaking, there are seven main sociological layers of subjects. First, there’s the burial in the Abbey layer: monarchs, statesmen, prelates. Next, the land and glory crowd: owning a lot of acres and killing a lot of foreigners have ever been among the most reliable passports to distinction in British life. Then there’s the Athenaeum Club: judges, writers, civil servants, scientists, professors. Next comes the Institute of Directors: the controllers of capital and the boss class generally. After that, the Hello! gang: the celebrated, the notorious, the newly rich, the eternally shameless. Then we have the historical oddities: the very old, the very weird, the very unlikely. And finally, the ‘would have been invited to the Buckingham Palace garden party’ category: local notables, top nurses, holders of gongs.

One way to see implicit hierarchies at work among these groups is to consider the length of the various entries, since these were laid down by the editorial team and represented an attempt to secure broad parity of treatment for individuals of broadly comparable ‘importance’. It is mildly paradoxical that a figure about whose life we know very little emerges by this measure as the undisputed Top British Person: William Shakespeare (1564-1616, ‘playwright and poet’) is allotted more than 30,000 words, a length achieved only by devoting a large proportion of them to various aspects of his literary after-life – about which, of course, we know a good deal more. The usual suspects are close on his heels – Elizabeth I (1533-1603, ‘queen of England and Ireland’), Cromwell (1599-1658, ‘Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland’), Wellington (1769-1852, ‘army officer and prime minister’), Victoria (1819-1901, ‘queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India’), Churchill (1874-1965, ‘prime minister’), and so on. So far, so conventional, though none of this comes close to the monstrous exercise in sycophancy represented by the decision to include in the original DNB an entry of 93,000 words on Queen Victoria. That entry was written by Lee himself, and, as the historian A.F. Pollard drily noted, it ‘ran to double the length of Shakespeare, though in her case bibliographical detail was as scanty as biographical was in Shakespeare’s’.

Not many figures, it should be said, qualify for treatment at anything like this length. Harrison’s informative introduction to the dictionary tells us that the average length of entries is 1087 words. Since the tariff for even middle-ranking literary and intellectual figures (the areas where my interests have largely dictated my use of the dictionary) seems to start at around 3000 words, and since most of the people the reasonably well-educated reader would have heard of in any sphere receive more than this, that average underlines just how inclusive the ODNB is. It is worth adding that one further way to qualify for inclusion was to have been in the old DNB. One of the most controversial early editorial decisions was to retain every subject from the DNB, even though one or two of them turn out never to have existed. In some cases, entries have merely been revised, but in the majority of cases entirely new entries have been commissioned. Given the constituency that responded most enthusiastically to Stephen’s request for suggestions in the 1880s, this decision has resulted in the inclusion of disproportionate numbers of minor clergymen.

A lot of fuss has been made about how the ODNB defines (or fails to define) ‘the nation’, but commentary soon gets mired in the intractable problems of defining such an entity in the case of the inhabitants of this particular north-west European archipelago over more than two millennia. From the point of view of the purists, the rot sets in early in this respect. Some may be pleased to find that the national history begins with a hoax: the chronologically earliest ‘figure’ is Piltdown Man (supp. fl. four million BC, ‘archaeological hoax’). Then comes Leir or Lear (supp. fl. c.820 BC, ‘king of Britain’), followed by several other equally doubtful types whose inclusion prompts the thought that although subjects must be dead to merit inclusion, there is no equally stringent requirement about having lived in the first place; even some very dodgy figures such as ‘Friar Tuck’ (fl. 15th century, ‘legendary outlaw’) get in. The chronologically earliest subject who indisputably existed is Pytheas (fl. fourth century BC, ‘explorer’), a Greek who wrote the first known account of ‘Britain’, and he is followed by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC, ‘politician, author and military commander’), one of the first to have thought it was time Britain joined the larger European community.

While it is easy to see the merits of taking a fairly relaxed and inclusive view on the nationality question for the earliest periods, a certain arbitrariness is bound to become more obvious the nearer one gets to the present. Hitler and Stalin ‘influenced the nation’s life’ more than most in the 20th century: the idea of their inclusion immediately strikes us as perverse, but would it really possess any greater logic if Hitler had, say, visited his troops at their Kent bridgehead in 1940? The porousness of the ‘nation’ as a category is most tellingly exhibited in the case of American subjects. OUP has been understandably keen to enhance the appeal of the dictionary in the United States; the inclusion of more than 700 inhabitants of the American colonies before 1776 is one cunning but defensible way to do this. But how thereafter are the discriminations to be made, given that relations remained so close for so long? Presumably, we have Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, ‘revolutionary politician and president of the United States’) but not Dwight Eisenhower because the former was born in what was still a British colony, though the latter spent more time in this country and arguably had a greater effect on its fate. Rather different considerations must have lain behind the inclusion of the 19th-century evangelists Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey: though they were born, lived and died in the United States, their revivalist meetings were hugely popular during their visits to Britain in the 1870s and 1880s, leading David Bebbington to make the startling claim that ‘Moody and Sankey probably represent the chief cultural influence of the United States on Britain during the 19th century.’ Of course, if one really took seriously the criterion about having ‘in some way influenced the nation’s life’, this would require the inclusion not only of Henry Ford and Walt Disney, but also of the CEOs of most big American corporations in the past century. This is one of the several ways in which one runs up against the limitations, for the purposes of historical understanding, of taking individual lives and ‘the nation’ as organising units: the forces ‘influencing the nation’s life’ are only intermittently half-visible in narratives of the lives of individuals who mostly happened to live mostly here. Even a hypothetical ‘Dictionary of Global Biography’ would not take one very far in trying to understand the processes summed up as ‘globalisation’.

If ‘the nation’s’ history, as represented here, begins with a hoax, it ends even less encouragingly. The last entry, in terms of date of death, is Sir Jack Jacob (1908-2000, ‘barrister and jurist’), who died on 26 December 2000, but the last to be born are, soberingly, Stephen Adrian Lawrence (1974-93, ‘murder victim’) and James Patrick Bulger (1990-93, ‘murder victim’). And so ends the 20th century.

Turning from subjects to contributors, the roll-call is undeniably impressive; surely no other project could come near to matching the success of the ODNB in commanding the labour of so many busy people. Historians naturally predominate, and we get the grandmasters of the trade, such as Patrick Collinson on Elizabeth I, Michael Howard on Sir John Hackett, Eric Hobsbawm on Karl Marx (well, he lived here for thirty years, and undeniably ‘influenced the nation’s life’). Also impressive is how frequently those who have already written the authoritative intellectual biography have been persuaded to contribute an epitome here – such as Roy Foster on Yeats or Ray Monk on Bertrand Russell – and some leading literary scholars have similarly written about their favourite critical subjects, such as Christopher Ricks on Tennyson or Marilyn Butler on Jane Austen. There are one or two notable absences among historians who have written principally on British topics – nothing from Linda Colley or Quentin Skinner, for example – and some of the best-known contemporary exponents of biography have not contributed: there is no Peter Ackroyd, no Hermione Lee, no Victoria Glendinning, though there are three entries by Claire Tomalin, including Katherine Mansfield and Ellen Ternan, and four by Michael Holroyd, including Augustus John. Given the (exaggerated) claims made for the dictionary as ‘the panorama of the national past’, it is also worth remarking that there is nothing by those currently celebrated as the leading presenters of the nation’s history, such as Simon Schama or David Starkey (the payments for contributions, it should be said, were meagre).

One cannot help wondering about the combination of self-restraint and sly wit which led Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the dictionary’s supervisory committee from inception to completion and one of the most celebrated historians of his generation, to confine himself to a single entry, that on the figure known simply as Old Parr (d.1635, ‘supposed centenarian’). In my ignorance, I thought at first that this might be the one joke entry all such reference works are said to contain, but if so it’s an old joke, in every sense: Old Parr is in the original DNB. Thomas itemises Parr’s claims on the national attention – a bachelor till he was 80, he did penance for adultery when 105, married for the second time at 122, and died at 152 – before scrupulously recording that they ‘lacked documentary support’.

It would appear that Thomas, who at the time of the project’s inception was president-elect of the British Academy and chairman of OUP’s finance committee (as well as its delegate for history), deserves much of the credit for persuading the project’s three parent institutions, the Academy, the University and the Press, to collaborate on it. The financial commitment alone would surely have frightened off most publishers. In the historical account in Harrison’s introduction, we are told that in 1993 the OUP delegates approved the final version of the proposal for the new dictionary, agreeing to undertake it ‘as a service to scholarship, in no expectation of a commercial return’. We are also told that the total investment will have amounted to more than £22 million.

The quirky inclusiveness signalled by the presence of Old Parr in both versions is worth remembering as one concentrates on the differences between them. Stephen himself included some relatively obscure and even shady individuals, but Sidney Lee, and still more the editors of the supplementary volumes across the 20th century, tended to favour those who wore well-cut suits and tightly knotted ties. Other exclusions aside, this contributed to the striking under-representation of women in the original dictionary and its supplements, satirically underscored by the lament of Stephen’s daughter Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas that ‘it is much to be regretted that no lives of maids . . . are to be found’. In the 63 volumes published by 1901, only about 4 per cent of subjects are female, and even the most recent supplementary volume (on the first half of the 1980s) only managed to increase this proportion to 12 per cent. Overall, the ODNB contains three times as many women as its predecessor, and for the 20th century the proportion rises to (or still fails to rise above) 18 per cent.

Some of the other differences between the ODNB and its predecessor leap to the eye, not least as a result of the decision to include approximately 10,000 portraits and other likenesses: the ODNB now claims to be the largest collection of British portraiture ever published. Scarcely less visible on the page are the much fuller citations of sources, the very extensive listings of surviving archival deposits, and the provision, where available, of details of ‘wealth at death’; against this, bibliographies of a subject’s writings are no longer included. The accuracy and comprehensiveness of these features are the outcome of a major programme of co-operation with other national bodies, such as the National Portrait Gallery, the National Archives and the General Registry Office.

As all this suggests, the most fundamental contrast between the two dictionaries lies in the hugely greater manifest presence of professional expertise in the ODNB. Stephen thought of himself as training up the kinds of contributor he needed. Even by 1906, when F.W. Maitland was writing his biography of Stephen (who had died two years earlier), he could reflect how much easier it would be to get such a scholarly enterprise going at that date than it had been for Stephen a couple of decades earlier, so marked had been the growth and professionalisation of historical study in the interval, as represented by the founding of the English Historical Review and the expansion of the numbers studying history at the universities. Needless to say, the processes of professionalisation and specialisation have only accelerated in the century since Maitland’s comment. It is true that an impressive volume of writing for the ODNB has still been done by the editors and a smallish number of in-house researchers: in addition to revising 631 entries, Matthew himself wrote 147 new articles, including those on politicians such as Balfour, Asquith and, of course, Gladstone, as well as taking on Victoria (as co-author) and Edward VII. There have also been several largely unsung heroes and heroines among the in-house researchers, such as Anita McConnell, who wrote or revised almost 600 entries, chiefly on inventors and lesser scientists. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that the ODNB is far more an assemblage of the work of experts than its predecessor was. The contrast is made most tellingly by two remarkable facts: first, that where the ODNB has about 10,000 contributors, the DNB had 653; and second, that more than half of the latter was written by just 34 people.

The correlative shift in our expectations can be illustrated by considering Stephen’s own contributions. It is not so much the absolute number that is significant, though we must remember that his 378 (‘I am surprised to find that I did so much in the way of articles’) mostly had to be written from scratch, requiring in many cases considerable original research; it is, rather, the astonishing range of big names whom he felt competent to take on. Stephen wrote the entries for practically all the major literary and intellectual figures between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries: Milton, Hobbes, Dryden, Locke, Addison, Pope, Hume, Johnson, Gibbon, Smith, Scott, Austen, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Malthus, Carlyle, Dickens, Macaulay, Mill, George Eliot and more. The passing of the heroic age of biographical dictionary-making is nowhere more clearly signalled than in the fact that in the ODNB the entries for these 20 names have required 20 different contributors, all of them affiliated to academic institutions.

The tonal shift between the entries for these figures in the two versions is particularly striking. Stephen’s prose is full of tangy appraisals and bracing judgments. His preferred terms of admiration reflect the Victorian preoccupation with ‘character’, inflected perhaps by his own post-Carlylean endorsement of strenuousness as the essential ingredient of moral heroism. There’s a fair bit of ‘manliness’ about in Stephen’s entries, not a term that finds much favour in modern scholarly writing. And although he excelled at compressing a lot of information into the factual part of his narratives, there was also some splendidly uninhibited literary criticism in his concluding assessments, of that worldly, conversational, Cornhill kind he and his contemporary readers had long savoured (e.g. on Macaulay: ‘Nobody can hit a haystack with more certainty’). Stephen could place his own sardonic stamp on what were in some cases widely shared late Victorian literary tastes. He did not, for example, consider Jane Austen a novelist of the first rank: he disposed of her in a meagre four columns, while taking his distance from ardent Janeites in other ways too (‘I never knew a person thoroughly deaf to humour who did not worship Miss Austen’). Shifts in critical reputation as well as the progress of scholarly research on Austen’s life are reflected in the ODNB’s deeply historical treatment of her as a challenging and intellectually serious writer, as well as in the fact that the entry is 14 times longer than its brisk predecessor.

Stephen thought much more highly of George Eliot, on whom he wrote the volume in the unselfconsciously named ‘English Men of Letters’ series, but, like many of her first readers, he had a particular weakness for the affectionate evocation of simple country folk in her early works, such as Adam Bede, and he rather regretted the expansion of her literary ambitions: ‘The later books, in which the didactic impulse is strongest, suffer in comparison with the earlier, where it is latent.’ And although he did acknowledge the ‘extraordinary power’ of Middlemarch, he still lamented that ‘the singular charm of the first period is wanting.’ The taste of more recent generations (if not, perhaps, the absolutely most recent critical vocabulary) is evident in the ODNB’s praise for Eliot’s ‘study of provincial life’ as ‘astonishingly fully realised’. Actually, Rosemary Ashton is a little nearer to Stephen in manner than some of her more cautiously academic fellow contributors, writing, for example, that ‘Marian’s was a difficult life, but a brave and extremely interesting one.’ Of course, Stephen would rather have let his fingers slip off that Matterhorn ledge than refer to George Eliot as ‘Marian’, and that is not the only change in social mores illustrated in her entry. When one looks up ‘George Eliot’ in the ODNB, one is sent to the entry for ‘Evans, Marian’; in the DNB one was directed to ‘Cross, Mary Ann or Marian’, her married name at the time of her death.

Other social as well as historiographical changes can be encapsulated in what the ODNB calls the ‘statement of occupation or historical significance’ that follows a subject’s name and dates. For example, in the DNB, Adam Smith appeared simply as ‘political economist’, the identity under which he had become so toweringly important for the Victorians; in the ODNB he is given as ‘moral philosopher and political economist’, reflecting the way the scholarship of recent decades has restored the 18th-century intellectual framework within which The Wealth of Nations was conceived. Other alterations in the primary descriptions reflect other kinds of recent development, if not always so happily. In the DNB, John Stuart Mill was simply styled ‘philosopher’, the label most often applied to him during his lifetime; in the ODNB he becomes ‘philosopher, economist and advocate of women’s rights’, which may be more informative, but which may also risk importing a slightly anachronistic term (‘economics’ and ‘economist’ did not become established usage until just after his death) as well as one disproportionate characterisation – he was a forceful advocate of equality generally, not just in relation to gender. But by and large, the categories used in the ODNB, like the substantive entries themselves, do not seem likely to date as quickly as many of those in the old DNB, in part because of the sheer variety of scholarly perspectives which find representation here.

It is surely impossible to know whether, as some reviewers have claimed, this is the last work of reference on this scale that will ever be published in what the jargon of the computer age forces us to call ‘hard copy’, but it is surely the first to exploit the potential of electronic publication on so vast and imaginative a scale. Quite apart from looking up individuals by name and a variety of ancillary details (date of birth, place of burial, religious affiliation and so on), the entire text of the ODNB is searchable in several different ways, while supplementary windows will yield lists of monarchs, officer-holders and such like. As with all kinds of electronic catalogue, one occasionally draws a mysterious blank and is left uncertain whether the failing is the software’s or one’s own; looking up by family name under the helpful group entries produced some particularly baffling defeats. So extensive are the possibilities opened up by the online version for accessing and organising the hoard of information contained that one can easily overlook the fact that it also, almost incidentally, provides access to the complete text of the original DNB (though this does not seem to be searchable and downloadable as the main text is). All this allows for ‘amusement’ far beyond what even the twinkly Stephen could have anticipated. Here is the report of an afternoon spent in the company of the ODNB’s powerful search engine.

Since this is a dictionary of those who have in some sense made a name for themselves, I begin by tapping in ‘egotist’. This produces ten results, which seems a touch on the low side when we remember that we are talking about some 50,000, largely famous, people. Similarly, ‘insufferable bore’ turns up only once and that in a quotation, so I try ‘careerist’. This throws up 36 results, but quite apart from the indirect or negative form of many of its appearances, nearly all the rest refer to clerics and minor state officials in the early modern period; careerism, you may be pleased (and surprised) to learn, seems to have more or less disappeared from British society after the 18th century. Maybe I should try an indisputably modern type: what about ‘ruthless businessman’? Even this produces only three results, two of them comparative or indeterminate in application, while the third describes Sir Titus Salt (1803-76, ‘textile manufacturer and politician’) as ‘an outstanding, occasionally ruthless businessman’, where the second adjective is presumably intended to qualify rather than intensify the first.

I don’t feel that so far I am getting to the heart of British society; clearly, I need to think of other qualities that may have distinguished the nation’s worthies. I try ‘religious bigot’: this produces four results, two negative (‘zealous but not a religious bigot’) and two, in entries by different contributors about other subjects, that, remarkably, refer to the same person: the man who would have been James III, ‘the Old Pretender’ (1688-1766, ‘Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland’), thus emerges as the one agreed religious bigot in our history (I reflect that this has long been an officially Protestant country). Is it perhaps that our history has been marked by greater disinterestedness or nobility of motive than I am assuming? I tap in ‘love of liberty’, but this produces only 15 hits, mostly in quotations. This leads me to try ‘a true Englishman’, a phrase, it turns out, that is entirely confined to quotations, part of a vocabulary of appraisal that is no longer current. Then I try ‘the good of others’. This throws up six results, in most of which the phrase is used in some indirect or allusive way, though they do include Steven Bilsland (1892-1970, ‘banker and Scottish business leader’): ‘He was a caring capitalist, who felt responsible for promoting the good of others.’ It hadn’t occurred to me to search under ‘caring capitalist’ (can’t think why not), so I try that. Alas, only one result: the saintly Bilsland.

Perhaps I need to think a bit harder about the kinds of people who are writing the entries and in what terms they would be likely to characterise their forebears, so I try ‘distinguished scholar’. Yes, this is more like it – 46 hits – though most of them are not so distinguished that I had ever heard of them. What about ‘inspiring teacher’? Bingo, 95 candidates. Now we’re getting close to home, so for some reason it occurs to me to try ‘high-handed editor’, but no results; ditto for ‘autocratic editor’ (jolly glad to know we haven’t had any of those in our national life, at least not among the dead). Even ‘brilliant editor’ only produces two hits, though these turn out to be grist to my mill because one is a reference to Rachel Beer, née Sassoon (1858-1927, ‘newspaper proprietor and editor’) who was ‘not considered a brilliant editor’, and the other is to James Thomas Harris (1856?-1931) who is listed – not pleonastically, I hasten to add – as ‘journalist and rogue’.

In one of his periodic newsletters in the months leading up to publication, Harrison noted that the entries for the supplementary volumes that were produced decade by decade across the 20th century tended to be by contributors who had known their subjects and who, perhaps as a result, leaned towards piety. Continuing the bracing tone set by Matthew, Harrison declared that ‘the familiar supplement phrases – “much loved by all who knew him”, “did not suffer fools gladly” – will not now suffice.’ It turns out that they suffice more often than you might expect. It is true that ‘loved by all who knew him’ produces only two results (both Scots, as it happens; various explanations suggest themselves), but ‘suffer fools gladly’ yields a cornucopia of 71 hits. This formula is used only in the negative (no one, it seems, is ever distinguished by a capacity to suffer fools gladly), so here, perhaps, we are getting nearer to some of those missing egotists, as in the entry for Dame Mary Colvin (1907-88, ‘army officer’), described as ‘a formidable figure and forceful personality who did not suffer fools gladly’. Ah yes, ‘forceful personality’, that has the ring of official euphemism about it, let’s try that: 81 results, a disproportionate number of them women. But this phrase does at last produce the kind of representative figure one might expect to force his way onto the national stage. ‘Even his admirers admitted that he had serious personality defects,’ we are told of Ernest Abraham Hart (1835-98, ‘medical journalist’): ‘He had a forceful personality, being ambitious, opinionated, egotistical, self-confident and inclined to intolerance,’ all of which, plainly, sets him apart from the other subjects in this compendium. ‘No flowers’ had been Stephen’s gruff instruction to the first generation of contributors; clearly, standards haven’t slipped in that respect.

Since this is still predominantly a compendium of men written by men, the right searches ought to yield some illumination about favoured male self-descriptions. Perhaps surprisingly, only 17 of our national heroes were ‘all-round sportsmen’, and only two had ‘dashing good looks’, but ‘attractive to women’ throws up a fascinating medley of attitudes among its 27 results. Some concentrate on the physical, such as the entry for Edwin Booth (1833-93, ‘actor’) – ‘with dark eyes, long dark hair, romantic good looks, and a warm musical voice, Booth was attractive to women’ – and some not, such as that on Marcus Cunliffe (1922-90, ‘Americanist’), who is described as ‘generous, relaxed, charming, urbane, vivacious, witty, playful and attractive to women’. Others excite more sympathy, such as Thomas Jones (1870-1955, ‘civil servant and benefactor’) whose agreeable qualities ‘made him particularly attractive to women, especially after his wife’s death’; one immediately senses a whole squadron of those female ‘forceful personalities’ steaming over the horizon. A bracing female perspective peeps through in the entry on Fanny Kemble (1809-93, ‘actress and author’) which refers to her unhappy marriage to Pierce Butler: ‘He was clever and handsome – or at least very attractive to women,’ which suggests burnt fingers veering towards cynicism on someone’s part.

Naturally, with all these alpha males around, things soon get competitive, so within the space of a couple of letters we find not only that Edwin Landseer was ‘especially’ attractive to women, but that Lloyd George was ‘immensely’, Krishna Menon ‘devastatingly’, and a character in a G.A. Lawrence novel ‘irresistibly’ so. At first I had hoped that a scientific analysis of these posthumous personal ads would enable me to crack one of the mysteries of the universe, but all I learn is that it may help to be either quite short or quite tall or somewhere in between, to have either blue eyes or dark eyes, to be a good talker though also a good listener, to be witty but sensitive, courteous yet forceful, and, possibly, to be ‘luxuriantly whiskered’.

Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘attractive to men’ throws up only seven references, two of them to men (in both cases ‘attractive to men and women alike’, so adding to the score for the previous search), and one – surprising to me, at least – to Florence Nightingale (1820-1910, ‘reformer of Army Medical Services and of nursing organisation’). From that entry I also learn that the Lady with the Lamp was ‘a good mimic’, which is not what I recalled from Lytton Strachey, though in the entry for Strachey (1880-1932, ‘biographer and literary reviewer’) I learn that he thought the DNB ‘one of the most useful works ever written’. From the same entry, by S.P. Rosenbaum, I also learn that Freud thought more highly of Eminent Victorians than of Queen Victoria. That’s Sigmund Freud (1856-1939, ‘founder of psychoanalysis’), whose rather surprising inclusion is presumably due to his having lived the last year of his long life in London. For some reason, that leads me to check whether it is true that Thomas Batty (c.1832-1903, ‘animal trainer and circus proprietor’) died in a lunatic asylum; wonderfully, he did. Batty was apparently the first man to train an elephant to stand on its head . . . No, wait, this has got to stop.

A final confession: I calculate that I wrote approximately 0.025 per cent of this work, or even slightly less, as one of my entries (on R.G. Collingwood) was written jointly with the late Bernard Williams. At the time, I grumbled as much as everyone else about the labour involved in checking such details as place of burial and mother’s maiden name, tasks which were no doubt even more demanding if one was writing the entries on any of the 63 John Smiths. But now, as I leaf through the beautifully produced, clearly laid-out volumes, as I reflect on the incalculable quantity of painstaking, disinterested labour they represent, and as I think of generations to come making use of this vast consolidation of scholarly accuracy for purposes of their own which may be barely imaginable to us now, I find myself experiencing a rare, and wholly unironic, feeling that mixes pride and humility with a dash of wonder. I assume that some premonition of such a feeling must have been what helped persuade so many people to write for it in the first place.

In the guidance notes which all contributors were sent, we were exhorted (the Gladstonian prose presumably Matthew’s own) that ‘the preparation of the New DNB’ – as it was then being called – ‘puts a generation on its mettle. Let that generation show itself liberal, firm and just!’ I recall that, at the time, this elevated register made me feel a little uneasy, but now it is coming to seem entirely fitting, in line with the stature of the undertaking. Of course, the hype surrounding the launch of the ODNB is bound to provoke the counter-suggestible to fits of scepticism, but as one settles down to using it on a regular basis, it becomes clear that the scale and the quality of the achievement cannot be gainsaid, and thus that a generation has, in some sense, risen to a daunting challenge. And what cannot be celebrated enough are what might be called, in Nietzschean vein, the project’s ‘untimely’ qualities. Whether or not it proves to be the last work of reference ever to be published on this scale, it most certainly flies in the face of the logic governing contemporary commercial publishing. It is a stupendous benefaction pro bono publico on the part of Oxford University Press above all, but also of Oxford University and the British Academy. That it should have been conceived and launched during the sour, bottom-lining years of gutter Toryism, and completed at the very time when a notionally Labour government is bent on subjecting even more of our collective life to ‘market principles’, is a historical irony which can at least remind us that the political and social processes shaping public life in Britain are still far from uniform.

Similarly, the whole splendid enterprise is a slap in the face to that conception of an academic career which our masters have largely succeeded in imposing on British universities. That so many have been willing to expend so much labour in a form that has been either anonymous or nearly so is profoundly cheering, for you may be sure that contributing to the ODNB is neither a route to academic star status for oneself nor to a high Research Assessment Exercise ranking for one’s department. Instead, such work requires and encourages proportion rather than exaggeration, information rather than provocation, accuracy rather than speculation, self-effacement rather than self-promotion. And it will last and be used long after the leading members of this generation have met the one unnegotiable criterion for inclusion in future updatings. In deeply unpropitious times, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has refreshed and fortified our sense of what can still be meant by the collective endeavour of ‘scholarship’.