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.

The first, heroic phase of the DNB’s life closed with the completion of the second supplement, and with the deaths of Stephen, Smith and Lee. Since then, six single-volume supplements have appeared, commemorating the great and the good who died in each decade from the 1910s to the 1960s. As such, they reflect both the abiding influence of the original conception, and also the changes which circumstances have forced upon it. In a less spacious age, the scale of the enterprise has necessarily been reduced: each decade now gets one volume instead of three, and the number of lives has been pruned from 1000 to 750. Longer lives have been shortened, while shorter lives have been lengthened. The treatment of George V and VI was almost perfunctory compared with Lee’s lengthy laments for Victoria and Edward VII, and the 22 pages accorded to Churchill in this volume are miserly compared with the 50 allotted to Gladstone half a century before. On the other hand, the average length of each life has advanced from a page to a page and a half, so that even the most obscure receive enhanced recognition. As supplement has succeeded supplement, the number of industrialists, scientists and women has grown, while the cohorts of writers, lawyers and divines have declined, although neither of these trends has been as pronounced as it should have been. With the demise of Smith’s publishing house, no other private business would take over such a costly venture, so that this monument to entrepreneurial zeal is now accommodated in the institutional hands of OUP, which may also explain why the editorial chair has migrated westward, from the Cambridge of Stephen and Lee to the Oxonian and Imperial portals of Rhodes House.

More fundamentally, the character of the DNB has changed completely, as what began as a piece of historically-conceived inquiry has evolved into an end-of-decade report. In the old days, personal acquaintance did not matter: one completed and distant life was very much like another. But now, when private information and individual recollection must often be the substitute for archival research, personal knowledge is of the essence. So ostensibly authoritative biographies of the long-since-departed have been superseded by interim studies of the recently-deceased. And as a result, the number of contributors has increased as much as the style of their contributions has changed. Over half of the original DNB was written by 34 regular contributors. In this volume, there are nearly as many writers as subjects. In consequence, the role of the editor has changed as well. Stephen and Lee were Botham-like all-rounders, as much contributors as editors, producing between them well over a thousand articles. But their successors have increasingly become non-playing team captains, co-ordinating the efforts of others, as in this volume, where Sir Edgar restricts himself to two brief lives and the extended study of Churchill.

Despite these developments, much of this latest volume is directly in the tradition of Stephen and Lee. The writers, the lawyers and the clergy may still be on the run. But the politicians and proconsuls, civil servants and administrators, generals and admirals, remain in dominant abundance. Predictably, they are joined by a whole generation of scientists and technologists, engineers and experts, to whom the Second World War had given enhanced status. Together, these old and new men form the great majority, and it is their world, of committees and research teams, of mandarins and boffins, as depicted in the novels of C.P. Snow (the original for at least one of whose characters is in this book) and in sundry Sampsonian Anatomies of Britain, which is commemorated in this volume. Here is an official prosopography of official Britain: civil servants write about civil servants, scientists write about scientists, diplomats write about diplomats, and Speakers write about Speakers, all accepting, implicitly, the values and methods of their chosen profession. As a result, the book’s centre of gravity is markedly to the right. There are very few trades-unionists, and one of their number, William Gallacher, is revealingly described as a ‘working-class agitator and politician’. On his ennoblement, Marshal of the RAF Lord Douglas of Kirtleside admitted to being ‘a moderate socialist’, which, as his biographer explains, made him ‘a somewhat unusual member of the higher military hierarchy’. There also seems to be much more space devoted to practitioners of golf, cricket, rowing and fox-hunting than to professional footballers.

By the time we reach the letter B, the tone of the volume is unmistakably established in two scrupulously mandarin pieces by Lord Trend on Bridges and Normanbrook, his predecessors at the Cabinet Office. Here, elegantly catalogued and lucidly unfolded, are the qualities which are continually enumerated, acclaimed and celebrated thereafter: stamina, resilience, fortitude and endurance; tact, reticence, loyalty and discretion; the capacity to draft cogent memoranda, master difficult agendas, write lucid minutes; to assimilate information, chair committees, create and control administrative machinery. These men were quiet, careful, cautious, pragmatic, orderly, logical and unemotional. To their colleagues they appeared strong, stern, shy and silent; they took work home at night and at weekends; they had time for few hobbies or recreations; they jealously guarded their private lives; but in the select company of those who knew them well, they were warm-hearted, charming, kindly and generous. Indefatigable, relentless, remorseless, formidable, indomitable: they sound like the Grand Fleet at anchor at Spithead.

It is also revealing that Bridges and Normanbrook were relatively long-lived, as were most of the men in this book. Over one-third were born in the 1880s, and 60 per cent were born before 1890. They survived the First World War, and came to greatness in the Second: they are the lost and found generation, the exact contemporaries of the DNB itself. All day, every day, day after day, night after night, they worked, researched or administered. Youthful illness, permanent disability, personal tragedy, were all conquered. And great were their rewards on earth: honorary doctorates and fellowships from their Oxbridge Colleges; smooth progress up the Establishment ladder from a C to a K to a G; inexorable advance from FRS to a Nobel Prize to PRS to OM. The way to get to the top, this book makes clear, is to work harder and live longer than your rivals and contemporaries. The wayward Mervyn Peake, living on ‘this desperate edge of now’, or the mercurial evanescence of a Jim Clark or a Joe Orton, counts for little in the scales of achievement when weighed against such elephantine stamina and titanic endurance. This book is, unashamedly, perhaps inevitably, a monument to the loneliness of the long-distance runner, rather than a paean of praise to meteoric fame or youthful success.

This stress on the sustained, orderly transaction of business, and on the smooth workings of the government machine, does mean, however, that a variety of other equally admirable and important qualities receive rather less than their due. One of these is versatility. There are some memorably-described polymaths, such as ‘professional violinist and economist’, ‘schoolmaster, cricket historian and administrator’, ‘eye surgeon, missionary and philanthropist’: but in the main, it is those who plough a single furrow who receive the fullest attention. Genius, flamboyance, audacity, intuition, romanticism, high-colour: all seem slightly suspect. Even Churchill, who is given ample and unstinted praise for most of these attributes, is presented as the exception which proves the rule: for he is shown to have been a greater man because his wayward, unstable, intuitive fertility was tamed and disciplined by the mandarin and the military, Bridges and Ismay. His achievement as the inspirer of the British people receives much less attention than does his success in kicking the government machine into top gear. Improvisation, flexibility, anticipation, a sense of opportunity: all these qualities which flowered in wartime and are equally necessary in peace seem rather lost sight of.

So it comes as no surprise to discover that, despite the general improvement which has taken place since the 1900s, commerce and trade where these qualities are presumably even more important – are still under-represented. The illustrious and the industrious are amply commemorated, but the entrepreneur and the industrialist get much shorter shrift. Bankers, financiers, company chairmen and ship-owners are there in some profusion, but businessmen such as Clark, Nuffield, Bowater and Rootes are decidedly thin on the ground. Whether this reflects reality, or just editorial blinkers, is unclear. Either way, this volume of the DNB, like all its predecessors, offers emphatic support for many of the arguments about hostility to industry recently expounded by Martin Wiener in his English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980.

Women are another group who seem peripheral to this male and mandarin world. In explaining why there were so few of them in the earliest volumes of the DNB, Lee noted that ‘women’s opportunities of distinction were infinitesimal in the past, and are very small compared with men’s at the present moment.’ Here, too, little seems to have changed. In the first supplement, women were some 4 per cent of the total; here the figure is nearer 7. Most come from relatively comfortable, upper-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds, and succeeded in professions without any formal or hierarchical career structure. So the majority are actresses (Elsie and Leigh), academics (Cam and Darbishire), artists (Bell, Cohen, Knight) or authors (Allingham, Blyton, Compton-Burnett, Sackville-West and Sitwell), topped off with occasional politicians (Astor, Bonham Carter and Lady Lloyd-George) and royals (Princess Marina, Queen Victoria Eugénie, the Princess Royal). Vera Brittain, Ivy Williams (‘the first woman to be called to the English bar’) and Rachel Crowdy (she ‘belonged to a generation when women had to possess very obvious strength of character if they were to attain recognition’) are the only women who might be described as noteworthy, self-conscious, propagandising feminists. ‘Women will not, I regret,’ concluded Lee, ‘have very much claim on the attention of the national biographer for a very long time to come.’ That may not be right, but it still seems to be true.

Because so much of this book is about the great and the good, the two major innovations in editorial policy are less exciting than might appear at first glance. The promise to be more candid about sex and scandal, spying and secrecy, represents a significant shift from the stern and unbending days of Stephen and Lee: but in practice, the result is rarely significant. Such revelations as are made about the private lives of Harold and Vita, Somerset Maugham, Joe Orton and E.M. Forster add nothing that is new: they are informative but not titillating. On the other hand, the statement that Nancy Astor’s friendship with Lord Lothian was ‘always regarded as platonic’ is merely salacious innuendo: it is titillating but not informative. The only real plum is Cecil Beaton’s remarkable comment on Lily Elsie’s anaemia – ‘this was no doubt the reason for an unusually early menopause and for a certain frigidity’ – which should be a winner for the Guardian’s ‘Naked Ape’ column. Nor do the revelations on secrets amount to much, with two exceptions. One concerns the life of Sir Stewart Menzies, wartime head of the Secret Intelligence Service, which is, predictably, based on ‘private information’ and ‘personal knowledge’. Yet, uniquely among all the entries, this contribution is unsigned. Is this sinister machination, or merely a proofreader’s oversight? The second is Anthony Blunt’s account of Tomas Harris, whom he describes as ‘artist, art dealer and intelligence officer’. What wistful, envious or remorseful sense of irony prompted Blunt to remark that Harris perpetrated ‘the most successful doublecross operation of the war’?

It has always been a general, if flexible rule that the writers of ‘official’ biographies should not contribute on the same subject to the DNB. The rationale of this remains obscure, and in this volume robs us of Nigel Nicolson on Alexander, A.J.P. Taylor on Beaverbrook, Martin Gilbert on Churchill, Jonathan Dimbleby on his father, John Pearson on Ian Fleming, P.N. Furbank on E.M. Forster, Philip Williams on Gaitskell, Sybille Bedford on Aldous Huxley, Michael Holroyd on Augustus John, J.E. Morpurgo on Allen Lane, Ronald Lewin on Slim and Christopher Sykes on Evelyn Waugh. On the other hand, we do get José Harris on Beveridge, James Lees-Milne on Harold Nicolson, O.S. Nock on Stanier, and Hugh Thomas on John Strachey. In such circumstances, where the great have already received the supreme accolade, there is little new to add. Much more interesting are the accounts of the otherwise unbiographied men and women of second rank, such as Scarbrough, Zetland, Ketton Cremer, and Lord and Lady Iveagh, whose elegant, distinguished but unspectacular lives receive fitting memorial. As Stephen himself once remarked, ‘it is not upon the lives of the great men that the value of this book really depends. It is the second-rate people that provide the really useful reading.’ He would not have been disappointed in this volume.

It was also Stephen who noted that the real joy of the DNB lay in ‘the great art of skipping’, and here, too, little has changed. Some of the contributions are as dull as their subjects, but many scintillate and sparkle. What a delight it is to learn that Nancy Astor was ‘a curious mixture of religious maniac and clown’; that to Lord Bridges there fell ’the immense responsibility of translating the inspired poetry of Churchill’s directives into the plain prose of effective action’; that Cadogan ‘played golf regularly, relentlessly, and rather badly’; that Joe Orton ‘aspired to corrupt an audience with pleasure’; and that Vincent Massey ‘could stroke even a cliché until it purred like an epigram’. Lord Annan notes that E.M. Forster’s works ‘were full of aphorisms’, something on which he is rather an authority himself. Sir John Hicks sums up the issues between Keynes and Robertson with magisterial fairness and clarity. And Kenneth Rose reveals that Sir Frederic Hooper, the head of Schweppes, ‘detested the fizzy drinks upon which the prosperity of his firm depended’. One can only agree with that ‘poet, playwright, critic, editor and publisher’, T.S. Eliot (whose later life, Richard Ellmann informs us, ‘became rather stately’): ‘I did not know death had undone so many.’

When originally conceived, Lee observed that ‘national biography must be prepared to satisfy the commemorative instinct of all sections of the nation.’ His volumes did not meet that exacting requirement; nor does this one; nor, perhaps, could any. What it does do is to reveal the pinstripe, the stuffed shirt, the rolled umbrella, the bowler hat, the regimental tie and the lab coat, in their time of greatest trial and in their years of supreme achievement. For those who are captivated by this world, and who accept it at its own evaluation, as it is presented here, this book will make riveting reading, even if few will possess the stamina, fortitude, endurance etc to read it from cover to cover. In particular, high praise is due to the editor, who must have used many of Stephen’s adjectives in the course of his task, and who merits many of Lord Trend’s in having completed it. In 1900, when the original DNB was complete, Stephen surveyed it, and found it to be ‘a good bit of work’. In its mandarin understatement, as much as in its appreciation of the book’s real merits, the same comment may be applied to this most recent instalment.