- 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’.
Justice has finally been done to both these men by the inclusion of two excellent articles by Richard Grace in the latest volume of the DNB, entitled Missing Persons, where Hays, Radcliffe and Fenwick are also at last memorialised. Until this volume appeared, those once excluded were excluded for ever, for the decennial volumes by which the original dictionary has hitherto been continued were intended to include only the recently dead whose achievements were recognised in their own lifetimes. The aim of Missing Persons is to include within the dictionary ‘those who acquired posthumous fame, those whose achievements went unrecognised by the editors of the time’, and those whose careers, for various reasons, had not come to the editors’ attention. Decisions about who should now be included were made by consulting all the letters sent to the editors over the last hundred years which had complained that this or that person had been ‘erroneously excluded’, and by consulting scholars through learned journals and the general public through the quality newspapers. The editors received over a hundred thousand suggestions, and eventually decided to commission 1086 new biographies. Included in Missing Persons are writers like Traherne, Dorothy Wordsworth and Hopkins, whose work was largely or wholly unpublished until this century. There are new entries on bankers, tradesmen, engineers, like Henry Hoare, Joe Lyons and Henrietta Vansittart, reflecting the new fields of historical inquiry that have been developed since the dictionary was originally compiled, and the fact that an enormous increase in historical research has thrown up the names of countless individuals whose various contributions to British history have only recently come to be recognised or valued.
Missing Persons also includes many who were originally passed over on grounds which might well have been thought capricious at the time. Who recommended the omission of Stan Laurel and Charles Laughton from the 1960s volume, and was he or she later fired for incompetence? Was Radclyffe Hall left out of the Forties volume because she was unlikely to be remembered, or because she was best forgotten? Was it a prejudice against social anthropology, or against British Middle Europeans that led to the exclusion of Malinowski from the same volume? Or was he adjudged to have become un-British by emigrating to the US a year before the outbreak of war?
For the DNB this is a centenary of a sort; the first volume appeared in 1885; and with its last two volumes, this one and DNB 1981-5, the dictionary now includes everyone who died before 1985 whom its successive editors have thought (granted the constraints of space) worthy of inclusion. When the original edition appealed, the twenty-nine thousand biographies it contained were researched with an impressive thoroughness, and in the vast majority of cases it provided what were the most authoritative accounts of the lives even of many of the most familiar names in British history. Because for the most part the biographies were of the long, long dead the biographers had no personal interest in minimising the faults of their subjects, though many of the biographies were no doubt influenced by political partisanship and by the fact that the point of the undertaking was to produce a proud monument to a proud national past. Since its first publication, however, the DNB, like most of our great national institutions, has been in visible decline, the reasons for which lie partly in the nature of its original conception, partly in the means by which it has been continued in subsequent volumes, and partly in its failure to acknowledge the increasing importance of popular culture in the 20th century.
The dictionary had no mechanism by which its biographies could be corrected and amplified in the light of subsequent scholarship and interpretation, and part of the interest in reading its early volumes now derives from discovering how much was known about particular individuals in the late 19th century, and how they were then judged. The original DNB remains, of course, an irreplaceable tool of historical research, but its value has come to reside rather less in the immensely detailed, immensely judicious assessments it offers of those who have always been famous (the great set-piece biographies of literary figures, for example, many of them by Leslie Stephen), rather more in the brief sketches it gives of characters whose inclusion may in many cases have been the outcome of some very marginal decisions. With the perversity of hindsight it is arguble that the original DNB would be still more valuable if Mary Hays had been included at the expense, not of Martin van Butchell, but of the Duke of Wellington.
New technology now offers an Opportunity to reverse this decline in the usefulness of the dictionary, and it has been embraced with impressive enthusiasm. The DNB is now being revised: none of the existing entrants is to be expelled, but some biographies are to be revised, some completely rewritten, and the whole is in the process of being transferred to CD-Rom so that the individual lives can be amended as often as necessary. The new DNB will be greatly expanded; at present the dictionary contains, in all its original and supplementary volumes, including Missing Persons, some thirty-eight thousand lives; the new dictionary will contain fifty thousand, and there will be more or less unlimited potential to add to these in the future. It will be available on disc as well as in print, and if, when it appears in ten years’ time, there are any libraries which can afford it, it will once again be all that it ever was, and more so.
The continuation volumes, however may still present problems. Since 1900, the worthy dead have been memorialised in the dictionary immediately after they died, a practice which has the obvious advantages as well as the disadvantages of minimising the effect of hindsight on the editors’ judgments. The general effect of the policy taken towards the continuation volumes, however, has been to make the dictionary less authoritative, and not simply because much relevant information which comes to light only with the passage of time is unavailable to the biographers. More problematic has been the practice of commissioning biographies from friends or close associates of the deceased. Many of the 20th-century entries seem to be attempts to reconcile the conflicting duties of historian and friend.
Since 1900 so many book-length biographies have been published of so many people that for the most famous pre-1900 entrants, and for many of those who have been included since, the DNB is no longer the place to look for authoritative information. It remains unthinkable, of course, to exclude the most famous dead on the grounds that their lives are certain to be recorded more fully, and more impartially, by later biographers. But as a result, the dictionary has increasingly seemed to become what it is now described as being in the publicity hand-out that accompanied the review copies Missing Persons, ‘the hall of national fame’, whereas the great value of this volume, as of the original dictionary, lies in what it has to say about people that few of us have even heard of.
The original editors and publishers believed that the dictionary could include everyone likely to be of interest to future researchers, academic and otherwise. In the preface to the 63rd volume in 1900, ending with the biography of William Henry Zuylestein, fourth Earl of Rochford, the editors announced that the dictionary included ‘all men and women of British and Irish race who have achieved any reasonable measure of distinction in any walk of life’; everyone ‘whose career presents any feature which justifies its preservation from oblivion’. It was possible for the early editors to believe in what must seem to us an impossible fantasy of completeness because, however low they thought they were setting the threshold for inclusion in the dictionary, they nevertheless thought that admission could be determined by clear criteria of value; that what justified preserving a career from oblivion was ‘achievement’, and that only certain sorts of achievement and distinction were of value. Those who scraped into the dictionary in spite of these criteria served only to confirm the completeness of the work: if Martin van Butchell is included, who can possibly have been left out?
The early editors’ criteria were made particularly clear when, in the same preface, they reflected on the reasons for the relatively large number of 19th-century biographies included in the first 63 volumes. This, they believed, though partly an effect of ‘the inevitable propensity to exaggerate the importance of contemporary achievement’, and partly of ‘the multiplication of printed records’, was in the main the result of the increasing specialisation in the arts and sciences and of improvements in ‘educational machinery’, which together had ‘enlarged the volume of the nation’s intellectual capacity, which is the ultimate spring of distinctive achievement’. It helped, of course, to reduce the number of entrants, that some kinds of achievement, perhaps especially those of tradesmen and inventive artisans, did not always seem to the editors to be intellectual achievements at all; it helped, too, that there were some kinds of intellectual achievement, perhaps especially by women, which did not seem to them to be distinctive. But by and large they were able to hold onto a belief in the completeness of the dictionary because they believed that the future would be interested in the same kind of achievements as they were.
The 20th-century DNB has preserved this notion of achievement while interpreting it more and more broadly; but so far it has found it difficult to confront the fact that the present has defined distinction much more generously, and that the future may do so as well. In particular, it has found it hard to extend its remit to areas in which its editors may have been unable to see any very great relation between mere fame and lasting achievement. The DNB has, it’s true, made some effort, but not a very convincing one, to keep up with the new opportunities for distinction produced by mass electronic entertainment and by the vastly increased interest in sport, two obvious areas which will almost certainly be important to future historians. In the preface to the decennial volume for 1971-80, John Lennon was singled out, along with Benjamin Britten, as One of the two most distinguished new entrants from the field of music, but it remains true that there has been very little attempt to memorialise popular musicians who during their lives were household names. With the arguable exception of Richard Tauber nothing has been done about this in Misting Persons. One of the smallest occupational categories from which the new entrants have been chosen is ‘Drama, Cinema, Dance’, and of these cinema has always been especially under-represented, as the original omission of Laurel and Laughton suggests. The section ‘Journalism, Broadcasting’ contains none of the most famous (whether or not the most ‘distinguished’) broadcasters omitted from earlier volumes. The sportsmen in Missing Persons include a generous selection of gentlemen-mountaineers, but not a single professional footballer.
Missing Persons will be an immensely valuable addition to the dictionary, especially for the numerous biographies it offers of practitioners in occupational categories such as architecture, science, engineering, medicine and business, whose careers had not come to light when the original dictionary was made, or whom the earlier editors had regarded as too insignificant to be preserved. But in terms of the ratio between what the DNB recognises as distinction and what is recognised as distinction in society as a whole, the dictionary has probably become more narrow, and it seems likely that in their choice of 20th-century worthies the editors of Missing Persons will prove to have been little more successful at second-guessing the interests of future historians than those whose ‘erroneous’ exclusions they are now seeking to correct.
Perhaps this is bound to be the case: the opportunities to achieve fame and distinction have become too many, and the interests of historians too various, for any modern biographical dictionary to be more than a thoroughly partial selection of those whose careers present any feature which justifies their preservation from oblivion. The recent decision to continue the dictionary not by decennial but by quinquennial volumes is one way of addressing this problem, though it needs to be accompanied by a more catholic idea of distinction. It is, however, likely to exacerbate the problem of authority inherent in the policy of commissioning biographies from the friends of the deceased, who may prove to be even warier of criticising entrants who are still more recently dead than they used to be.
One solution might be to leave the task of more or less instant memorialising to obituarists; to circulate widely a list of those whom the editors intend to include; to invite additions with the kind of questionnaire recently circulated by the editors of the new DNB; and to delay the appearance of the quinquennial volumes by ten years or more. The continuation volumes would be much longer and would be better for it; and the contributors would be able to speak more freely, knowing that they might well be dead themselves before their words were read.