[Paleopsych] TLS: The biographists' tales

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The biographists' tales

    Nicolas Barker
    10 December 2004
    Brian Harrison, editors. Sixty volumes. Oxford University Press.
    £7,500 (US $13,000). 0 19 861411 X

    Who's in, who's out and who's writing

    Different literary forms have been dominant at different times in
    different countries. In Britain, drama expressed the shifting pattern
    of society over four generations from the mid-sixteenth century,
    poetry from the mid- seventeenth, the novel from the mid-eighteenth.
    History had its day from William Robertson, Gibbon and Hume to Henry
    Hallam, Macaulay and the Trevelyans, and poetry had another surge in
    the nineteenth century. Fichte, in Uber das Wesen des Gelehrten, had
    an explanation for this, picked up by both Coleridge and Carlyle.
    There is a "divine idea" at the bottom of the world, not recognizable
    to most of us among the superficialities of life, but (the words are
    Carlyle's) "the Man of Letters is sent hither specially that he may
    discern for himself, and make manifest to us this same Divine Idea: in
    every generation it will manifest itself in a new dialect".

    Has biography come to express the spirit of our age? More and more
    biographies command an ever larger readership. Carlyle would not have
    been surprised: "The History of the World is but the Biography of
    great men", from which he drew the surprising deduction that made On
    Heroes so exciting in 1840, that "Odin, Luther, Johnson, Burns . . .
    are all originally of one stuff; that only by the world's reception of
    them, and the shapes they assume, are they so immeasurably diverse".

    It was this principle, interpreted by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee,
    that inspired George Smith, the great publisher, to bring the
    Dictionary of National Biography into existence in 1882. His original
    idea had been a world biography on the lines of the Biographie
    Universelle (forty volumes, 1843-63), but in English. Stephen, who
    edited The Cornhill Magazine for Smith, thought otherwise, and on his
    advice in 1882, Smith "resolved to confine his efforts to the
    production of a complete dictionary of national biography which should
    supply full, accurate and concise biographies of all noteworthy
    inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of
    living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present
    time". This succinct definition by Lee, who took over from Stephen in
    1891, had some odd exceptions: almost all the Irish rebels of 1798
    were included, but pre-1776 Americans were not. But on the whole that
    was the rule applied then, and in the supplements published since.

    Chroniclers of the DNB from Lee onwards give the impression that
    British biography, or at least biographical dictionaries, sprang from
    the brow of Zeus, without antecedents. Far from it: Aelfric's Lives of
    the saints inaugurated a long medieval tradition, and Thomas More's
    Life of Richard III, written in Latin and English, looked back to
    Sallust as well as forward to the exemplary plan of Izaak Walton's
    Lives. This, too, was not new; the "parallel lives" of North's
    translation of Plutarch were implicitly examples. Dryden first coined
    "biography" in English to define Plutarch as "the history of
    particular men's lives" (Fuller's Worthies provides "biographist" for
    their writers). But the earliest attempt at a complete national
    dictionary was by Thomas Birch (1705-66), who has descended from
    "historian and biographer" in the old DNB to a mere "compiler" in the
    new. He did indeed compile many "lives", some if not all original, but
    his Biographia Britannica: or, the lives of the most eminent persons
    who have flourished in Great Britain and Ireland (1747-66) was the
    first systematic alphabetic dictionary of its subject. Like all its
    successors, it drew on the obituaries of the Gentleman's Magazine
    (1731 1876), so perhaps that publication's founder, Edward Cave, is
    the real father of British biography. But Birch's dictionary found
    imitators, the most successful The British Plutarch by Thomas Mortimer
    (1762), and a continuator, Andrew Kippis, whose unwieldy second
    edition was never completed.

    None of these predecessors was given much credit in the original DNB
    (although its title was to have been Biographia Britannica) and they
    have fared even less well in the new, due, perhaps, to a further
    century's gap between these and Smith's enterprise. Lee wrote an
    admirable account of this, and of Smith himself, in the first volume
    of the 1901 Supplement to the DNB, which he carried up to 1912. About
    his own collaboration with Stephen, Lee wrote affectingly of the
    former's "catholic interests . . . his tolerant spirit, his sanity of
    judgement, and his sense of fairness"; if impatient with "mere
    antiquarian research" (what did he make of his most prolific
    contributor, Thompson Cooper, who "never ceased to investigate the
    antiquarian bye-paths of literature"?), "he refused mercy to
    contributors who offered him vague conjecture or sentimental eulogy
    instead of unembroidered fact". Lee himself "was not more autocratic
    than was necessary for the smooth running of the machine up to time .
    . . and realized that its value depended on the general standard of
    the articles and not chiefly on the merits of the more important
    lives. His relations with his staff were far from autocratic". The two
    shared "the editor's sanctum", a small back room next to Smith,
    Elder's premises, to which they were connected by a speaking-tube.

    The large front room looking into Waterloo Place was the workshop;
    several large tables, many inkpots, piles of proofs and manuscripts on
    chairs and tables, a little pyramid of Stephen's pipes at one end of
    the chimney piece, a little pyramid of Lee's at the other end. The
    narrow side room opening out of it held on its shelves a fine
    assortment of reference books, sets of the Gentleman's Magazine and of
    Notes and Queries, Wood, Le Neve, and other biographical collections.

    The picture is by C. H. Firth. The scene, with which he was familiar
    as a contributor, clearly appealed to him, and he was one of the main
    advocates, with H. W. C. Davis and J. R. Weaver, of the acceptance of
    the bequest by Smith's son-in-law of the copyright and stereotype
    plates of the DNB to the Oxford University Press in 1917. This was
    bitterly opposed by Charles Cannan, Secretary to the Delegates of the
    Press, but he died in 1919, and Davis and Weaver produced two more
    volumes, covering 1912-30 (Davis had the victims, Weaver the generals
    of the First World War). L. G.

    Wickham-Legg edited the next two decades, assisted in the second by E.

    Williams, who was responsible for the next two, up to 1970; he retired
    in 1980.

    The standard set by Stephen and Lee was kept up by Davis and Weaver,
    although constrained by the all too recent deaths of their subjects.
    Shortening the focus from ten centuries to ten years made problems
    that their successors failed to solve, the later volumes conspicuously
    arid and banal, apart from the odd posthumous hatchet job. The problem
    was not unrecognized at Oxford; immediately after the bequest, Davis
    wrote that "the tendency after the war will be towards the study of
    Movements and Developments rather than of pure biography". The study
    of medieval and some periods of later British history had been
    transformed by the series of abstracts of original documents produced
    by the Record Commission in the nineteenth century, and the DNB was
    carried on in its wake; it was now overtaken by its own success. In
    1941, John Sparrow analysed some of its shortcomings, its narrow
    vertical sections of profession, the equally constricted horizontal
    layers of class, the venial failure to anticipate the judgement of
    posterity, all matters on which Stephen and Lee had failed to agree.

    The 1970s, Williams's last decade, were miserable for Oxford
    University Press. The oil crisis had brought a threefold rise in the
    cost of paper, but "Resale Price Maintenance" required Board of Trade
    sanction (often painfully delayed) for any increase in the price of
    the 18,000 titles then in Oxford print. But the DNB was not forgotten;
    Janet Adam Smith wrote a cogent appeal for revision in the TLS in
    1972. I had been involved in planning what became the very successful
    New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, where the commercial
    success of the existing edition enabled a wholly rewritten text,
    computer-based and thus capable of simultaneous publication; I wrote a
    long report for the Delegates of the Press, recommending a similar
    approach. The "Compact" DNB duly appeared, but investment in the
    future was deemed impossible at a time of general retrenchment. The
    London branch of OUP was closed, and then the printing business, three
    centuries old, in Oxford. Short-sighted though the latter decision
    proved, the removal of the general publishing business to Oxford awoke
    the dormant academic side, no longer prosperous after the huge
    American investment in academe ended abruptly with the Kent State
    University massacre. But it was the huge success of "English as a
    Foreign Language" that restored both prosperity and funds, and enabled
    the Press to think again about the DNB.

    Christine Nicholls's volume of 1,000 Missing Persons, published in
    1993, led the way. It put right some shortcomings of the past: Sir
    George Cayley, deemed eccentric in his own time, was now recognized as
    a pioneer of aviation; more generally, something was done to rectify
    the imbalance between the sexes due to the rigidity that Sparrow had
    noticed. Already in April 1990, the Delegates had, with the British
    Academy, formally applied to the Government for funding to support the
    research costs of a complete new edition. This was granted through the
    Academy, the Press undertaking the cost of editorial (including
    contributors' fees), production and distribution costs.

    H. C. G. Matthew, editor of Gladstone's Diaries, was appointed editor
    and started work in September 1992. He found a plan that envisaged
    publication in serial parts, like the original DNB, due to start in
    1995 and end in 2010. He sensibly recognized the advantages of
    computer-compilation, and determined that the deadline for publication
    of the complete work should be brought forward to 2004.

    With equal good sense, he determined that the old edition should not
    be abandoned, no matter how obsolete some of it was, taking Smith's
    view of the DNB as "a living organism". Computer technology made it
    possible to reproduce the original text alongside the new (some of
    these are not original, for Lee went on revising until 1912).
    Digital-imaging techniques made it possible to illustrate the
    articles, and one in five of them now have portraits provided by the
    National Portrait Gallery.

    All this has been achieved, despite Colin Matthew's untimely death in
    1999, to be seamlessly succeeded by Brian Harrison (both owed much to
    Robert Faber, the project director). It has cost some £25 million, of
    which £3.7 million is government-funded, the Press supplying £19.2
    million towards all the costs of compilation and a further £3 million
    in manufacturing costs. This investment, editorial and financial,
    redeeming seventy years of half-hearted support, justifies the title
    Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which might seem at first
    sight presumptuous. Its publication, complete and on time, is an
    achievement worthy of the congratulation bestowed on it in the general
    introduction. Altogether, 54,922 articles have been written by 12,550
    authors, under a supervising committee of twenty, with two editors,
    thirteen consultant editors, 375 assistant editors, forty project
    staff, forty publishing staff (plus a further twenty-one OUP staff),
    three picture researchers, 144 research assistants, and about 300
    freelance, temporary, or part-time staff. The text that they have
    produced is available in sixty volumes of print (without the
    "original" texts) or online at an annual subscription of £195 (+ VAT -
    why?) for individuals, varying rates for institutions.

    With the subscription comes access to further revisions, which are to
    be continued under the editorship of Laurence Goldman. It is with this
    that the Oxford investment will be justified and (with luck) rewarded.
    Twenty-five years ago, a computer-based New Grove not only enabled
    simultaneous publication of the entire work, but subsequent
    derivatives, chronological or thematic (the volume on opera, for
    example), in book form. In 1995, Matthew promised the same in his
    Leslie Stephen Lecture on "The New Dictionary of National Biography".
    A set of thematic dictionaries of different professions, each named
    after one of the Muses (like Herodotus), might make entertaining
    reading. But it seems more likely that the ODNB will be the last such
    work to be published in that form, as well as on the Web, to which we
    all now turn first for any reference.

    How well does it work as a website? Well enough, in its primary
    purpose of delivering an article on someone you know whose life you
    wish to explore.

    Furthermore, you can obtain lists of all the names in alphabetic or
    chronological order, or in reverse, and also lists of members of
    "families" or "groups", related to the subject of your enquiry. You
    can also click on the "original" texts and on the names of
    contributors, with lists of the articles that they have written.

    There are, besides, "themes" on which you can obtain short essays or
    lists. You can even search the entire text for individual words or
    combinations thereof. All this is easily done, but ease of access is
    not the same as versatility, and here there are some shortcomings. You
    have to ask for names in the right way; it is no good keying in "Colin
    Matthew", it must be "H. C. G. Matthew" ("Matthew, H" or "Matthew, C"
    will work, although with an intermediate sort). Ada, Lady Lovelace
    must be sought as "Augusta Byron". Peers were always difficult to find
    in the DNB: titles might change, but not the family name, so you had
    to look there, however familiar the title.

    In the ODNB you can find them under either, but the names of the
    titles are a new hazard: "lord" or "countess" will work, but not
    "earl" or "duke" (perhaps considered to be names). "Families" or
    "groups" are limited to those identified as such: "Stephen" is a
    family, but not "Montagu". You can have a list of all Montagu Earls of
    Salisbury (except, inexplicably, Thomas, the ninth Earl), but it is no
    good trying to work out how the Montagus and Nevilles were related. As
    to "groups", you can have "Pre-Raphaelite women"but no Pre-Raphaelite
    Brotherhood , the Tolpuddle Martyrs but not the Souls; try a
    word-search, and you get, not Lady Desborough, but pages of those who
    left money for masses. You can look up "fields of interest",
    twenty-five in all, such as "art" or "trade and retailing". As to
    themes, a reflection of Davis's "Movements and Developments", they too
    are limited in scope: what is the use of a list of the names of all
    the Home Secretaries, or unique of a history of Berwick-upon Tweed
    (omitting that, due to a change in the official style of the realm, it
    remained at war with Germany without a break from 1914 until 1945)?

    Just searching the database, however, with all these options, is a
    wonderful diversion in itself, with endless possibilities. No doubt
    its rigidities will disappear, just as text-messaging has been
    transformed by a "memory" that anticipates the word you want as you
    key it. What, then, of the text itself? Over more than forty years I
    have grown used to the original DNB in sixty-three volumes, 30,941
    articles by 653 authors (most of them by fifty-seven in-house
    writers), bound in olive pebble-grain cloth. My edition belonged to G.
    M. Trevelyan (the subject of an excellent article by David Cannadine
    in the ODNB), and came to me after his death in 1962. It is marked in
    Volume One. "Send errata to the Secretary to the Delegates, Clarendon
    Press, Oxford". It seems unlikely that George Trevelyan did, since his
    note on G. C. Boase's article on Edward Horsman (1807-76), one of the
    Adullamites of 1866, has escaped revision.

    Boase wrote, "He best served the public by exposing jobs and other
    weak points in the ecclesiastical system"; Trevelyan noted, "He was
    finally driven out of politics for swindling a relative of his of
    enormous sums of money". The reviser is Matthew himself, one of 631 to
    which he turned his hand. He also wrote 147 new articles, in 289,447
    words, more than anyone else. Those on the more famous include A. J.
    Balfour, John Buchan, Edward VII and VIII (a proficient if not expert
    player of the bagpipes), George V and VI, Gladstone, Sidney Herbert,
    Harold Macmillan, C. F. Masterman, Florence Nightingale, Sir Cecil
    Spring-Rice, Connop Thirlwall and (with K. D. Reynolds) Queen
    Victoria. Herbert and Nightingale make a good pairing, Macmillan is
    certainly fair and sometimes vivid, if lacking in character, and
    Gladstone masterly, if a little too consciously so, in its control of
    so much material. The minor characters that Matthew added are an odd
    collection: Gladstone's sad sister Helen, who might have otherwise
    rated no more than a sentence in the article on her brother, Thomas
    Beighton, a missionary printer, James Jeremie, Dean of Lincoln, Isaac
    Jermy, victim of a celebrated mid-Victorian murder, and Nicholas
    Pocock, a contributor to the DNB. They all seem bit-players in the
    great Gladstonian drama.

    But the appearance of these figures is only part of more drastic
    changes in balance. The old DNB had 1,286 barristers and judges but
    only eight solicitors (not so surprising then). The clergy were even
    more dominant, and politicians and authors had more than their fair
    share, simply because facts about them were accessible. Now Anita
    McConnell has written 595 articles, mainly on scientists and
    inventors, Anne Pimlott Baker 470 on painters, gardeners and
    businessmen, and Elizabeth Baigent 437 on travellers, many more of
    each profession than in the DNB. The book trade, book-collectors and
    librarians are still under-represented, and the articles on newer
    media, such as broad- casting, are erratic - Lord Reith, Richard
    Dimbleby, Norman Collins and Sir George Barnes might have lived on
    different planets. The total number of persons is up by 42 per cent,
    an increase far from merely modern; every century before 1500 (except
    the seventh and eleventh) has half as many again. Matthew saw that
    "Stephen disliked the concept of absolute worth as a criterion for
    inclusion, sensibly preferring utility, interest, readers' demand,
    variety of coverage, spice, liveliness and individuality", and
    determined to pursue these goals further, fortified by far wider
    access to material.

    In this he was hoist on his own petard, the equally sensible decision
    to retain all the original subjects, however irrelevant their "worth"
    might seem today. But people previously excluded by geography or time,
    Britain's Roman and earlier native rulers, pre-1776 Americans and
    others whose lives had been spent abroad, as well as foreigners who
    lived in Britain, people in business and labour, arts and culture
    other than literary on a far wider definition - all these were now
    admitted. Persons famous for their opposition to British expansion,
    Powhattan, Nuncomar, Cetewayo and Te Rauparaha (but not Tipu Sultan or
    Nana Sahib) are now included, and with them strangers who came to this
    country, "Prince Giolo", brought by William Dampier from the
    Philippines, Omai, who came with Sir Joseph Banks, and Bennelong,
    Governor Phillip's ambassador to the Aborigines in Australia, who
    visited George III. The original eleven "legendary personages", among
    them King Arthur and Merlin, have grown to include Britannia, Friar
    Tuck, Junius, John Bull and Tommy Atkins (but not the Long Man of
    Cerne, arguably the most ancient Briton). And there are many, many
    more women.

    This rights an old wrong, but only to a limited extent. If the DNB
    came out when a class system was in force that segregated "public" and
    "private" life more than before or since (relegating women too easily
    to the "private" zone), adjusting the balance is easier said than
    done. Great political hostesses, head- mistresses, women religious,
    landowners, academics (now), or those in industry and trade, wise
    women and nurses, poets, novelists and even preachers, all need a
    proper account. But this still leaves "the feminist argument that
    women were simply excluded from the British power structure" (Matthew)
    unanswered. That they were included to a greater degree than the DNB
    suggests is certainly true, but how to reflect it? Many more are now
    included, double the number in the DNB, thanks to the specialist
    consultant editor, Jane Garnett. But "double" only means up from 5 per
    cent to 10 per cent; if the word "woman" recurs 4,615 times, "man" is
    still four times as frequent.

    Women famous in their own right are still apt to be found under their
    husbands, and others, like Marion Richardson, whose method taught
    generations of children to write well, are omitted. Not all the women
    are heroines like Margaret Roper (who gets a disappointing article),
    Florence Nightingale, or Edith Cavell. Matthew and Reynolds's Victoria
    is shorter and sharper than Lee's, and Reynolds, author of 252
    articles, accounts for women already famous, including Princess Diana,
    Louise von Alten, successively Duchess of Manchester and Devonshire,
    and Lady Flora Hastings.

    Gladstone's near- Nemesis Laura Thistlethwayte, "courtesan and
    lay-preacher", is dealt with by J.

    Gilliland, along with eighty-seven others, mostly actresses, with a
    few murderers and pirates. Theo Aronson has a royal straight flush
    with Mrs Keppel, Lillie Langtry and Skittles. Barbara White has
    written sixteen lively articles on women criminals; the beguiling Moll
    Cutpurse is by Paul Griffiths. There are about a hundred entries for
    suffragettes, among them Mary Sophia Allen, later a pioneer

    "Occupation" makes it hard to discern sex, the more so since words
    that denote it are usually pejorative. All fifty-one nurses are women,
    but Elizabeth Raffald is the only woman among the ten cooks, while
    "embroiderer", once a male preserve, now registers only one man out of
    seven. Of sixty-one "gardeners" only seven are women, plus three
    "garden designers", like Gertrude Jekyll. Against this, occupations
    once restricted to men now number many more women. But no increase in
    representation will satisfy ultra-feminists, who are interested only
    in some women, and even those do not always comply with what is
    desired of them. Thus Rebecca West's opinion of D. H. Lawrence ("She
    appreciated his vitalism, but found lapses in common sense,
    particularly in regard to issues of gender") leads to the conclusion
    "This sensitivity to the dynamics of gender makes the recovery of her
    work important for feminist studies". I can hear the snort of outraged
    derision that this would have provoked from its subject, and Jane
    Austen would no doubt have smiled at the elephantine account accorded
    to her, no improvement on Stephen's superannuated but perceptive essay
    at a tenth the length.

    On the other hand, Virginia Woolf, quintessence of the Stephen legacy,
    receives an understanding as well as objective account from Lyndall
    Gordon. Matters of specific feminine interest, such as fashion, do not
    come off so well. There is no article for Edward Molyneux, the first
    to put British fashion on the world map, though Norman Hartnell,
    Charles Worth, Thomas Burberry and Austin Reed are in. Constance Spry
    and Ernestine Carter, however, are both given their due, and there are
    moving evocations of Jean Muir (by Fiona MacCarthy), as well as
    Elizabeth David (Artemis Cooper) and Jill Tweedie (Katharine

    Along with fairer distribution of the sexes comes, inevitably, sex
    itself, once firmly a "private" matter. There was no mention of Lord
    Grey's notorious liaison with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in the
    DNB article by J. A. Hamilton, whose onslaught on George IV pulled no
    punches. Trevelyan's extensive notes do not allude to it, but E. A.
    Smith redresses this even handedly.

    Other extra-marital or same-sex connections are deftly acknowledged by
    a "See also" cross-reference. Owen Dudley Edwards deals with its many
    complexities in the life of Oscar Wilde in a marvellous article full
    of original apercus, such as "All the major Irish Renaissance writers
    of protestant origin showed some evangelical inheritance, substituting
    cultural for spiritual leadership". Perhaps its most extreme
    expression comes in the sad and tender account of Donald Cammell, as
    irresistible a human being as Bruce Chatwin and even more attractive.
    The further breadth of human nature, as rich as any in the DNB, is
    displayed to the full in the 142 articles written by Richard
    Davenport-Hines, every one a winner, notably that on Ernest Boulton,
    the Victorian transvestite. Some are eminently respectable,
    distinguished either by birth, like the ninth Duke of Devonshire, or
    by achievement, such as Sibyl Colefax, Richard Monckton-Milnes (a
    particularly good article), or Sir George Lewis. But generally there
    is some interesting flaw, as in the lives of Chips Channon, Lady
    Caroline Blackwood, or J. Meade Falkner (minus the breach-of-contract
    trial that turned him from armaments to writing novels and collecting
    liturgical manuscripts).

    Some are outright rogues - aristocratic, Lords Lucan and Erroll
    ("colonialist and philanderer"), commercial, Emil Savundra, Peter
    Rachman and Robert Maxwell (his vast influence on the book trade not
    forgotten), or political, Tom Driberg and Stephen Ward. Others recall
    famous crimes or trials: William Palmer the poisoner, James Bulger (a
    strange inclusion) and "Jack the Ripper". James Goldsmith, John
    Aspinall, Mme Blavatsky and Horace Cole, the practical joker, hover in
    the wings.

    Not that the DNB itself was short of the eccentric. Geoffrey Madan's
    list of seventeen lives "not normally consulted" included John Selby
    Watson, the classical scholar who murdered his wife (Crockford, asked
    if he was the only clergyman guilty of wife-murder, replied cautiously
    that he was the only one to have been convicted of it) and John
    Howell, the inventor - "having made, at considerable expense, a model
    in the shape of a fish, he entered the machine, tried to swim under
    water at Leith, and was very nearly drowned". The new versions are now
    less incisive, as are the judgements. "He was as opposed to ritualism
    as he was to rationalism, and every form of liberalism he abhorred",
    the old verdict on Dean Burgon, is now watered down. Other petty
    criticisms might be made. The useful lists of works in the DNB have
    gone, "since library catalogues are so abundant and full" (but not
    always accurate). "Wealth at death" less usefully takes their place:
    Chatwin left £584,388, Bess of Hardwick was just "very wealthy". The
    "families and groups", 408 in all, lack coherence, and seem to have
    grown out of the private enthusiasms of the more prolific

    The source references, on the other hand, are immensely expanded, and
    show the value of a web-based "literature search". Very rarely, older
    but still useful works escape; Modern English Biography (1892-1921) by
    Frederic Boase, one of the 1993 Missing Persons, still needs to be
    consulted. The lists of "likenesses" remain, although the 10,000
    portraits are a greater gain. The National Portrait Gallery's archive,
    not just the pictures on its walls, but the vast number of prints and
    photographs that it also holds, is as great a national asset as the
    DNB, and not so well known. The idea of joining forces has produced a
    double benefit. To see Reynolds's vision of Warren Hastings en-livens
    Peter Marshall's excellent article, one of many on the British in
    India. This vision of the past adds a whole new dimension to the
    verbal record.

    It can be improved: the Eton picture of "Jane Shore" is of a half
    naked woman known (wrongly) as Diane de Poitiers, although the
    lifetime portrait of Edward IV's mistress is cited in the article's
    references; and Caroline Norton is unfairly photographed as a sad old
    woman, not in the beauty painted by Landseer, Hayter and Grant. The
    choice of who gets a likeness is also erratic: Joseph Wright's Sir
    Brooke Boothby and Thomas Day, two of his best portraits, are not
    there, and every relic of Leslie Stephen's article on Day, arguably
    his best, has gone with it. Of all that he wrote, only those on Allan
    Cunningham, Calverley, Augustus de Morgan, Laurence Oliphant and James
    Spedding remain. Stephen himself receives an excellent account from
    Alan Bell, as does George Smith from Bill Bell.

    This is, then, a different work, in more ways than the passage of time
    and expansion of scope allow, not Stephen's but Matthew's vision of a
    national biography. What, overall, is the difference? Matthew had a
    clear view of the merits of Stephen's vision, quoted above, and
    pursued it with even greater vigour, writing a far larger number of
    articles himself. But it was not his alone. The army of contributors
    and editors have added to it, but in a way more fragmented than the
    DNB, kaleidoscopic rather than organic. The army of contributors
    (twenty times as many as the DNB) and editors was too large for
    ordinary human control, and a mechanical system took its place.

    The engine of compilation that Matthew created was efficient but
    inflexible. The shape of every article was determined by a complex
    form that contributors had to fill in (they were also forbidden to
    communicate with each other, "a sound and strictly maintained policy"
    to Matthew, but an absurd constraint to them). Like all who take to a
    cause late in life, he seized on computer-compilation with an almost
    apocalyptic fervour. Well aware that delay begets greater delay, he
    drove the project forward with more than ordinary energy, as if he
    knew time was not on his side. Final editing was kept inside the house
    (with some disastrous results), but even so it took even greater
    acceleration at the last minute to bring the ODNB out on time. There
    are signs of this haste, from misprints to errors of selection, but
    something else was lost further back. "He maintained a rare attitude
    of humility, of astonishment and admiration, before the unpredictable
    spectacle of life"; the words are Edmund Wilson's on Lytton Strachey,
    but they describe what Stephen did, and what the ODNB engine lacks. Dr
    Johnson said, "At Oxford, as we all know, much will be forgiven to
    literary merit", which many of the articles possess; as much is due to
    Matthew's determination, generously recorded in his successor's long

    Stephen Leacock thought that the essence of an Oxford education was to
    be "well smoked" by your tutor. What is lost has gone like the smoke
    from Stephen's and Lee's pipes.

    What, finally, of the question with which we began? Is biography the
    literary form that expresses our age? Simultaneously with the ODNB,
    and, clearly, by no coincidence, Lives for Sale, edited by Mark
    Bostridge, a set of "Biographers' Tales" by thirty-three well-known
    modern practitioners has also been published (256pp. Continuum.
    £16.99. 0 826 47573 6). These, like anglers' tales, fall into two
    categories: "the one that got away", and "so large that even I, when
    talking of it afterwards, may have no need to lie". But all
    biographers do lie, if only by selection. What makes most of these
    pieces, trivial or serious, uniformly engaging is the revelation of
    the sleights of hand, cunning, even deceit, that landed the fish; a
    fly will catch one, while another requires a trawler.

    Self-conscious heirs of Strachey, they oscillate between his model and
    the Victorian "Life and Letters" against which he rebelled, only
    himself to be so memorialized by Michael Holroyd. They all know the
    fallibility of memory, in witnesses and even documents, and are
    themselves fallible (my recollection of the inception of Robert
    Skidelsky's Life of Keynes is quite different from his). But by fair
    means or foul, what they are after is the truth. This is transparent
    in the work of perhaps the greatest contemporary biographer (not among
    Bostridge's thirty three), Richard Holmes. Virginia Woolf grew up
    under the shadow of the DNB, and Orlando is a playful satire on its
    ideas and ideals. Her verdict, "By telling us the true facts, by
    sifting the little from the big, and shaping the whole so that we
    perceive the outline, the biographer does more to stimulate the
    imagination than any poet or novelist save the very greatest", is its

    John Gross's article on the entries for Literature, Journalism and
    Publishing in the ODNB will be published next week.

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