[Paleopsych] TLS: Feminine wills

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Feminine wills

    John Gross
    17 December 2004
    A literary tour through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

    There are 7,453 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
    listed under the heading "Literature, Journalism and Publishing". The
    story doesn't stop there, however. "Literature" is a fluid term, and
    there are hundreds, probably thousands of men and women in the
    Dictionary who have been assigned to other categories but who also
    have some claim to be considered literary figures. You won't find
    Lancelot Andrewes listed under "Literature", for instance, or William
    Cobbett, or David Hume, or T. H. Huxley, but you will of course find
    substantial articles about them. To review such a mass of material is
    beyond the power of an individual. It is a job which, if it were ever
    seriously undertaken, would call for a committee. But one can dip, one
    can reconnoitre, one can browse - and one can form a broad judgement.

    Having sampled its literary entries over several weeks, I am in no
    doubt that the Dictionary is a great achievement - a worthy successor
    to the DNB of Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, and in many respects an
    improvement. Its scholarly virtues are matched by its breadth of
    spirit and its liveliness.

    The principles and policies underlying it are set out in a long
    introduction, but to grasp its full character these pages ought to be
    supplemented by the excellent entry for Colin Matthew, written by Ross
    McKibbin. As editor from 1992 until his death in 1999, Matthew was the
    prime architect of the Dictionary: it bears the stamp of his openness,
    warmth and good sense. He was also an innovator, determined to broaden
    the Dictionary's scope and to modernize its assumptions, and eager for
    contributors to stress the changing historical reputations of the
    figures with whom they were dealing. At the same time, while he was a
    man of the Left, his convictions were tempered by a certain cultural
    conservatism. One of his most significant decisions as editor was to
    retain all the entries in the old DNB all of them revised or
    rewritten, but all of them still there.

    The result, as McKibbin says, is that the new dictionary is "a
    collective account of the attitudes of two centuries: the nineteenth
    as well as the twentieth, the one developing organically from the
    other". And along with this sense of continuity, Matthew sought to
    preserve the civilized, conversational, unpedantic tone which Stephen
    had tried to foster. Like the DNB (and its supplementary volumes), the
    ODNB is more than a work of reference. It is designed to be read, not
    just consulted.

    Another respect in which Matthew followed Stephen was in taking on the
    role of a writing editor. Many of the best entries in the DNB are
    signed "L.S.": Matthew wrote or (mostly) revised no fewer than 778
    articles for his own Dictionary. The most substantial of the wholly
    original ones, reflecting his interests as a historian, are on
    politicians, monarchs and public figures -Gladstone, Balfour, Edward
    VII, Florence Nightingale and others. But he also contributed a number
    of entries on authors and journalists. His article on John Buchan is
    outstanding - a vast improvement on the one it replaces, marked by a
    real inwardness with its subject.

    (Matthew himself was a Scotsman.) He also succeeds in breathing life
    into such largely forgotten figures as the Nonconformist editor and
    journalist William Robertson Nicoll - a great maker of literary
    reputations in his time - although one might have hoped for more from
    his account of the abrasive Tory man of letters Charles Whibley. It
    fails to convey the flavour of Whibley's personality, or to mention
    the essay by T. S. Eliot which is the one place where the general
    reader is likely to encounter him today.

    One of Matthew's most important initial recommendations as editor was
    that the Dictionary should be illustrated. Over 10,000 entries (around
    18 per cent of the total) are accompanied by a likeness of the
    subject; the criteria for selecting these portraits has been carefully
    thought out, and the work as a whole is greatly enhanced by them. With
    major authors, where you have some idea of the available
    possibilities, the choice of image almost always seems judicious and

    With lesser figures, the results are often intriguing, especially if
    you haven't seen a likeness of them before. Putting a face to a writer
    for the first time can modify your whole sense of him.

    The editorial rulings as to which authors should or shouldn't be
    granted the privilege of a portrait are more debatable. If the
    Dictionary includes a likeness of the nineteenth-century poet Edwin
    Atherstone (is there a single living human being who has read his
    massive biblical epics?), it is hard to see on what principle there
    isn't one of Charlotte Mew, say, or Isaac Rosenberg. Among the
    professors of literature, it seems reasonable that we should be given
    a chance to see what L. C. Knights looked like, but then why not I. A.
    Richards? And not every choice of image will command universal assent.
    If authenticity or possible authenticity is the first consideration,
    I'm a bit puzzled as to why the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (the
    one with the earring) should have been chosen in preference to the
    Droeshout frontispiece to the First Folio or the bust in Holy Trinity,
    Stratford.You could argue that Virginia Woolf isn't necessarily best
    represented by a photograph taken when she was twenty. The well-known
    portrait of Ruskin by Millais is printed the wrong way round.

    Among other innovations, the most useful (for students, at least) is a
    much fuller treatment of references and sources, while the most
    gossipworthy is the inclusion, whenever possible, of an individual's
    "wealth at death". The figures cited for this last, which represent
    probate, may not reflect the full picture, but they are undeniably
    interesting, and sometimes surprising.

    Henry James, for instance, left £8,961. It seems a curiously small
    sum, all the more so when you compare it, say, with the £32,359 left
    by George Meredith or the £95,428 left by Thomas Hardy.

    The new Dictionary contains entries for many writers who are not to be
    found in the old one. Some are men and women who have died since 1990,
    too late for inclusion in the last of the DNB supplements: Graham
    Greene, V. S. Pritchett and Anthony Powell are notable examples.
    Others - a much larger contingent - were passed over by earlier
    editors. They make a valuable addition, though one which would be even
    more striking if it were not for a previous attempt to remedy
    omissions, Missing Persons (1993). That volume included articles,
    admittedly fairly short ones, on major figures who had failed to find
    a place in the 1901 DNB - Thomas Traherne (virtually unknown at the
    time), Gerard Manley Hopkins (largely unknown), Dorothy Wordsworth
    (tucked into the entry for William) - and on some major- minor figures
    who had been overlooked by the supplements, including Baron Corvo and
    Ronald Firbank. None of the newcomers in the ODNB is in the same class
    as the first group, or even (apart from one or two post-1990 figures)
    the second.

    It is in the treatment which has been accorded writers who were
    already represented in the DNB that the greatest gains have been made.
    The new entries embody, in the first instance, the advances of a
    hundred years and more of literary scholarship. To put it in more or
    less tabloid terms, there was no mention in the original entry for
    Wordsworth of Annette Vallon, and no mention in the entry for Dickens
    of Ellen Ternan. Now we know better (and Ellen Ternan gets an entry of
    her own, by Claire Tomalin). But even famous instances like these give
    only a faint notion of the extent to which research has deepened our
    knowledge and modified our perceptions.

    On the whole, the leading writers dealt with in the ODNB have been
    assigned to leading authorities, contributors whose scholarly
    credentials are widely recognized. As for criticism and
    interpretation, a dictionary is no place to launch bold original
    theories, and most of the critical comment in this one sticks to the
    middle ground. But it avoids the fussiness which so often goes with
    that territory: it is lucid and concise, with relatively few descents
    into stodge.

    With so many admirable articles to choose from, it is hard to single
    out one or two for praise without seeming arbitrary, but Pat Rogers on
    Dr Johnson and R. F. Foster on Yeats could reasonably be cited as
    model contributions. Both pieces are heroic feats of compression; both
    tell stories which must sometimes have seemed all too familiar to the
    authors but are nonetheless related with freshness and verve. And then
    there is the most idiosyncratic of the articles devoted to a major
    writer, the one on Tennyson. It is by Christopher Ricks, unmistakably
    so: we are told at one point, for example, that the poet's reputation
    changed as "imminent Edwardians ousted eminent Victorians". But along
    with the stylistic tics, the piece has all Ricks's penetration and
    power. It makes particularly telling use of quotations from Tennyson's

    The article on Dickens has the added piquancy of replacing one which
    was notoriously unsympathetic. The original piece was the work of
    "L.S.", and it displays many of his virtues, but it also contains what
    is possibly the snootiest sentence in the entire DNB: "If literary
    fame could be safely measured by popularity with the half-educated,
    Dickens must claim the highest position among English novelists". A
    whole history lay behind this jibe. The Stephen family took Dickens's
    satire on the Civil Service personally. Leslie Stephen's brother
    Fitzjames, who disliked the novelist anyway, had written a slashing
    attack on Little Dorrit. (He was convinced that Tite Barnacle of the
    Circumlocution Office was meant to be a caricature of his father, Sir
    James Stephen.) Leslie Stephen himself, however, was at least prepared
    to leave the question of Dickens's greatness open. He concluded his
    DNB article by observing that the decision between his own cool
    verdict and "more eulogistic opinions" had to be left to "a future
    edition of this dictionary". And now the new edition is here, and the
    article on Dickens, by Michael Slater, is indeed eulogistic. It is
    also discriminating, and solidly rooted in modern Dickens scholarship.

    Working out the balance between literary assessment and straight
    biography seems to have been left to individual contributors, and some
    entries tilt too far towards assessment. There is an excellent article
    on Arnold Bennett by John Lucas, but much of it might have been
    written with a guide to literature in mind rather than a dictionary of
    biography. Ezra Pound's caricature of Bennett in Mauberley is
    discussed in some detail, but for an idea of the part played by the
    novelist in London life in the 1920s you would do better to look up
    the old article in the 1949 supplement by Frank Swinnerton. In many
    entries, critical appraisal is mostly confined to a final section on
    the history of the subject's reputation. These are sometimes unduly
    academic. The changing fortunes of Shelley in the first half of the
    twentieth century are considered purely in terms of "lit crit" -
    Eliot, Leavis and so on. A broader approach, and a more appropriate
    one, would have taken into account such things as Shaw's championship
    of the poet and Andre Maurois's popular biographical portrait Ariel
    (the very first Penguin).

    In general, contributors have avoided academic jargon, especially its
    more recent varieties, and few of them have been tempted to put their
    authors through the mangle of literary theory. A partial exception is
    Bruce Stewart, in his article on Joyce. Much of the time Stewart
    offers a straightforward and often spirited account of the writer's
    life and work, but he is also at pains to inform us that "ecriture
    feminine was the very definition of Joyce's way of writing from
    'Penelope' (in Ulysses) onwards", and that "the nature of the colonial
    world from which he sprang dictated that the only authentic
    representation of reality in language must follow the contours of a
    divided world". In his final summing-up Stewart is heavily preoccupied
    with the efforts made by some Irish critics to "repatriate" Joyce or
    enlist him under the banner of Irish nationalism. Stewart's own view
    is that the paradoxes of Joyce's position - at once very Irish and
    very cosmopolitan - are best accounted for by "the post-colonial
    concept of hybridity".

    Some of the political observations which pop up in other entries are
    more partisan than the occasion warrants. Peter Holland's article on
    Shakespeare is a case in point. The first half, devoted to
    Shakespeare's life, could hardly be bettered.

    The second half, which deals with his influence and reputation, is
    packed with interesting material, but at one point it adopts what is
    surely the wrong tone for a work like the Dictionary. In the 1980s, we
    are told, "right-wing Conservative politicians like Michael Portillo
    returned with mechanical frequency to Ulysses' speech on degree in
    Troilus and Cressida as 'proof' that Shakespeare supported the
    hierarchies and institutions tories were committed to maintain". The
    hostility here is too naked. Colin Matthew himself wasn't above
    getting in a political blow. In his article on Samuel Smiles, he
    doesn't mention the centenary edition of Self-Help, which had a
    notable introductory essay by Asa Briggs, and perhaps there is no
    reason why he should have done. But he makes a point of telling us
    that an abridged version which was published in 1986, with an
    introduction by Sir Keith Joseph, did Smiles "little service".

    Nowhere have the editors of the Dictionary worked harder to remedy
    past injustices than in improving the representation of women. This is
    as true of literature as other departments, though it seems likely
    that women writers were less under-represented in the DNB than most
    social or occupational groups. By way of a small test, consider the
    authors included in the compendious anthology edited by Angela
    Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, Victorian Women Poets (1995). Thirty
    six of them died before 1900. Of these, three haven't even been
    accorded a place in the ODNB, and can perhaps be set to one side. Of
    the remainder, all but eight - twenty-five out of thirty-three - were
    in the original Dictionary. It doesn't seem an outrageously low score.
    Which is not to say that the newcomers shouldn't have gained admission
    the first time round. They include such interesting figures as the
    anarchist Louisa Guggenberger (nee Bevington) and the tragic Scottish
    working-class poet and autobiographer Ellen Johnston.

    It isn't only a question of the number of women in the Dictionary, but
    of the way in which they are presented. To see how much ground had to
    be made up, you need only compare the DNB and the ODNB on the subject
    of Mary Wollstonecraft. In the new article devoted to her, she is
    treated thoughtfully, sympathetically and at considerable length. In
    the old article (by L.S., alas) her most famous book is dismissed in
    two short sentences: "She published her Vindication of the Rights of
    Women in 1792. It had some success, was translated into French, and
    scandalised her sisters".

    Many other women writers get much fuller treatment than they did in
    the DNB. But it is possible to exaggerate the sins of the past -
    Stephen on Mary Wollstonecraft is only part of the story - and to make
    Victorian critics sound more benighted than they were. In the course
    of the new (and very thorough) entry for Aphra Behn by Janet Todd, for
    instance, we are told that in the nineteenth century she was "either
    ignored or vilified". But if we turn to the old DNB article on Behn,
    we get a rather different impression. It is by Edmund Gosse, and he
    takes a prissy and disapproving view of her more scandalous
    activities. But he also says that "we may be sure that a woman so
    witty, so active, and so versatile, was not degraded, though she might
    be lamentably unconventional. She was the George Sand of the
    Restoration, the 'chere maitre' to such men as Dryden, Otway and
    Southerne, who all honoured her with their friendship. Her genius and
    vivacity were undoubted; her plays are very coarse, but very lively
    and humorous, while she possessed an indisputable touch of lyric
    genius". Vilification? I don't think so. Indeed, Gosse's sketch seems
    to me more calculated to arouse interest in Behn in the general reader
    than the rather dogged account of her historical significance that you
    get in the new article.

    It is when it comes to lesser lives, the lives you are unlikely or
    unable to read about elsewhere, that a biographical dictionary can be
    most rewarding. The shorter entries were one of the glories of the
    DNB, and the same is true of its successor.

    They were also one of its great pleasures, and if anything the new
    ones are even more enjoyable. The social scope of the work has been
    widened, and old inhibitions have been dropped; at the same time
    contributors continue to write with relish - with a feeling for quirks
    of character, and an eye for revealing detail.

    This is not to say that there aren't misjudgements. The article on the
    eighteenth-century poet Matthew Green, author of The Spleen, relegates
    him firmly to the category of light verse, and gives no idea of his
    true quality. (Leavis, eccentrically but not crazily, thought that
    Green was a more engaging poet than Swift.) The article on the
    Romantic poet George Darley suggests, no doubt correctly, that much of
    his work is unreadable, but misses out on the rather more important
    fact that he wrote a few marvellous lines (try "The Mermaidens'
    Vesper-Hymn", for instance).

    Sometimes the ODNB takes a step backwards. The article in the 1959
    supplement on Angela Brazil was a sparkling affair - not surprisingly,
    given that it was by Arthur Marshall. And Marshall didn't just
    highlight absurdities, he also seized on picturesque facts - pointing
    out, for instance, that when Angela Brazil was at art school one of
    her fellow students was Baroness Orczy of The Scarlet Pimpernel. But
    all this has gone by the board: the entry which has replaced Marshall
    is dry and pedestrian.

    Many of the new articles, on the other hand, are revised versions that
    retain the best bits of the old ones (which were often based on
    first-hand knowledge), while where there has been a complete change
    the gains generally far outweigh any losses. The new entry for
    Baroness Orczy herself is a good deal more informative than the old
    one. We simply used to be told, for instance, that her father, a
    Hungarian landowner, "abandoned agriculture for a musical career". We
    now learn that he was a figure of considerable importance: as
    Intendant of the national theatres in Budapest in the 1870s, he
    championed Wagner and appointed Hans Richter as Kapellmeister.

    The ODNB is stronger on dodgy characters than the DNB was. There is a
    first rate portrait of Frank Harris (by Richard Davenport-Hines) and
    an excellent account of Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press.
    Davenport-Hines also contributes, among some thirty other colourful
    items, an article on Jack the Ripper which lists J. K.

    Stephen - Leslie Stephen's nephew - among the candidates who have been
    fingered by Ripperologists as the possible killer. (The brief entry
    for J. K. Stephen himself is quite inadequate: it mentions his poems,
    but gives you no inkling of what kind of poems they were.) On the
    whole, disreputable or wayward personalities make for livelier reading
    than respectable ones, but you can never be sure who is going to prove

    John Drinkwater was already a fairly dim figure when he made his
    appearance in the 1949 supplement, and he is even dimmer now. Yet the
    new article on him is full of good material. It turns out that not
    content with writing verse plays about Abraham Lincoln, Cromwell,
    Socrates, Mary Queen of Scots, Robert E. Lee and other historical
    personalities, he adapted a play from the Italian about Napoleon: it
    was by Mussolini. (Shaw is supposed to have said, when someone asked
    him why he had decided to write about St Joan, "To save her from
    Drinkwater".) Not surprisingly - given Colin Matthew's professional
    interests, and those of his successor, Brian Harrison - historians are
    particularly well covered. The entry for Namier is much more vigorous
    than the one it replaces. (One characteristic touch it reveals is that
    Namier, who knew how much his career owed to a favourable review of
    one of his books by G. M. Trevelyan, "claimed to have repaid his debt
    by refusing ever to review Trevelyan's books".) The article on G. R.
    Elton by Patrick Collinson is enthralling, and likely to send readers
    back to Collinson's articles on Elton's predecessors Neale and
    Pollard. Many people know that Elton was Ben Elton's uncle; it will
    probably come as more of a surprise to learn that one of his
    grandfathers was a schoolfriend of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

    Literary scholars and academic critics are also well represented,
    though there are gaps - nothing on D. W. Harding, for instance. Many
    Oxford figures are honoured - John Carey contributes a mellow piece
    about Nevill Coghill - but F. W. Bateson is passed over in silence.
    There is, as is only right, a fine account of Sidney Lee, the joint
    handiwork of Alan Bell and Katherine Duncan-Jones.

    One important decision which Matthew and his colleagues took was to
    extend the coverage of foreigners, including "foreigners whose visits
    to Britain may have been short, but whose observations may have been
    influential". There are now, for the first time, articles on Voltaire
    and Hippolyte Taine, for example (though the latter doesn't mention
    Leslie Stephen's politely scathing account of Taine's History of
    English Literature). Possibly this category should have been widened
    to include visitors who were less well known in Britain at the time
    they were here, such as Theodor Fontane.

    Writers from Central Europe who made their home in Britain in the
    middle decades of the twentieth century are under-represented. George
    Mikes the humorist, Erich Heller the critic and George Lichtheim the
    historian of Marxism are only three of the many missing persons in
    this group. Elsewhere there are inconsistencies. If Ezra Pound is
    included, why not Alice James or Robert Frost, both of whom spent
    significant periods of their lives in England? It is entirely right
    that the London-based American war correspondent Edward R. Murrow
    should get an entry, but you could argue that Nathaniel Hawthorne,
    say, deserved one too, on the strength of his time as a consul in
    Liverpool and his book Our Old Home.

    As for the Dictionary as a whole, there are lots of minor literary
    absentees one would like to have seen included. The treatment of crime
    fiction, for example, is very good as far as it goes, but there are
    definite gaps. The ultra- prolific John Creasey should have been
    included; so should John Dickson Carr; so, whatever one thinks of him,
    should James Hadley Chase; so should Anthony Berkeley Cox - if not for
    the books he wrote as "Anthony Berkeley", then certainly on account of
    the ones he wrote as "Francis Iles".

    Still, the impressive thing is how much ground has been covered, and
    how many byways (and highways) the reader is left free to explore.
    Popular literature in particular, and what Leslie Stephen or Sidney
    Lee would have called lighter literature, provide some of the ODNB's
    merriest pages. The article on Sellar and Yeatman of 1066 and All That
    is a gem. (They had very different personalities.) There is an
    admirable cameo of John Wells by Ferdinand Mount; the article on Frank
    Muir makes it clear that it was Muir and Dennis Norden, and not, as
    legend suggests, Kenneth Williams who were responsible for the line
    "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me". Or take Harry Graham.
    His one claim to immortality is Ruthless Rhymes; but how pleasant to
    discover that he was once engaged to Ethel Barrymore, or that the song
    lyrics he wrote for the stage included the English version of Richard
    Tauber's "You Are My Heart's Delight".

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