Books: Fresh Air in a Hall of Fame ; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Pounds 7,500 (or Pounds 6,500 before 30 November). Annual Individual Online Subscription: Pounds 195 Plus VAT from WWW.Oxforddnb.Com/ Oxforddnb/subscribers/

By Brendon, Piers | The Independent (London, England), September 24, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Books: Fresh Air in a Hall of Fame ; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Pounds 7,500 (or Pounds 6,500 before 30 November). Annual Individual Online Subscription: Pounds 195 Plus VAT from WWW.Oxforddnb.Com/ Oxforddnb/subscribers/


Brendon, Piers, The Independent (London, England)


If you have noticed any writers or academics looking particularly hangdog and down-at-heel in recent years, this may well be because they are contributors to the new Dictionary of National Biography. Some 12,500 of them wrote the 50,000 articles chronicling the lives of nearly 55,000 dead Britons now published in 60 volumes and online. It is a magnificent national pantheon. But the new DNB was even harder to serve than the old, which employed Spartan methods "heartlessly enforced by the editor's vigilance".

The first editor of today's work, the late and much-lamented Colin Matthew, imposed testing tasks on his highly-honoured but lowly-paid contributors - of whom, to declare an interest, I am one. They had to provide abstruse financial and family details about their subjects. They had to give sources and references, which amount to 7.5 million of the 62.5 million words in the dictionary. And they had to struggle with conventions that sometimes seemed perverse. This was especially so in the matter of initial capital letters for proper names, about which the Oxford University Press has a phobia, though it capitulated, so to speak, over Labour Party and Gaiety Girl.

Equally tough are OUP's demands on reviewers, who had only a week to peruse the new DNB over the internet. Faults in its own software made the task harder during my trial period. So this notice can only be a rough draft of criticism, a preliminary attempt to assess one of the greatest literary enterprises ever to see the light of day.

Since editorial control was so strict and the prime purpose was to bring modern scholarship to bear on the subjects, it is reasonable to start with the odd slip. Hannen Swaffer is misspelled; PG Wodehouse's novel is The Swoop! not Swoop; Sir George Barlow was not the third of four sons. Neil Edmonstone's illegitimate family is ignored. "Anglo-Indian" is used inconsistently, sometimes mean- ing Eurasian and sometimes the English in India.

A more general complaint is that some of the articles smack of the textbook. Since so many standard authorities are holding forth on their chosen subjects, there is inevitably recapitulation, though perhaps nothing on the scale encountered by Leslie Stephen, editor of the old DNB, who found one contributor copying out his own articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The writing varies. There is some brilliance, more jargon and much plain, workmanlike prose. Gone, for the most part, is the solemn organ note that signalled the old DNB as the Valhalla of the Establishment.

The entries, too, are more eclectic, though the old DNB was less orthodox and more astringent than its reputation suggests. Stephen believed in the "real value of good, sweeping, outrageous cynicism". All the original subjects, notably a large clutch of clergymen, are included, their texts revised or rewritten. But 13,500 new entries feature a more representative selection of women, provincials, immigrants (Handel, Marx, etc), business and labour figures.

There are also a few jokers in the pack. Two mythical embodiments of the nation are included, Britannia and John Bull, the former first visible in rock reliefs in southern Turkey during the first century AD, the latter born soon after 1700 and "ludicrously obsolete" by 1900. Richard Davenport- Hines pens a suitably incisive essay on Jack the Ripper, "the first sexual killer commanding international notoriety", whose identity remains a mystery.

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Books: Fresh Air in a Hall of Fame ; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Pounds 7,500 (or Pounds 6,500 before 30 November). Annual Individual Online Subscription: Pounds 195 Plus VAT from WWW.Oxforddnb.Com/ Oxforddnb/subscribers/
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