From the Cracks of History: Philip Carter Celebrates the Lives Reclaimed by the Newly-Published Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Article excerpt

HERE ARE THREE PEOPLE YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD OF and who rarely make it into the history books.

Frances Matthew (d.1629) was the wife of Tobie Matthew, dean of Durham and, from 1606, archbishop of York. Frances complemented her husband throughout his promotion in the church. Ever 'busy with Scripture', she was much in demand by mothers seeking to place their daughters in her household. But Frances's own family life was less steady. Of her surviving sons, one was a wastrel and one a convert to Roman Catholicism who later became a Jesuit. A disappointed father all but wrote his children from his will, bequeathing his property to Frances. In the year before her death she transferred his collection of 3,000 books to the dean and chapter at York and so established the York Minister Library--evidence, according to her monument, of 'exemplary wisdom [and] ... virtues not only above her sex, but the times'.

Mary Saxby's was a quite different life. Born in London in 1738 she experienced abuse, poverty, prostitution, and latterly religious conversion. That we know anything of Mary is due to her leaving a manuscript autobiography, posthumously published as Memoirs of a Female Vagrant in 1806. The work provides a detailed and frank account of the hardships of the eighteenth century's itinerant working class. A later generation took up Saxby's cause to celebrate her religious redemption and encourage middle-class readers to consider 'these numerous bands of semi-savages dispersed amidst our highly civilised countrymen'.

Lastly, there is John Travers Cornwell (1900-16). On leaving school, John favoured a life at sea but his parents saw him appointed a delivery boy for Brooke Bond & Co in Leyton, Essex. However, with the outbreak of war he joined HMS Chester in May 1916. Within a month his ship was involved at Jutland; there John was severely injured but remained at his post until he died of his wounds. In September he was his recently widowed mother received from George V; another of her sons was killed shortly before the war's end. In the wake of his death John became a symbol of youthful heroism, the subject of postage stamps and patriotic verse; September 30th, 1916 was declared Jack Cornwell day in British elementary schools.

In addition to their now relative obscurity, what connects Matthew, Saxby and Cornwell is that they are newcomers to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Publication of the Oxford DNB in September 2004 makes public the 16,315 people (all deceased) who now gain a place in the Dictionary for the first time. They join the existing 38,607 individuals who, appearing in the DNB's first edition (1885-1900) or its twentieth-century supplements, have had their entries rewritten or revised for 2004. Of these newcomers, much attention will initially be given to 'headline' figures (from Julius Caesar to George Washington to Freddie Mercury) who were either omitted by previous editors or gain a place in the Oxford DNB's considerably extended coverage of twentieth-century, figures up to December 31st, 2000.

Yet the majority of the dictionary's new entrants are not household names. Rather they are people worthy of record for their influence on all aspects of the British past, national and international. Many will be familiar to specialists. But, as with Matthew, Saxby or Cornwell, it's hoped that the Oxford DNB will also offer some surprises in its latest commentary on national biography:

Selection of these 16,315 new subjects owes much to the view of its founding editor, Colin Matthew, that the new dictionary be not 'merely a roll-call of the great and the good'. What matters is an individual's influence and relevance to historical study, broadly defined. The result became Matthew's 'integrationalist approach' by which 'many minor figures' are included 'often in half a column'. This aim was pursued by editors' focus on new research fields and methods which have discovered historical personnel in areas of economic, social or cultural activity, and is now evident in a dictionary more fully representative of national diversity--characterised by gender, profession, social status, race and geography. The result is lives reclaimed for a national record; plucked, in effect, from the cracks of history by new ways of looking at the British past.

A central feature of these perspectives is the influence of social and cultural history both in extending research into new areas--crime, poverty, sport or work--and in the open-mindedness it fosters when identifying candidates for study, Nowhere is this more evident than in the history of women. It was the shortage of articles on women which late twentieth-century readers identified as a key weakness of the Victorian DNB, and redressing this deficit has been a major or concern of today's advisers, editors, and authors. In view of the original shortfall, a number of new female subjects are relatively well-known figures (the fifteenth-century magnate Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, for example).

But by drawing on modern research the Oxford DNB also digs deeper. Some newcomers--such as the parish constable Jane Kitchen (d.1658) or the soldier Dorothy Lawrence (b.1896)--are noteworthy as women who fulfilled male roles either openly or surreptitiously; others, among them the scandalous twelfth-century Nun of Walton or the infanticide Elizabeth Butchill (c.1758-80), are remarkable for breaking free of prescribed patterns of behaviour. A third, and larger, category are lives indicative of common female experience: from benefactors and exemplars of godliness to labourers such as the seventeenth-century Oxford laundress, Bess Hampton, and manumitted slave, Fanny Coker (1767-1820), or those--like Mary Saxby and her Staffordshire contemporary, Ellen Parker--whose exceptional memoirs or letters chart their decline into an early modern underclass.

Matthew's 'integrationist approach' also required a fresh look at such seemingly familiar events as, among others, the Reformation or the First World War. In its coverage of sixteenth-century English reformers the first DNB proved relatively complete. But the new dictionary, interpreting its 'national' remit broadly, now acknowledges the influence of international figures like the Spanish humanist Francisco de Enzinas or the Zurich theologian Rudolf Gwalther. Current interest in the scope and practice of Reformation theology has also led to a more detailed treatment of second-generation reformers, such as the Shrewsbury fire-brand, John Tomkys, or resisters like the Midlands recusant, Eleanor Brooksby.

For the Great War the importance now attached to front-line experiences, especially of soldiers and junior officers, is reflected in the dictionary's fuller coverage of the lost generation. Inevitably, those chosen are remarkable either, as with John Cornwell, for individual conduct or, in the case of John Kirkpatrick (1892-1915) or Paul Mainwaring Jones (1896-1917), as symbols for national commemoration or foci of historical enquiry. Better known as 'the man with the donkey', Kirkpatrick's action and image continue to epitomise Anzac heroism at Gallipoli, while Main-waring's War Letters of a Public School Boy, published by his father in 1918, has since become a popular text in schools' history'.

Kirkpatrick's example provides another perspective on obscurity: namely, the real people behind well-known personae, objects or images. While the swordsman Zorro will be familiar to many, few will be aware of his origin in a seventeenth-century Irish soldier, William Lamport. Those who cross the Pero bridge in Bristol's docks may not realise that it is named after a former slave who served in the household of a local planter. And in British topography few compare with John O'Groats--a probable sixteenth-century ferryman and eponym of the mainland's most northerly point.

Lives behind the image lead to those about whom historians have always known but previously thought unworthy of record. Prominent in this category are the spouses, and invariably wives, of established figures. The York benefactor Frances Matthew is a good example of someone who has gained historical significance only as her contribution to episcopal life became recognised; to her, can be added the slightly later examples of Margaret Baxter or the Leveller Elizaheth Lilburne. Similarly rich lives have been written on those with starring but overlooked roles in the canon of English and Scottish life-writing. Readers of Pepys's diary make repeated contact with his alluring and spirited wife, Elizabeth (1640-69), who until recently has been seen more as all appendage than a personality. Similarly, when she features at all, Margaret Boswell (1738-89) has traditionally existed as an unremarkable, it long-suffering, fixture in the journals of her husband James. But as her Oxford DNB article makes clear, she was much more than this.

Pepys and Boswell are established classics. However, a major source of new subjects derives from the twentieth-century publication of diaries or letters which have brought little-known works and authors to a wider audience. Their historical significance takes various forms of equal worth. Those who consult the journals of the Elizabethan clergyman Richard Madox, for example, do so principally for his insights into life on board ship during a voyage to the tropics. Readers of the memoirs of Robert Blincoe (c.1792-1860) seek information on the experience of a factory apprentice, while the success of a publication like The Country Diart of an Edwardian Lad) (1977) makes its author, Edith Holden (1871-1920), a subject of enquiry in her own right.

Correspondence and memoirs have further value in reclaiming those who, once renowned, have faded from popular historical memory. Often these are lives characterised by extremes, both good and bad. The posthumous interest in the child prophet Emelia Geddie (1665-1681) provides an instance of the former; among the latter is Harold Davidson (1875-1937), the vital of Stiffkey, whose scandalous fall from grace was meticulously plotted in the 1930s tabloid press.

For many such people, few biographical details are known beyond those gathered during periods of celebrity or notoriety. Yet a final type of newcomer proves so elusive that there is insufficient material to justify an individual biography. Previously this would have made a clear practical and intellectual case for exclusion. But collectively many of these individuals take on greater significance, as is demonstrated in the Oxford DNB's inclusion of a selection of group and family entries. These bring together people whose principal importance is either as part of a society or Learn (the Tolpuddle Martyrs or Busby Babes, for example) or as representatives of nebulous historical movements rarely studied from individual perspectives. The result is bare-bones biography whose power owes much to the brief glimpse of life it affords. Thus, in an article on 'American Indian visitors to England' (1500-1609) one finds a family of three Baffin Islanders--Kalicho, Arnaq, and Nutaaq--of whom nothing is known aside from their capture in 1577, their display to crowds in Bristol or London, and their deaths from measles within a month of arrival.

What are the implications of this peering into the cracks of history? For some, new entries of this kind may appear to undermine the 'national pantheon' with which the first DNB is often, if wrongly, identified. In fact, the Victorian dictionary was itself open to those its editors considered of historical merit. Then, as now, no one was off-limits. With this in mind Colin Matthew viewed his 'integrationalist approach' of 'minor figures' as a return to the established principles of the first DNB. What has changed, therefore, is not the intellectual rationale or method of compilation but our perspective on what constitutes influence and historical value.

The selection of new subjects for the 2004 edition has often reflected the discoveries and research interests of an intervening century of study. But the new dictionary is as much about projection as it is reflection. Just as the old DNB's minor figures grew as subjects of this research, so the Oxford DNB will set running its very own husk of hares.


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