IT'S THE GREATEST BOOK EVER! It's 60 Volumes, Costs [Pounds Sterling]7,500 and Had 10,000 Authors. A New History of the Britons (Rogues and All) Who Helped Shape Our Nation Is Utterly Enthralling

Daily Mail (London), September 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

IT'S THE GREATEST BOOK EVER! It's 60 Volumes, Costs [Pounds Sterling]7,500 and Had 10,000 Authors. A New History of the Britons (Rogues and All) Who Helped Shape Our Nation Is Utterly Enthralling


Byline: GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT

WHICH great Prime Minister 'recorded many instances of flagellation in his diary, almost all inflicted after an encounter with a prostitute'?

Which other senior minister had to flee the country to avoid arrest for homosexual offences?

Which film star was denounced as a wayward hussy by the Archbishop of Canterbury before her health finally collapsed and she ballooned to 15st? And which chairman of the Labour Party 'had a consuming passion for handsome, lean, intelligent working-class toughs', but still expected to be appointed minister to the Vatican?

You can find the answers to these - and to many more edifying questions besides - in the best book of the year, or possibly the century.

The Oxford Dictionary Of National Biography is published today, and is a more enthralling read than all the novels ever entered for the Booker Prize put together.

It costs [pounds sterling]7,500, its 60 volumes weigh in at 20st and run 11ft along the shelf.

As much sewing thread is needed for all 60 volumes as two lengths of a football pitch and you could cover 12 pitches with the binding cloth used.

The DNB has been more than 12 years in the making - or maybe 125, since this is a replacement for the original DNB, itself one of the greatest monuments of Victorian England.

A team of scholars led by the editor Brian Harrison, an Oxford history don, have assembled a total of 54,922 essays. It has cost [pounds sterling]25 million, and more than 10,000 writers have

contributed, scholars of high repute and workaday journalists.

The editors had first to decide who went in, starting with the obvious great makers of our history from the fourth century BC onwards, rulers, writers, artists, statesmen.

But there are also murder victims whose fate shocked Britain to the core, as well as obscure and even disgraceful figures.

At one time, the old DNB did not include Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, on the grounds that he was a villain.

But history is made by the bad as well as the good, and he now finds his place among better men. Jack the Ripper appears for the first time. So does Dunblane killer Thomas Hamilton because his actions led to a change in Britain's gun laws.

The murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, toddler James Bulger and headmaster Philip Lawrence sit alongside Queen Victoria, Gandhi and George Washington as people who have shaped our nation and its attitudes.

For logistical reasons, only people who died before December 31, 2000, are included, and rock stars Sid Vicious and Freddie Mercury, along with broadcaster Jill Dando and Princess Diana appear.

The number of women has doubled to 10 per cent, reflecting their stronger role in society, say the editors.

The DNB's stories on the worthies and the worthless who make up the fabric of British history give a quite extraordinary portrait of our nation.

A trip through the Oxford DNB nails for ever the myth of our reputation for stiff-upper-lipped dullness. It is a reminder that we are really a race of eccentrics, neurotics and sometimes downright rotters.

For those who added spice to our lives, you can count Sir Charles Ischam, who brought the garden gnome to Britain, and army reservist Neville Chamberlain, who invented snooker.

For rotters, you can take the Hervey family, earls and then marquesses of Bristol. The 18th-century third earl became a clergyman and Bishop of Londonderry, although he was widely believed to have no religious belief.

His marriage ended in acrimony, after which he toured Europe, when 'his increasingly outrageous behaviour and his long absence from his diocese began to cause concern.

'He shocked polite company by swearing freely in public . …

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IT'S THE GREATEST BOOK EVER! It's 60 Volumes, Costs [Pounds Sterling]7,500 and Had 10,000 Authors. A New History of the Britons (Rogues and All) Who Helped Shape Our Nation Is Utterly Enthralling
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