Gallimaufry & More: "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography."

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Gallimaufry & More: "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography."


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


Of the many things I admire about the Victorians--their moral passion, their elevated patriotism, their extraordinary cultural and political and scientific achievements--perhaps what I admire most is their energy. We all know about Anthony Trollope, who (as he tells us in his Autobiography) sat writing with a clock before him in order to keep himself up to the self: imposed quota of 250 words per quarter-hour. After correcting the previous day's work, Trollope turned out about 2,500 words between the hours of 6:30 and 9:00 A.M., when he set off for his real job at the Post Office. And this Trollope did day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year. One day he finished a novel before 9:00. He got down a fresh sheet of paper and began a new one. "It's a sheer matter of industry," he confided when asked how he managed to write so much. "It's not the head that does it--it's the cobbler's wax on the seat and the sticking to my chair!"

Trollope's is a celebrated story. But it is far from atypical. Consider Dickens. Consider Walter Bagehot. He died when he was fifty-one, but his collected works run to fifteen large volumes. Consider Herbert Spencer or Charles Darwin or John Ruskin: you need a long ruler to measure the shelf space their collected works occupy. Whatever else it was, the Victorian genius was a genius for productive labor. How did they do it? How did James Murray, with only the most modest of staffs, manage to bring The Oxford English Dictionary into the world? And how--to come to the most spectacular example of Victorian scholarship--how did Leslie Stephen manage to produce the Dictionary of National Biography?

Today, alas, Leslie Stephen is known to many (to the extent that he is known at all) solely as the father of Virginia Woolf. But Stephen's claim on our attention goes well beyond his paternity of that poster-girl for twentieth-century feminism, department of snobbish literary neurasthenia. Besides, if we're going to bring up relatives, why not start with a genuinely distinguished one. Stephen was also the brother of James Fitzjames Stephen--another prodigy of Victorian literary productivity--whose book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) is one of the sharpest and most relentless polemics in the library of philosophical evisceration. Stephen made mincemeat of that bible of libertarian permission, John Smart Mill's On Liberty, a feat for which posterity has repaid him with a combination of neglect and hostility.

But Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) does not need to depend on the reflected glory of any relatives for our attention. He was in his day a celebrated man of letters, author of numerous literary-historical works (for example, the 925-page History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century) and editor of Cornhill magazine. Stephen's editorship was not a commercial success, but the magazine's owner, George Smith, knew a good thing when he saw it. In 1882, he asked Stephen to edit a new dictionary of biography for his firm, Smith, Elder & Co. What Smith had in mind initially was a worldwide compendium modelled on the forty-volume Biographie universelle that had been published in Paris a few decades earlier. Smith recalled that he was saved from that "wild attempt" by the "knowledge and sound judgement" of Stephen. A national biography presented obstacles enough. As Noel Annan noted in Leslie Stephen: His Thought & Character in Relation to his Time (1952), Stephen knew that "The past was already littered with the corpses of infant dictionaries which had perished at the tender age of the third or fourth letters of the alphabet."

Stephen was determined to avoid that fate. He planned the dictionary carefully, insisting, for example, that contributors complete their articles within six months. He was fortunate to find an exceptionally able assistant in Sidney Lee (1859-1926). For his part, Smith was prepared to invest 70,000 [pounds sterling] (about 5 million [pounds sterling] today) of his own money in the project, out of an estimated total outlay of 150,000 [pounds sterling]. …

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