The New DNB

By Matthew, Colin | History Today, September 1993 | Go to article overview

The New DNB


Matthew, Colin, History Today


If universal dictionaries were the characteristic consequence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, dictionaries of national biography were their equivalents for the liberal nationalism of the nineteenth century. They emphasised both the nation state and the role of individuals within it. The Germans were, not surprisingly, first into action, with the first volume of the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie being published in 1875, a tribute to the modified triumph of National Liberalism in the formation of the German empire of 1871. In Britain, George Smith (1824-1901), founder of the publishing firm of Smith, Elder, publishers of the Brontes, Trollope and the Cornhill Magazine, commissioned work on a Dictionary of National Biography. Smith made a fortune from publishing, and enjoyed using it for innovatory projects. He became interested in biographical dictionaries and inquired into the possibility of a new, English-language version of the Biographie Universelle, first published in France in the mid-eighteenth century. He discussed this with Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine since 1871, and in 1882 was persuaded by Stephen that a universal biography on the scale envisaged was impractical. As Sidney Lee, Stephen's successor as editor of the DNB, put it in his memoir of George Smith:

|Acting on Mr Stephen's advice, Mr Smith resolved to confine his efforts to the production of a complete dictionary of national biography which should supply full, accurate, and concise biographies of all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time'.

Leslie Stephen was a distinguished historian of ideas and a prominent liberal agnostic. He is probably best known today as the father of Virginia Woolf. Under his editorship, work began in 1882 and the first volume was published at Christmas, 1884. Stephen's health broke down and Sidney Lee was for a time joint editor and then sole editor for the last thirty-seven volumes. Lee had joined the edition in 1883, soon after Stephen began work. He had just taken his degree at Balliol College, Oxford, and had become interested in the history of English Literature (not then a fully-fledged degree subject for undergraduates anywhere in Britain). Lee was an ideal foil for Stephen. While Stephen was elegant in his writing but sometimes unsystematic in his methods, Lee was methodical and exceptionally accurate, a fanatical worker without being a pedant.

The edition was published serially starting with |A', with a volume each quarter for fifteen-and-a-half years until 1900, a remarkable publishing record and a major cause of Stephen's mental and physical collapse. Lee produced a supplement of omitted persons in 1901, and in 1912 the first of the ten-yearly (recently five-yearly) supplements of the recently dead which have appeared during the twentieth century.

During the First World War, Smith's willow gave the copyright of the DNB to Oxford University Press, which has subsequently published it, the Supplements, and 21 further volume of omissions called Missing Persons (1993). All of these are presently in print. Lee also prepared a Concise DNB (abstracts of the full entries) which OUP has recently republished in three volumes (125 [pounds]).

Taken as a whole - and quite a complicated whole it is - the DNB (if we use that term to describe the entire package of publications) is an amalgam of entries, some written a hundred years ago, others in the 1980s. From the 1940s, OUP began detailed plans for a revised edition, and in 1992 the Department of Education and Science released money to the British Academy to fund its research costs, with OUP carrying the administrative and production costs and a Supervisory Committee in overall charge, chaired by Sir Keith Thomas. The edition will be prepared in Oxford with a research team employed by the University of Oxford, though with contributors from all over the world. …

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