National Biography for a Computer Age

By Harrison, Brian | History Today, August 2001 | Go to article overview

National Biography for a Computer Age


Harrison, Brian, History Today


Brian Harrison explains how a national institution is being updated.

WE ALL NOWADAYS expect a wealth of information at our fingertips without always realising just how novel this situation is. Only through patient and painstaking labour were the great reference books produced that we now take for granted -- from Dr. Johnson's English Dictionary onwards. Their creation owed much to a multi-layered pressure for self-improvement. Eighteenth-century dictionaries guided the socially aspiring on correct speech, early-nineteenth-century encyclopaedias nourished the educationally self-improving, the Victorian economists' digests of statistics enthused the entrepreneur with British material progress, and books of sporting records stretched twentieth-century bodies to their limits. `In the space of the last twelve months', wrote the McWhirters, introducing the 1965 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, `Man has travelled faster and higher, probed deeper, built larger, run and swum faster and multiplied more furiously than ever before'.

Biography and autobiography were harnessed in this self-improving cause. John Stuart Mill recalled how his father `was fond of putting into my hands books which exhibited men of energy and resource in unusual circumstances, struggling against difficulties and overcoming them'. Hence also Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-worship (1841), Samuel Smiles's Lives of the Engineers (1861-2), and a host of `workhouse to Westminster' working-class memoirs. In some ways The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), published in sixty-three volumes in 1884-1900, fits into this tradition.

Its first editor, Leslie Stephen, owed much to Carlyle, and contributed to it a well-balanced memoir of him. Stephen's affinity with an author known for his oracular and often windy preachments is at first sight surprising, given Stephen's rationalistic Liberal instincts. Yet Victorian Liberalism had its authoritarian aspects, and Stephen would also have been attracted by Carlyle's vigour, spontaneity and faith in men of action. He would have respected Carlyle's belief in history as `the essence of innumerable Biographies' and his skill at bringing out the essence of even minor historical figures by viewing the world from their perspective. Stephen contributed no fewer than five volumes (on Pope, Swift, Johnson, Hobbes and George Eliot) to the `English men of letters' series.

Yet in other respects neither Stephen nor the DNB fits into the tradition of Victorian biographical self-improvement. Stephen's utilitarian Liberal rationalism inclined him towards objectivity, breadth, and timelessness, and his approach to biography jarred in important respects with the self-improving tradition. For him the facts should stand alone, without being deployed in aid of a sermon. In 1899 he may still have believed `in the world on the whole blundering rather forwards than backwards', but he played down the role of individual effort in human progress. Pioneering the sociology of ideas, he noted late in life that `even the best thinkers become obsolete in a brief time'. Furthermore, the DNB was never a pantheon of exemplars. To quote its second editor, Sidney Lee, `no sphere of activity has been consciously overlooked ... Malefactors whose crimes excite a permanent interest have received hardly less attention than benefactors'.

All this enabled the DNB to transcend the decline in `Victorian values' and to become a national institution. From 1900 to 1990 periodic supplements extended its time-span by incorporating those who had died since the previous volume, but these destroyed its single alphabetic sequence, and its content was dating, so the case for a completely new edition built up. Yet until the late 1980s this seemed too costly. Then Christine Nicholls (who had been working for the Dictionary since 1977, and who co-edited or edited thirty years' worth of its supplements) began what turned out to be a pilot venture for thorough revision. …

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