Keith Thomas. Changing Conceptions of National Biography: The Oxford DNB in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 56 pp. $10.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-67118-7.
Reviewed by Barry Reay (Department of History, University of Auckland)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2007)
But It Is British History
There is a double novelty about this review. It deals with a short book by Keith Thomas. And this reviewer must be one of the few academics not to have been involved with Thomas's subject, a very large publication, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Colin Matthew and Brian Harrison, an absolute behemoth of some 55,000 biographies, with 10,000 portraits or likenesses, over 60 million words delivered in online, searchable form as well as in 60 volumes of print. I am not among the almost 10,000 contributors to this project so there is no conflict of interest to declare. However, I would like to take the opportunity to make a few observations about the Dictionary as well as reviewing Thomas's small but perfectly formed book.
The making of the 1990s version of the Dictionary is intriguing. While it is promoted as paying due attention to the demands of postcolonialism, gender analysis, history from below, and the modern obsession with celebrity, as well as also reflecting Britain's place in the world and indeed Britishness rather than Englishness, it remains a partial palimpsest of its predecessor. Rather than beginning de novo, the editors have added over 16,000 new subjects to the original 39,000 life stories. Though the old subject entries have either been rewritten or revised and are available both in their new and archival form--a fascinating source for historians interested more in the shaping of the entry than its factual content--it does mean that actual subject choice is a strange hybrid of various historical moments between the Victorian period and the late twentieth century. All those dons and obscure clerics remain. The editors are proud that the female subject content has increased to 10 percent, but it is only 10 percent.
The project's publication in 2004 met with mixed but generally favorable reaction. The House of Lords, with its descendants of old and new subjects as well as potential entries, was wittily congratulatory, while using the opportunity to note the nation's lack of historical awareness--there are several distinguished historians and Dictionary contributors in the Lords--as well as having a good-natured dig at the claimed inferiority of the project's German equivalent. Reviews, slickly turned to publicity purposes by the Dictionary's publisher Oxford University Press, were also appreciative, although the potential of ironic readings appears not to have been fully anticipated. Praise for the inclusion of the life stories of faithful domestic servants and Robert Lacey's excitement at being able to determine how many times Lord Rosebery's horses won the Derby--Lacey was jetting through Saudi Arabia and using his Westminster Library card number over the internet--are hardly likely to strengthen the ODNB's democratic credentials. Nor are its British sensitivities well served by repeating The Spectator's praise: "To have witnessed the publication of the Oxford DNB could almost make you proud to be English again."
Then there was the inevitable backlash, not just from the Jane Austin expert who detected some seventy errors, and the Oxford professor of government who declared the life histories touching on his area of expertise as "constitutionally illiterate." Those responsible will have to have the proverbial patience of 55,000 saints to deal with all the irate descendants and amateur and professional enthusiasts who will no doubt detect errors. There are already furious missives from people who have worked on obscure figures for decades and who have found unforgivable mistakes. One contributor even managed to misspell the first name of the Guardian reviewer's mother-in-law!
None of this comes from the book under review, which deals mainly with the historical background to the Dictionary, though with an interesting short assessment of the modern version. Sir Keith Thomas writes as an insider: he was Chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the ODNB. As one might anticipate, he writes with considerable grace and wit. As one might also predict, he is protectively perceptive, but has still produced the best short account of the genesis and nature of the nation's attempts at collective biography. As Thomas explains, the Victorian project had numerous antecedents, if never on its scale, and could draw on a British and European tradition of group, universal, and national biography. The stress on the national in collective biographies in nineteenth-century Europe (and later in twnetieth-century Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) was tied to nation building and the creation of national identity. Thomas argues that assumptions of superiority lessened a nationalist agenda in Britain's version, edited by Sir Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf's father) and Sir Sidney Lee, but recognizes that the chauvinism appeared once the dictionary was in print (much as one or two in the House of Lords responded to its twenty-first century version). The DNB had a penchant for literary figures, and Lee's first question when someone was suggested for inclusion was "what did he write?" "Hence the inclusion of such minor authors as the early Victorian orientalist Stephen Reay [no relation to this reviewer] ... 'remembered by colleagues with affection for his habits of pottering around the library in search of his spectacles and hovering over hot-air gratings in search of warmth'" (pp. 29-30).
The ODNB contrasts with its predecessor in several respects. Nearly just one hundred individuals wrote three-quarters of the old DNB (Lee wrote 820 articles himself and Stephen contributed 378), whereas the ODNB has 10,000 contributors. The tendency to obsequiousness is not so apparent: Queen Victoria got 93,000 words in the DNB (written by Lee), whereas she gets only 30,000 in the modern version. As far as I am aware, the new word counts have not been released but there are signs of a biographical hierarchy presumably reflecting some judgment about historical importance as well as national iconography. Elizabeth 1 and Shakespeare merit 38,000 words each, while Winston Churchill gets 34,000. Princess Diana, I am relieved to report, has a mere 7,500. The new Dictionary has thematic essays (Vivienne Larminie on early modern women, for example) and group biographies (the fictitious Goons of BBC radio fame as well as the more respectable Victorian scientific group, the X Club, are but two examples). Its modernity is reflected not just in the reader's ability to online search references to AIDS-related deaths, but also in the choice of new material. Its modern editor was determined to avoid what he termed "merely a roll-call of the great and the good." Richard Davenport-Hines's 147 articles contain some of the most interesting subjects, including the murderers Myra Hindley and Fred West, and (as Martin Amis might put it) the murderee James Bulger, who, at the age of two, must be one of the youngest subjects in the Dictionary. These are serious, powerful biographies that fully justify their inclusion by demonstrating the social and cultural significance of these sad lives. Davenport-Hines also scored Jack the Ripper as well as Mary Millington, the 1970s porn actress who appeared "as a lesbian stable-hand in Erotic Inferno and having sex with a street hole-digger in a workman's tent in I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight." It is nice to see that the ODNB has captured something of the British experience.
Thomas has observed that to compare the Dictionary's new and replaced lives is to "receive an intensive course in modern historiography" (p. 52). This is certainly true of some entries. The better biographies, even of minor figures, are able to discuss their subject's shifting representation. The editor Brian Harrison's entry on "Walter," the anonymous author of the pornographic My Secret Life, deals with what the book tells us about the sexual culture of Victorian England as well as its role in 1960s censorship battles. Thomas's life of the reputedly sexually active seventeenth-century centenarian Thomas Parr discusses the moral reinterpretations of his longevity. Others refer to a complexity of understanding and/or a utilization of archival material unavailable to the original biographers. The new life of Arthur Munby, for example, uses modern feminist scholarship and a previously closed archive, and there is now a separate entry for Hannah Cullwick, the servant whom he secretly married. One of the most incisive accounts of the beginnings and historiographical significance of the ODNB, including the way in which it was out of step with modern trends in history writing, is contained in Ross McKibbin's contribution on the historian Colin Matthew, the founding editor who became an entry himself when he died in 1999 before his project was completed.
As historians often say of the printing revolution, the potential exists both to publicize new scholarship and to recycle tired old assumptions. Matt Cook's life of George Cecil Ives, the campaigner for law reform, falls into the former category, while Rictor Norton's biography of Margaret Clap (with its imposition of modern gay assumptions on an eighteenth-century past) tends towards the latter.
Sometimes the new versions say rather more openly what the early biographies merely hint at. Thomas notes the euphemism of "he never married," still used by some of the more delicate contributors to the Oxford version. The editor Lee is described as a "lifelong bachelor" (p. 47). However, my favorite DNB and ODNB descriptions are of Oscar Browning (1837-1923), Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge, and one-time chairman of the council of the Royal Historical Society. His original biographer wrote in 1937 of Browning's time in Rome after his retirement from Cambridge that he "assisted young Italians, as he had done young Englishmen, towards the openings they desired." His modern biographer, the ubiquitous Davenport-Hines, is a little more pointed: "His friendships were never intense or soulful but cheerful affairs with young sailors, artisans, and stable lads to whom he was kind and hospitable." Browning, continues his biographer, warming to his subject, "preferred to sleep at night with a muscular companion lest he was seized by sudden illness."
Now that the ODNB is computerized, new lives can be added annually. Thomas ends his book contemplating a future where the vastness of an archive will represent a "true national biography" (p. 56). It is a nice thought. It may not always be the sort of history that the great and the good have in mind, but it is British history.
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Barry Reay. Review of Thomas, Keith, Changing Conceptions of National Biography: The Oxford DNB in Historical Perspective.
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