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 Stuart 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 (about £5 million today) of his own money in the project, out of an estimated total outlay of £150,000. As for determining whom to include, Stephen published a list of names twice yearly in The Athenaeum and asked readers to suggest additions. It was then, Annan writes, that

the nightmare began and letters arrived in dozens. [Stephen] was haunted by families with requests to include obscure relatives. The inevitable clergyman wrote enclosing a list of 1400 hymn-writers each of whom was entitled to a place. Antiquarians and bookworms moved in to the assault.

The Dictionary of National Biography was an extraordinary endeavor—“an undertaking of exceptional magnitude in the history of publishing,” as Sidney Lee recalled. A new volume appeared like clockwork every quarter from 1885 to 1900. The labor was incessant. Stephen and Lee had no cadre of Ph.D. students to help them, no research grants, no computers, not even any typewriters. “The damned thing goes on like a diabolical piece of machinery,” Stephen complained, “always gaping for more copy, and I fancy at times that I shall be dragged into and crushed out in slips.” Eventually, the pressure was too much for his health. In 1889, he collapsed in his London club. In 1891, after the first twenty-six volumes had been published, Lee took over as editor, though Stephen continued to contribute articles. When the first edition was complete, it stood at sixty-three volumes and included 29,120 articles by 654 contributors. It was, as Annan observed, “Stephen’s most enduring bequest to posterity.” Stephen himself wrote 283 articles—many the length of a short monograph—for the work, Lee an astonishing 820.


As in any such collaborative undertaking, the DNB exhibited considerable variation in the tone and quality of its entries. There were sufficient misprints and factual errors to require a stout volume of corrections in the early 1900s. But what astonishes are not the failings but the achievement. Its excellence was instantly acknowledged. “German and French scholars generously admitted the Dictionary’s superiority to their own national compendiums,” Annan notes.

It was an enterprise free of literary log-rolling and of the worst features of seminar research. For Stephen’s greatest rule was that each life was to be readable, a biography in itself, not a compendium of sources or a disquisition by a scholar on disputed points.

To this end, Stephen encouraged his contributors to write with verve and personality, not in the impersonal voice of a committee. “Contributors,” Annan writes,

were ridden on the lightest of reins and encouraged to enliven their style. On one occasion this vivacity brought its reward. In writing George Eliot’s life Stephen described Tito, the hero of Romola, as one of her “finest feminine characters” which drew from a phlegmatic reviewer the comment that presumably Romola herself was meant. [Frederic William] Maitland grimly observed: “A Dictionary should not be strewn with such mantraps.”

In 1908–1909, Smith, Elder issued a corrected edition of the DNB in twenty-two volumes, incorporating the three supplementary volumes that had since appeared. In 1917, the Smith family (George Smith had died in 1901) gave up the DNB to the University of Oxford. Since then, Oxford University Press has presided over the dictionary, publishing supplementary volumes at regular intervals (the last appeared in 1996). In 1993, it published an omnibus volume called Missing Persons, which included short biographies of some 1000 figures, from Thomas Traherne and Gerard Manley Hopkins to Ronald Firbank, who for various reasons had not made it into the main work or any of the supplements.


Oxford had for some years been contemplating a thoroughgoing revision of the DNB. In 1992, they engaged Colin Matthew, editor of the last twelve volumes of Gladstone’s Diaries, to undertake this monumental project. Matthew died suddenly in 1999, but the historian Brian Harrison, his successor, stepped in to oversee its completion, and he has done so with dispatch. In September, the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was published in sixty volumes and in an online edition that is available by yearly subscription.[1] It is, in most respects, a publishing triumph that does Stephen and Lee proud. Chronologically, it moves “from the earliest times” through the end of the year 2000. The scope, detail, and rigor of the articles make it, as the editors boast, “the first point of reference for anyone interested in the lives of the peoples of the British Isles and their connections overseas.”

The focus of the ODNB (the favored shorthand) is wider than its predecessor, including many more foreigners who either “settled in the British Isles for significant periods or whose visits enabled them to leave a mark on British life.” Moreover, Matthew’s principle of selection was at least as wide as Stephen’s and Lee’s: the ODNB is not just a “roll-call of the great and the good,” as Matthew put it, “but also a gallimaufry of the eccentric and the bad.” Both editions, for example, have entertaining articles on Wild, Jonathan (1682?–1725), a receiver of stolen goods, an informer, and a rogue, and “Catchpole, Margaret (1762– 1819), convict and author.” Among the rum newcomers in the ODNB is “Smith, George Joseph (1872–1915), bigamist and murderer” —not, I hasten to add, to be confused with G. Smith, proprietor of Smith, Elder & Co—and “Maxwell, (Ian) Robert (1923– 1991), publisher and swindler,” one of the many splendid contributions of Richard Davenport-Hines (“his egotism was unashamed: the bowl-sized cup from which he drank at his office was marked ‘I'M A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON’”).

As with the DNB, the sheer size of the ODNB commands attention. Everything about it is large. What we have here are 54,922 articles by 12,550 authors. You will need not only $13,000 (or £7,500) but also twelve feet of shelf space to accommodate these sixty volumes. This is the age of the committee, the administrative bureaucracy, so instead of Stephen, Lee, and their platoons of contributors, we have several regiments deployed. Nicolas Barker, in his piece on the ODNB for the TLS, tabulated the arrayed forces. In addition to a “supervising committee” of twenty, there were Matthew and Harrison in field command, thirteen consultant editors, 375 assistant editors, 144 research assistants, three picture editors, nearly 100 support staff, and 300 freelance helpers. Notwithstanding this army of workers, Matthew himself, in an admirably Victorian burst of productivity, wrote or revised 778 entries, among them articles on A. J. Balfour, Edward VIII, George V, Florence Nightingale, John Buchan, Gladstone, Harold Macmillan, and (with K. D. Reynolds) Queen Victoria.

The ODNB includes several features not found in the DNB. For one thing, it is illustrated. The editors’ introduction tells us that there are just over 10,000 likenesses included in the work, which means that roughly one-fifth of the entries carries an illustration. (The illustrations are included in the online edition as well.) This may seem like a merely cosmetic addition, but it is more than that: being able to put a face to a name is like being able to place a city on a map: it helps one get one’s bearings.

The ODNB also boasts much fuller references than its predecessor. What might be a line or two in Stephen’s and Lee’s day—though that line often included the tantalizing phrase “personal knowledge”—has now generally expanded to a brace of paragraphs that includes many secondary sources, details about archives, and a list of known likenesses. There is also for many biographies from the eighteenth century forward a concluding entry specifying “wealth at death,” an estimate that reports the estate’s value at probate. Finally, the editors of the ODNB were not stingy with space. In some cases, the articles amount to a short treatise on the subject. In every case I checked, the ODNB article was longer than the corresponding piece in the DNB. The philosopher and divine Joseph Butler gets 8000 words in the ODNB as against 4000 in the DNB. Churchill gets 34,000 words as against 20,000, Henry James 9000 as against 3000. All that seems appropriate, though in some cases—the 20,000 words that Marilyn Butler devotes to Jane Austen, for example—the result is less edifying than embalming. Leslie Stephen’s 1500 words on Jane Austen may have been too cursory, but his article did have the virtue of liveliness.

Most of the new articles are written to a high level of scholarship and clarity. Still, one often misses an amusing anecdote or illuminating aside from the DNB. Martin Stannard, a biographer of Evelyn Waugh, does a more than respectable job with the novelist, but one does lament the absence of Douglas Woodruff’s story that Waugh “told Christopher Sykes that he looked with horror upon Dylan Thomas … who in looks, dress, and conversation was in many ways a parody of Waugh: ‘He’s exactly what I would have been if I had not become a Catholic.’” P. M. S. Hacker’s 14,000-word article on Ludwig Wittgenstein is very professional, but it is hard to beat G. H. von Wright’s summary from the DNB:

He was a man of forceful and unusual personality, who could not fail to make an impression upon everyone who knew him. His life was an unending journey in search of truth. Doubt was the moving force within him, and discussion one of his chief means of travel. It was in the nature both of his character and of his philosophy to raise questions rather than to answer them. He seldom looked back on his earlier views, and when he did so it was usually to repudiate them.

One of the most valuable editorial decisions Matthew made was not an innovation but a conservation. Every subject from the previous edition of the DNB is included in the ODNB. No one has been left out. Most articles have been completely rewritten; some have been revised, in which case the notation “rev.” follows the author’s name. (Speaking of abbrievations, the ODNB is in love with them. Many know that ANZAC is the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” but who knows that ASDIC is the “Antisubmarine Detection Investigation Committee.” Is “ASDIC” useful?)

The greatest innovation in the ODNB is its online edition. I was told by one Oxford official that the Press even considered forgoing the paper edition altogether. The Press canvassed its likely clients, however, and in the end decided to print 5000-odd sets. (Harvard bought two copies, Yale three.) Most users, I suspect, will experience the ODNB chiefly online. (Someday, I suppose, maybe even someday soon, a “press” will have nothing to with ink and type and printing presses: a sad thought.)

With a broadband connection, access to the database is plenty speedy. And a lot of thought has clearly gone into the design of the web site. The search engine is flexible: Matthew; Colin Matthew; Matthew, Colin; or H. C. G. Matthew all get you the desired biography. “Lord Grey” brings up thirty-two entries. “Eric Blair” or “George Orwell” gets you the author of 1984. “Tweedsmuir” gets you the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan became the first Baron Tweedsmuir toward the end of his life). Results are displayed in alphabetical order by default, but a single click will sort according to birth date, death date, or reverse the order of the sort. Users can also limit searches by sex, year, place, family, and numerous “fields of interest” (“agriculture and food,” “armed services and intelligence,” “art,” “business and finance,” etc.).

The ODNB includes articles not only on individuals but also on scores of themes. There are, for example, articles on the 1964 election (when Harold Wilson’s Labor Party ended thirteen years of Conservative rule), Disraeli’s bicentenary (which occurred on December 21, 2004), England’s loss of Normandy in 1204, and “Myth, legend, and mystery in the Oxford DNB.” In the last named, we learn that the oft-related “fact” that Robin Hood was the only mythical personage included in the DNB “is itself part myth.” It turns out (as Sidney Lee had informed readers) that there were eleven legendary figures in the original DNB, including Merlin, King Arthur, and the dragon-slaying Guy of Warwick. The ODNB adds several more, including John Bull “(supp. fl. 1712–2000), fictitious epitomist of Englishness and British imperialism” and even Joan Bull: “(supp. fl. 1928–1946), fictitious epitomist of enfranchised women, the analogue of John Bull, was created by the cartoonist David Low (1891–1963) to symbolize the women aged between twenty-one and thirty who obtained the vote in 1928 despite opposition from the ‘diehard dimwits’—clear precursors of Low’s Colonel Blimp.”

When you bring up an article, the window is divided in two. The article itself occupies most of the screen but a narrow panel on the left lists the name, dates, and occupation of the person discussed, followed by the name of the article’s author. Clicking the author’s name instantly brings up a list of all the articles he has contributed to the ODNB. (It also tells you the total number of articles he has contributed.) Beneath the author’s name are section titles of the article. Clicking one of these advances to the specified section in the main window. The left panel also lists any names that are cross-referenced in the article. Again, a single click on the highlighted name, from the body of the article or the left panel, takes you to the specified article.

At the bottom of the left panel in many of the articles is the phrase “DNB archive.” Click this and a new window opens with the original DNB article on the person selected. The author of the article and date it was published are listed in the left panel. The entire DNB is accessible in this way, which makes it possible to compare old and new with the click of a mouse button.

With the ODNB, sophisticated internet-based publishing has definitively entered the mainstream. This is a resource you can use and enjoy, not just experiment with. It also makes correction easier: Oxford currently plans to make emendations and updates thrice yearly, which means that most typos and other errors are likely to be fixed soon. Of course there is room for improvement. One administrative nuisance is that your session expires after a relatively brief period of inactivity. This means that you have to continually re-login to the site. The search facility could also be friendlier. Users of Google know that if you type “Geroge Washington” the clever software will ask you “Did you mean ‘George Washington’?” The ODNB does not provide anything like this convenience, nor does it “remember” search terms. So if you do query “Geroge Washington,” it takes you to an “item not found” page and leaves the search box blank, which means that you have to retype the query instead of simply correcting a typo. Finally, it would be useful if there was an easy means to adjust the size of the type, especially for the articles retrieved from the DNB, which are displayed in smaller type than articles from the ODNB.

Almost by definition, a contemporary academic project is going to exhibit a left-liberal, politically correct bias. What is surprising is not that the ODNB bears some marks of this déformation professionelle but how little, in general, such concessions to political piety detract from its authority and usefulness. Of course there are exceptions. As John Gross notes in his essay for the TLS on the handling of literature in the ODNB, toward the end of a 35,000-word article on Shakespeare, Peter Holland suddenly erupts against “right-wing Conservative politicians like Michael Portillo” who “returned with mechanical frequency to Ulysses’s speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida as ‘proof’ that Shakespeare supported the hierarchies and institutions tories were committed to maintain.” Take Lady T. away, and hark what discord follows.

There are other problem spots. For example, Jonathan Haslam describes the Communist historian E. H. Carr (1892– 1982), as “fervently individualist, ferociously intelligent, and scrupulously honest.” But in fact Carr was a model of intellectual mendacity, a man who metamorphized overnight from being an apologist for Hitler to being an abject supporter of Stalin. As George Orwell wrote in 1944, “all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin. The servility of the so-called intellectuals is astonishing.” Haslam presents Carr as a moral hero. But David Pryce-Jones, writing in these pages in 1999, was right that Carr was a “sinister man” who “did more than his fair share to mislead public opinion” and who, had Hitler or Stalin prevailed, “would have had no trouble at all signing death warrants in a police state.”

Something similar must be said about Eric Hobsbawm’s comically laudatory, indeed, hagiographical article about Karl Marx. One of Leslie Stephen’s most beneficent rules was that the temptation to eulogy must be resisted. Alfred Ainger (who contributed articles on Charles and Mary Lamb, Tennyson, and George du Maurier to the DNB) summed up the attitude: there were to be “No flowers by request.” What Hobsbawm has given us is a veritable nursery full of blossoms. Citing Engels, he presents Marx as “the Darwin of the law of human historical evolution, the path-breaker for humanity’s future.” This prodigy was “a major figure in the history of philosophy, economics, sociology, and historiography, though he cannot be adequately contained under any of these headings,” someone whose “sheer intellectual superiority” guaranteed both the unparalleled brilliance of his work and the lamentable envy of his contemporaries. The Communist Manifesto, Hobsbawm says, is an “irresistible [!] combination of utopian confidence, moral passion, hard-edged analysis, and—not least—a dark literary eloquence,” while Marx’s “practical impact” is nothing less than cause for celebration: “within little more than fifty years of his death,” Hobsbawm proudly announces, “regimes officially devoted to Marxism ruled a third of the human race, without counting the many millions who lived under the governments of social democratic parties, many of which also claimed direct descent from him.” Indeed. And in those regimes untold millions perished in gulags and police cellars or suffered horrific poverty and oppression, all for the sake of realizing Marx’s “utopian confidence.” The one gratifying item in Hobsbawm’s preposterous article was the report of Marx’s “wealth at death”: £250.

As far as I have been able to tell, such egregious lapses are rare in the ODNB. The work exhibits a prevailing aroma of political correctness, but it mostly pools around certain predictable issues. The biggest cause is the feminist cause. It was a source of profound unhappiness that, notwithstanding recent efforts at redress, the total number of women in the DNB hovered around 5 percent. Accordingly, for the last decade the British Isles and their dependencies, past and present, have been assiduously trawled for sentient females of discernible public accomplishment. The result has been to push the total number of women up to about 10 percent. That figure is still grounds for misery and hand-wringing, and we will doubtless see more and more articles like Margaret Pelling’s reflections on medicine and biography, which opens with a section on—what else?—“Women and medicine.” Some strides have been made, Pelling admits, but we all need “to go further: to extend beyond practitioners to recognize fully the innumerable female relatives of medical men who inspired medical careers, who supported the male practitioner with their earned or unearned income, or who actively contributed to his work,” etc., etc. Why not the charwomen who emptied the doctors’ wastebaskets and cleaned the surgery: is not that a hitherto unacknowledged contribution to medical practice? I offer it as a subject for further research.

Works like the ODNB are intended primarily to be sources of information. And this they undoubtedly are. But, if they are any good, they are also sources of fun. One consults them when in need of a fact. One browses when in need of diversion or entertainment. The ODNB is no less rich in the latter department than the former. The poet and critic William Empson led an interesting life. But so, it appears, did his wife Hetta: “She posed nude for Felix Topolski, who remembered that Hetta, not having done it before, ‘trembled all over reclination at first, thus implanting flesh-awareness on to her remarkable South African-moulded monumentality. With the years she developed her innate dominance—an impressive stomping far from motherly personage.’”

For the reviewer of reference works, the greatest joy comes from discovering mistakes, solecisms, omissions. In a work of the scope of the ODNB, such blemishes are inevitable. I am told that there are a clutch of errors on the subject of English music. Nikolai Tolstoy, the stepson of the novelist Patrick O’Brian, wrote a blistering letter to the TLS charging that the ODNB was “thoroughly slipshod” and “based on very dubious standards of scholarship” because there are numerous errors in its article on his step-father. But Patrick O’Brian was famously a fantasist who made up many details of his life, and Tolstoy, when asked to confirm various facts in the ODNB article, refused to cooperate. Colin Matthew was a scrupulous scholar, but dormitat Homerus. In the course of his long and informative article on Harold Macmillan, Matthew describes Macmillan’s wedding at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, on April 21, 1920: “the bride’s side [was] packed with peers, the groom’s with publishers and authors who wrote for Macmillans, including six OMs led by Henry James and Thomas Hardy.” Now James was a famously social creature, but even he would have found it difficult to have made that engagement, on account of the nuisance of having died in 1916. On balance, though, these are small things, easily corrected, especially in the online edition.

More problematic, perhaps, are the rules for inclusion. As John Gross pointed out, if the ODNB includes Ezra Pound (as it surely should) it should also include Robert Frost. Frost was in London from 1912 to early 1915, during which time he published two important books, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. Everyone will have his own list of missing persons. Yet in the end what may be more worrisome is not who is missing but who is included, and how. Standards for inclusion in the ODNB have become increasingly demotic. Do we really need 6000 words on John Lennon, “musician, composer, and political activist”? Does Brian Jones, late of the Rolling Stones, deserve an entry in this august work? Does the American rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix? But enough. It is easy to carp. What the philosopher David Stove said about the DNB is true also of its successor: it is “a work which it would be merely impertinent to praise: it is simply the most valuable book of reference in existence.”


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  1. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 60 volumes, 61,440 pages, $13,000. Access to the online edition is $295 yearly for individual users. Go back to the text.

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