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THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY: DICTIONARY OR ENCYCLOPAEDIA?

  • JAMES RAVEN (a1)
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1 As described by Lawrence Goldman, current editor of ODNB, in ‘A letter of welcome to friends and contributors’, Oct. 2004.

2 H. C. G. Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the New dictionary of national biography (Cambridge, 1997); Keith Thomas, Changing conceptions of national biography (Cambridge, 2005); see also Robert Faber and Brian Harrison, ‘The Dictionary of national biography: a publishing history’, in Robin Myers, Michael Harris, and Giles Mandelbrote, eds., Lives in print: biography and the book trade from the middle ages to the 21st century (London, 2002), pp. 171–92; Harrison Brian, ‘The D. N. B. and comparative biography’, Comparative Criticism, 25 (2003), pp. 324; and H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Dictionaries of national biography’, in Iain McCalman with Jodi Parvey and Misty Cook, eds., National biographies & national identity: a critical approach to theory and editorial practice (Canberra, 1996). ODNB derivatives include a series launched as Brief Lives selected by Colin Matthew (1997) with successive volumes under different hands, and H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, ‘Introduction and other preliminary pages [to the ODNB]’, issued separately (Oxford, 2004); here, as elsewhere, I am indebted to Patricia Aske for bibliographical assistance, and to Derek Beales, Ludmilla Jordanova, Jonathan Parry, and Karen Walden-Smith for additional advice.

3 See the Bibliographical supplement to Donald A. Stauffer, The art of biography in eighteenth-century England (Princeton, 1941); and Ian Donaldson, ‘National biography and the arts of memory: from Thomas Fuller to Colin Matthew’, in Peter France and William St Clair, eds., Mapping lives: the uses of biography (Oxford, 2002), pp. 67–82; Thomas, Changing conceptions, p. 2.

4 See Bonnell Thomas F., ‘Bookselling and canon-making: the trade rivalry over the English poets, 1776–1783’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 19 (1989), pp. 53–69; James Raven, The business of books: booksellers and the English book trade, 1450–1850 (London and New Haven, CT, 2007), ch. 8; and Pat Rogers, ‘Johnson's Lives of the poets and the biographic dictionaries’, Review of English Studies, 31 (1980), pp. 149–71.

5 Notably Cornelius Nepos, Lives of eminent commanders, and Suetonius, The lives of the caesars; see Karl Enenkel, Betsy de Jong-Crane, and Peter Liebregis (eds.), Modelling the biography and portrait in the Renaissance (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA, 1998).

6 Anthony Wood had produced his Athenae oxonienses: an exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the most ancient and famous university of Oxford in two volumes 1691–2 (with 500 new lives in the 1721 edition); Thomas Fuller's Worthies of England was published in 1662; David Philip Miller, ‘Thomas Birch’, ODNB; Osborn James Marshall, ‘Thomas Birch and the General dictionary, 1734–1741’, Modern Philology, 36 (1938–9), pp. 2546; Birch was the main contributor to the General dictionary, but the title page also listed John Peter Bernard and John Lockman as authors with George Sale as contributor of oriental history articles.

7 Notably the biographically organized Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique (appearing from the end of 1696, with English versions in 1709 and 1734–41); more general encyclopaedic dictionaries included Louis Moréri et al., Le grand dictionnaire historique (appearing from 1671, with twenty editions before 1759), the Encylopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers (1751–80); see Daniel A. Bell, The cult of the nation in France: inventing nationalism, 1680–1800 (Cambridge, MA, 2001), pp. 126–39.

8 See Isabel Rivers, ‘Biographical dictionaries and their uses from Burke to Chalmers’, in Isabel Rivers, ed., Books and their readers in eighteenth-century England: new essays (London, 2001), pp. 135–69.

9 Louis-Gabriel Michaud, Biographie universalle, together with 300 assistants (45 vols. in its 2nd edn, 1843–[65], with 27 vols. Supplement, 1867–80 [1880]); Nouvelle biographie générale (46 vols., 1852–66); see Thomas, Changing conceptions, pp. 7–9.

10 Donaldson Ian, ‘Biographical uncertainty’, Essays in Criticism, 54 (2004), pp. 305–22.

11 Lawrence Goldman, ‘No smoking dons’, TLS, 4 Feb. 2005.

12 Forty-five of these individuals had been entered twice and so the total number of lives stands at 38,607.

13 Hundreds of lives of those deceased after 2000 have been added, including, as at Oct. 2006, 202 lives of those who died in 2002 (the most recent year of death so far carried). The January update of each year extends the coverage of the dictionary by another year of decease.

14 Cited in Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the New dictionary of national biography, p. 2.

15 An entry of Mother Shipton in DNB typified its eclecticism here.

16 Colin Matthew, ‘How far have we got?’, New Dictionary of National Biography Newsletter, 1 (Dec. 1995), p. 2; also outlined in the ODNB Introduction, p. x.

17 Although dated, the 1959 DNB entry by Stuart Gilbert is more intelligible.

18 See Lloyd S. Kramer, ‘Literature, criticism, and the historical imagination: the literary challenge of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra’, in Lynn Hunt, ed., The new cultural history (Berkeley, CA 1989), ch. 4.

19 John M. Roberts, review of Dictionnaire de biographie française fasc. xiii (2000–2), English Historical Review, 118 (2003), pp. 249–50, at p. 250.

20 Deutsche biographische Enzyklopädie (10 vols., Munich, 1995–9), i, p. viii.

21 Daily Telegraph, 7 Oct. 2006, described the ODNB as ‘that all-devouring Leviathan of British heroes and eccentrics’.

22 Take, for example, Matthew on Isaac Jermy, judge and (with his son) murder victim.

23 Nicolas Barker, ‘The biographists' tales’, TLS, 10 Dec. 2004.

24 At publication in 2004, covering 54,922 lives.

25 See Thomas S. Freeman, ‘The Oxford DNB’, TLS, 4 Mar. 2005.

26 Notably, Barker, ‘Biographists' tales’.

27 Notably, some devastating critiques of individual entries by Arthur Freeman, TLS, 11 Feb. 2005.

28 See, for example, the letter by Charles Harrison Wallace about the life of Peter Monamy, TLS, 7 Jan. 2005.

29 Letter by Mark Nixon, TLS, 7 Jan. 2005.

30 For this and other references I am indebted to Sophie Brice, St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

31 Letters by Alex Attewell and Lynn McDonald, TLS, 28 Jan. and 18 Mar. 2005 (with a brief reply by Lawrence Goldman, TLS, 8 Apr. 2005); cf. concern about Virginia Woolf in the ODNB, letters by Elizabeth Powers, James Wood, and Lyndall Gordan, TLS, 8 and 15 Apr. 2005, and hostile comments about the new lives of Francis Bacon, Jane Austen, and Patrick O'Brian, letters, TLS, 17 Dec. 2004.

32 James Raven, ‘Set apart’, TLS, 18 Aug. 2006; and Raven, The business of books, p. 179.

33 John Gross, ‘Feminine wills’, TLS, 17 Dec. 2004.

34 L. G. Wickham Legg and E. T. Williams, eds., The dictionary of national biography, 1941–1950 (Oxford, 1959), pp. 104–6.

35 [ODNB] Index of contributors (Oxford, 2004).

36 See Gross, ‘Feminine wills’.

37 ODNB used the published catalogues of the primary and contemporary portraits collections of the National Portrait Gallery, but not the full archive lists; I am grateful to Ludmilla Jordanova for observations here.

38 British Library (BL) Stowe MS 944 fo. 6r.

39 Corpus Christi Oxford MS 157 f. 383.

40 BL Add. Ch. 11296, seal 1258, and National Archives, Scotland, respectively.

41 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 373 fo. 95v; BL MS Harley 4866 fo. 88; Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart; BL Royal MS 18 E.i fo. 175r, respectively.

42 Cited in Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the New dictionary of national biography, p. 9.

43 Including, for example, Edmond Beales (1803–81), Karl Blind (1826–1907), and Alexander Herzon (1812–70).

44 Caesar, Metacom, Massasoit, and Gandhi have entries; Louis, Napoleon III, Frost, Slovo, and First do not.

45 Tom Bingham, ‘Lives of the law’, feature essay, ODNB.

46 Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the New dictionary of national biography, p. 13; ODNB Introduction, p. vii; the American national biography attempts a more secure selection: ‘“Significance” includes achievement (superior accomplishment as judged by contemporaries), fame (celebrity or notoriety), or influence (effect on one's own time despite lack of public notice)’.

47 I am grateful to members of 5 Stone Buildings, Lincoln's Inn, for suggestions of non-entries.

48 Goldman, ‘No smoking dons’, passim.

49 Under ‘people search’, for example, one can specify a ‘text search’ in which any ‘statement of occupation’ can be added; as of Oct. 2006 this reveals 280 booksellers, 61 gardeners, 3 prostitutes and 1 plagiarist.

50 A parallel case, in the alternative spelling of a name (Edmond/Edmund Malone) is singled out by Freeman, TLS, 11 Feb. 2005.

51 Although Giuseppe Garibaldi is denied entry to ODNB, there is honourable mention for Garibaldi, pet dog of the portraitist Sir William Boxall (1800–79).

52 The entry for Auberon Waugh (1939–2001) also records his standing against Thorpe in the 1979 general election as candidate for the Dog-Lover's Party.

53 www.bbti.bhm.ac.uk; www.bpi1700.org.uk.

54 Goldman, ‘No smoking dons’, passim.

55 Ibid.

56 Including by some of its contributing writers: see the letter by Arthur Freeman, TLS, 11 Feb. 2005.

57 ODNB Introduction, p. xi.

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