Leslie Stephen and the New DNB
The full text of the Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1995 is made available here by kind permission of the publisher, Cambridge University Press.
Leslie Stephen and the
H. C. G. Matthew
The story of George Smith, Leslie Stephen, Sidney Lee and the first Dictionary of National Biography is a classic tale of the making of a successful work of reference which is more than the sum of its articles. It is not my purpose this evening again to tell that tale, for it has been told by others, and is today the subject of further research, as more MSS of the 1880s and 1890s become available. What was once an almost forgotten episode has become, with the great recent reassessment of the nineteenth century, a focus of cultural historiography. My purpose in this lecture is to show how the work of a great Victorian relates directly and organically to a great scholarly collaborative undertaking by today's academic community.
As editor of the New DNB I have been careful not to be attracted too closely by the sirens of the old. This is not as I shall show through any disrespect or undervaluation. But with a brief from Oxford University Press to make a New DNB I have had to be wary, as well as curatorial, about the old; even so, curatorial I am being. Little needs to be said to a Cambridge audience by way of introduction about Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), Eton and King's College London, undergraduate and then fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, priest of the Church of England 1855-1875, agnostic from about 1862; he was the author of many works on political thought and literature, most notably History of English thought in the eighteenth century ( 2 vols. 1876) and The English utilitarians (3 vols. 1900), which remain influential; he is today publicly best known as the father of Virginia Woolf. But it may be helpful to have a little detail on the early years of the DNB .
The Dictionary of National Biography was conceived in the early 1880s by George Smith, publisher of Ruskin, of the Brontës, Trollope, and many other leading nineteenth-century novelists, and of many journals including the Cornhill Magazine. Smith, happily replete with funds from publishing and from the manufacture of Apollinaris mineral water (whose spring he bought in 1873), sought fresh challenges. He enjoyed new enterprises and had an interest in biographical reference works. He inquired into the possibility of a new, English language version of the Biographie Universelle.
He discussed this with Leslie Stephen, editor of his Cornhill Magazine since 1871 and as such publisher of many new authors such as Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1882 Smith was persuaded by Stephen that a universal biography on the scale envisaged was impracticable. As Sidney Lee, Stephen's successor as editor of the DNB, recollected, in what was in itself an admirably concise, accurate definition:
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.
Stephen stated his objectives in his announcement of the new Biographia Britannica-as the DNB was originally to be called-in an article in the Athenaeum on 23 December 1882. He asked for help 'from all who are able and willing to give it' and he announcedthat 'the editor of such a work must, by the necessity of the case, be autocratic. He will do his best to be a considerate autocrat'. Stephen by the 1880s was a distinguished historian of ideas and a leading liberal agnostic. Thomas Hardy, who knew him quite well, recalled of Stephen: 'I have always felt that a tragic atmosphere encircled L.S's history - and was suggested in some indescribable way by his presence' (Hardy to Lee, 22 Nov. 1906, Bodley MS Eng. misc. d. 177), and Stephen confirmed this view of himself in his Mausoleum Book, edited by Alan Bell in 1977. But Stephen knew the challenge of the mountains and he knew how to scale a peak. Moreover, he was accustomed to the strains and deadlines of Smith's rigorous approach to publishing. He had a proven record as an expeditious and inventive editor. His appointment guaranteed quality of assessment and an absence of bombast. Under his editorship, work began in 1882 and the first volume, originally planned for October 1884, was published just before Christmas 1884 (though dated 1885), entitled Dictionary of National Biography. Stephen was by nature pessimistic and prone to depression. The challenge of the DNB proved more arduous than he had expected and work on the early volumes exposed many unanticipated problems.' Stephen's health, despite his editorial experience, soon broke down under the demands of what he came to call 'that damned dictionary' and Smith would not relent on the timetable. From 1886, Stephen was frequently out of action as editor, but he continued to write memoirs right down the alphabet, mostly on major figures, the last tranche of his 283 articles being a significant Cambridge trio: Whewell, William Wilberforce and William Wordsworth.
Sidney Lee was briefly joint editor, from 1890 to 1891, and then took over as sole editor for the last thirty-seven volumes. Lee had joined the edition in 1883, soon after Stephen began work. As Solomon Lazarus, he had just taken his degree at Balliol College, Oxford, and had been advised by Benjamin Jowett to anglicise his name, which, by stages, he did. He 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 and indulgent to his staff, Lee was methodical and exceptionally accurate, a fanatical worker without being a pedant.
The first two editors were thus a Cambridge rationalist Anglican who had turned agnostic and an Oxonian Jew who if he did not convert to Anglicanism certainly took on its intellectual patina.
The edition was published serially starting with 'A', with a volume each quarter for fifteen-and-a-half years until 1900, both a remarkable publishing record and a major cause of Stephen's mental and physical collapse. Subscribers were given a volume of Errata in 1904. A corrected version of the first AZ series incorporating the Errata and other changes was produced by Lee in 1908 and that is the version which has been in print throughout this century. Lee was an energetic reviser, confined only by the number of changes that could be made within the page proof. Thus few scholars today quote the articles as originally published (A.F. Pollard's 'Bibliographical Note' in Bulletin of Historical Research, xvi (1938-9) underestimates the extent of Lee's changes). There were quite a number of duplicate entries which were tidied up, many of them people known in later life by a religious name who were included under their secular and their religious names (for example, Anthony Bonville, a Jesuit, was also in as Anthony Terill). But three-Bristol, Ralph de/Ralph de Bristol; Dalderby, John de/John, called of Dalderby; Hill, Thomas/Mountain, Didymus-escaped even Lee's vigilant eye and remain in the 1908 text. This was never described as a second edition, though it was nearer that than a revised impression; thus the DNB is cited without qualification of date, though the entries, especially in the first half of the alphabet, are often markedly different depending on whether the original volume or the 1908 revision is being used.
Supplements to the DNB were fathered by Sidney Lee and not much liked by Leslie Stephen, though he was in due course noticed in one. They began with three volumes of missing persons, published in 1901, which contained subjects who had been mistakenly missed out in the first series or who had died since 1884 (the number of the latter undervalued the last fifteen years of the century as compared with the rest of it). Lee prepared the first supplement of the recently dead (1901-1911); these continued through the twentieth century with ten-yearly (and in the 1980s five-yearly) supplements, and a further volume of Missing Persons in 1993, eight of whom were not, in fact, missing. Since 1885, Smith, Elder and later OUP have normally kept all the published volumes in print.
In 1903 an Index and Epitome, edited by Lee, was published; it later became known as the Concise DNB and was published in various versions. From time to time it was updated, latterly by Harold Oxbury, and most notably in 1992 when a corrected version in a single A-Z series was published in three volumes, including entries up to 1985, thus making it a quick means of entry to the main dictionary, as well as a source of valuable factual information conveniently presented. Like the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (though to a lesser extent), the Concise has something of a life of its own, for it treats co-subjects in the main DNB as if they have their own articles, and gives them separate entries in the Concise . In 1975 OUP published a compact edition of the full DNB in two volumes, every twelve pages being condensed into one. This was the nearest the printed edition could come to the desk-top convenience of an electronic edition. The compact edition presented the twentieth century articles in a single A-Z series and provided an index to the whole in a single alphabetical sequence.
Such, in brief, is the story of the Dictionary of National Biography. The corpus is thus made up partly of historical articles, partly of what Colin Roberts, Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press, called 'interim notices' of the recently dead. In all it contains over 36,000 subjects (as people who are the subject of an article are called) in about 33 million words.
It is an important feature of the DNB that it was and remains a publisher's initiative. It fell clearly into a more general pattern of such dictionaries, characteristic of the nation states of the second half of the nineteenth century, and established by the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie which began publication in 1875. But it differed from that and almost all subsequent DNBs in being politically wholly independent and privately financed. No panel of academic advisers planned its contents, no commission supervised its publication. This remains the case. There is a Supervisory Committee, chaired by Sir Keith Thomas, but its remit is supervisory rather than managerial or editorial.
George Smith's will in 1901 bequeathed the DNB to his widow Elizabeth, who, with her son-in-law Reginald Smith, supported the 1901-1911 Supplement. When Reginald Smith died in 1917, the edition, its hot metal plates and its copyright was offered as a gift to OUP by the Smith family. However, the archives and the working papers seem to have been destroyed. As is often the case with large arrivals, the DNB immediately seemed less attractive than it subsequently became. The Press did not wholeheartedly welcome the gift, for Charles Cannan, Secretary to the Delegates, was already in dispute with Lee about a contract. John Johnson, at that time Assistant Secretary, recalled in a letter to H.M. Last on 17 August 1932:
Cannan hated Sidney Lee, had quarrelled with Sir Charles Firth...disliked A.F. Pollard and altogether regarded the D.N.B. as a white elephant. They were the most melancholy Delegates meetings I ever remember before the gift was finally accepted.
The Delegates accepted the bequest, especially, Johnson thought, as the result of the urging of Sir William Osler, the Regius Professor of Medicine. They followed Lee's supplement of 1901-11 with one for 191221, but on a much smaller scale. The Press decided that Lee's supplement with its 1660 memoirs (originally published in three volumes) was on too ambitious a scale, and the 1912-21 volume contained only 458 lives (which was roughly in proportion to the earlier catch-up exercise for the 1884-1900 deaths). 'If,' the editors wrote in their preface, 'the same policy of selection were to be pursued throughout the present century, the result would be to add 15,000 lives to the main work . . . A continuation on such a scale would be beyond the means of most of those for whose use such a work is primarily intended.' Here was a paradox, with OUP scaling down, for commercial reasons, a work which Smith, Elder had been happy to publish at an affordable price. Numbers increased as the supplements proceeded, but they never caught up. The twentieth century, both absolutely and in ratio to population, is thus much more selective than the nineteenth. 15,000 twentieth-century lives was in fact-as one would expect from the meticulous Lee-almost exactly the number needed for that century to be in proper proportion to its predecessor. It may be that this reduction of numbers contributed to Lee's irritation with the handling of his life's work: at any rate, in his exasperation with OUP he presented his annotated copy of the 1908 impression to the London Library. However, the original edition annotated by Stephen and Lee from which the 1908 changes were made came eventually to OUP and has been temporarily united with Lee's copy, kindly lent by the London Library.
The Delegates immediately began to worry about the future of the work they had been given. They continued to worry with no positive result in each decade until the last. They faced a real problem. The DNB first series was kept in print-as it still is-but was manifestly outdated as a reference work in a way and to an extent that Murray's Dictionary-the other great work of late Victorian scholarship that they had come to possess-was not. As soon as the copyright became OUP's, Charles Cannan came under strong prompting from C. H. Firth, one of the best of the original contributors and since 1904 Regius Professor of History at Oxford. Various possibilites were considered: rewriting, new entries, an index volume. William Sanday, the theology Delegate, noted that the supplement
gives a not inconsiderable space to sports & even Music Halls. I am not sure that I shd. deprecate this. The Dicty shd., I think, take in as much of the national life as possible.
But in this connection it has occurred to ask whether use might not with advantage be made of two sizes of type ... if we are to include Amusements, I think that the articles shd. at least go in small type. And then I ask myself whether the principle might not be extended even to the main body of what might be called second-rate articles.
'We all three agreed,' wrote H. W. C. Davis in 1918 from the War Trade Intelligence Department, 'that the tendency after the war will be towards the study of Movements and Developments rather than of pure biography. This tendency should be favourable, rather than the contrary, to revision of the Dictionary in the sense desired (revision by groups).' Several of the former in-house contributors, now potentates in the university world, such as T. F. Tout, were consulted. Tout recommended the establishment of a permanent DNB office, with a staff of sub-editors ('who should be young (23 or 24 years of age)') working under Sidney Lee as Editor-in-Chief. The Anglo-Saxon articles were seen as especially problematic. There was a suggestion for a volume or volumes of Vorstudien to be edited by J. R. R. Tolkien, then a young Reader at Leeds. Frank Stenton was brought in to analyse the West Saxon lives. He wrote an extensive report and even rewrote the article on Alfred the Great the original was by E. A. Freeman. Stenton commented perspicaciously: 'One naturally hesitates to advise the excision of Freeman's life of Alfred. It is still quoted sometimes, and I imagine that occasional readers refer to it. Nevertheless I cannot see that any useful purpose would be served by its republication; its proper place is in a future collection of Freeman's minor works.' D. G. Hogarth advised on nineteenth-century travellers, reporting that, of the lives he examined, only Leslie Stephen's memoir of A. W. Kinglake stood up to scrutiny. All these commentators valued the DNB , but all were agreed that it could not stand as it was.
That was in the 1920s. Subsequent decades occasioned similar reports; John Sparrow wrote a long one in 1941 and G. N. Clark was brought in to advise. In 1972 Janet Adam Smith urged action in the columns of the T.L.S. By the second half of the century, the Supplements were established as a distinct genre-but the early volumes of these interim memoirs were beginning to look not just interim but passé, and their sometimes necessary reticence on the recently dead becomes as time passes not merely misleading but hilarious: 'He never married' is Lord David Cecil's economical comment on Lytton Strachey. Moreover, the supplements' coverage-with little room for the equivalents of the legion of minor figures found in the original series-reflected much more of a 'national roll-call' of those thought great and good at the moment of death than had characterized the original AZ series. This point indeed had formed the main theme of Stephen's dyspeptic lecture, 'National Biography' (1896), which anticipated the approach of the supplements. The lecture was a rather muddled and slightly unfair attack on Lee's concept of the 'commemorative instinct' as the defining criterion for selection for the DNB (Lee had himself lectured on 'National Biography' in 1895). Stephen emphasized instead the importance of 'minute names, the mere rank and file of the great army', of the utility of extensive coverage, and the importance of 'amusement' as well as factual accuracy. Some subsequent writing on the dictionary has failed to recognise the eclectic character of Stephen's original selection of subjects for inclusion.
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