Leslie Stephen and the New DNB, pt 3
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
New DNB (part 3)
H. C. G. Matthew
Looking to the next century, a computerized DNB is a dramatic innovation for all the various sorts of people who use it: scholars, archivists, journalists, librarians, students, and the many members of the general public interested in the British past. It is easily searched and easily updated, expanded and corrected. It will form the base for biographical work in the next century and beyond. Even now, it is possible that digitalized portraits may be included on the computer version, and sound and film are by no means impossible. We may be able to have Churchill's memoir, plus his portraits, a recording of him speaking, and a film of him electioneering. Certainly, such features will be easily added in the next century, even if it is not possible to include them in the initial publication. But, you will be happy to hear, there should still be a complete AZ printed edition, for anyone who works on reference materials knows that the printed page, and browsing in printed books, is an intellectual experience with its own discrete validity. Of course, that printed edition will be very large-probably fifty volumes, with a million words each. But, since the New DNB will be primarily held on the computer, printed versions more convenient for individual use-the Medieval New DNB , the New DNB of the Stage and Screen, Scientists in the New DNB, Women in the New DNB, the Seventeenth Century New DNB , etc., will be easy to produce. Publication will therefore take both a printed and an electronic form; the precise format of the latter awaits decisions nearer the time of publication, for the pace of change in electronic publishing remains remarkable. It is likely that it will take the form of both CD-ROM (which is by definition static, like a book's text, though more easily searchable) and licensed on-line, which is more fluid and easily up-dated.
Our approach leads the way into the universalist world which George Smith envisaged when he first spoke to Leslie Stephen about a new Biographie Universelle. For who can doubt that in the course of the next century, as nationality gives way to European Union, so national reference works will do so also. It will be remarkable if in the course of the next century-and perhaps quite early in it-the many dictionaries of national biography do not become electronically linked, either in a single great publication, or, more likely, in an associated series of computer-held texts. Posterity will think us negligent if we do not make what provision we can for this development. In a sense, Leslie Stephen's DNB led the way. The Dictionary of National Biography was a title brilliant in its vague openendedness. Which 'nation' did it describe? Certainly not merely the 'British' in the narrow sense of the 1981 Nationality Act. The very first entry, on Jacques Abbadie, born near Pau, and the very last, on Wilhelm Zuylestein, born near Utrecht, remind us of that!
Stephen's dictionary was remarkably inclusive, and its tone carefully eschewed national triumphality; indeed it was, if anything, tinged more with cultural pessimism than cultural superiority. This is, of course, one reason why it has survived so long. Stephen echoed the 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' of the late-Victorian intelligentsia, but he also caught a sense of purpose and quiet national pride, which assumed rather than asserted. Since the ending of our imperial phase in the 1960s, our cultural and political horizons have narrowed and hardened in a way unimaginable to Stephen, to whom the concept of nationality was inclusive, fluid and pragmatic, and in a sense international. Stephen's criticism of George Smith's vision of a Biographie Universelle was that it was impractical, not that it was undesirable. And, as we have seen, the Chevalier d'Éon points the way in almost every conceivable direction. Moreover, Stephen's grammar for a DNB article, which has been followed throughout the English-speaking world, was curiously similar to the requirements of the computer. His gloomy visage masks a sharp, practical modernity as well as disillusionment with the higher flights of Victorian optimism.
The New Dictionary of National Biography, from the earliest times to the year 2000-its full title-will take the story to the end of the whig particularist stage of the British polity, in which the crown-in-parliament stood for a distinctive political tradition juxtaposed to continental autocracies. In that sense it will be a suitable epitaph- some might say a lament-for the 1500 years of the formation of the autochthonous United Kingdom. But, unlike the Old DNB, we are including Roman Britain in our pages, and we are including many more of those Britons who built modern Europe by settling in its countries and contributing to its industrial, commercial, political and cultural development: the Scots who built the Scandinavian economies, the Welsh who built the Russian. We will retain and develop Stephen's fluid, practical and inclusive view of nationality.
The New DNB, like the old, will be the first point of reference for anyone interested in the British biographical past. It will be as lively and useful as its contributors and editors make it. The whole undertaking is a formidable challenge to our generation. From my point of view as Editor, it is important both that it be done well, and that it be done. Let me conclude with Leslie Stephen's last sentence of his lecture on 'National Biography', which is a solace to any editor: 'great as is the difference between a good and a bad work of the kind, even a very defective performance is immensely superior to none at all'.
©1995 H.C.G. Matthew