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For reading groups

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a collection of more than 58,000 life stories of people who’ve shaped British history and culture, including all the great names in English literature who died in or before 2008.

Rudyard Kipling Mary Armitt Jean Froissart John Nicholson Kaye Webb

The Dictionary offers concise, authoritative biographies by specialist authors. It’s therefore an ideal way to learn about writers whose books feature in a reading group. The Oxford DNB is freely available via nearly all public libraries in the UK, with most offering ‘remote access’. This allows library members to log-in—free and anywhere with internet connection—using their library card number.

Ways to use the Oxford DNB:

  1. Expert guides to great writers
  2. Famous names in contemporary fiction
  3. Literary groups in history
  4. Words in your ear: writers’ podcast

1. Expert guides to great writers

The Oxford DNB offers life stories of Britain’s best-known novelists, poets, dramatists, and short story writers. Biographies explain a writer’s upbringing, personal life, work, reputation, and legacy. Entries are by specialist authors who often distil a lifetime’s research into a concise, readable guide.

Virginia Woolf W. G. Sebald Emily Brontë

W. G. Sebald

Thomas Hardy

Virginia Woolf

Mary Wesley
Thomas Hardy Mary Wesley

Malcolm Bradbury

Evelyn Waugh

George Eliot

John Fowles

Angela Carter

Malcolm Bradbury Philip Larkin
John Fowles George Eliot

Highlighted names are available from this page; all biographies are accessible online, at home, via your local public library or university/college library. Within the ODNB you can search by name or for writers by date, gender, and place.

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2. Famous names in contemporary fiction

Many modern novels take historical individuals as their subjects. The Oxford DNB allows you to learn more about these lives in works such as:

Henry James

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3. Literary groups in history

As well as individual writers, the Oxford DNB has essays on famous literary networks. Examples include the:

The Brontës

New groups are added to the ODNB every May and September, with a full list available for subscribers.

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4. Words in your ear: writers’ podcast

The Oxford DNB also offers a free, twice monthly podcast, highlighting topical and popular lives from the dictionary. Many episodes feature well-known writers, including:

Barbara Cartland
  • Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond
  • Roger Hargreaves, Mr Men creator
  • Barbara Cartland, romantic novelist
  • Roald Dahl, children’s writer
  • Helene Hanff, of 84 Charing Cross Rd
  • Philip Larkin, poet
  • novelists Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury

Free access to these and other podcast episodes is available, with new lives released on alternate Wednesdays.

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> About the Oxford DNB

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>More ODNB resources: for teachers and students and librarians

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