When the great new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was published nearly five years ago — and a truly great achievement it was, despite a few carping critics — the printed version seemed almost a luxury item. Many larger public libraries still have the old DNB, with its decennial supplements published throughout the past century, which I myself acquired years ago, in New York rather improbably. It was missing the volume ‘Glover-Harriott’, but my chum Ivon Asquith at OUP kindly procured that for me, so that the handsome blue volumes now furnish my work room along with the Oxford English Dictionary, the 1911 Britannica and the Gibbs and Doubleday Complete Peerage.
But not many libraries could easily fork out £5,000 for the 50 volumes, not to say even fewer private punters; those who did so may be a little pensive now that the price for the complete set has already dropped to £1,500. Price apart, too few of us are MPs who can make the taxpayer buy us the large and lavish bookcases which would be needed to hold the set, and in any case the whole thing is online, so that any entry can be consulted in a trice and for free if you merely have a local library card.
At the time of publication, I visited Oxford and wrote about the ODNB at some length here, as well as in the Daily Mail and the New York Times (guess which of them illustrated my words with a snapshot of Diana Dors in her undies). What struck me was a poignant magnificence: we were witnessing a kind of publication, on paper and between cloth covers, all of high quality, whose like we might not see again. Reports of the death of the book are much exaggerated, and we shall surely still be picking up and turning the pages of solid objects called novels and biographies for a very long time. And yet even the people at Oxford spoke as though this might be the last such mighty work of reference ever to be published in corporeal form. However that may be, the OUP have nevertheless continued their practice of publishing supplementary volumes, the first of which now appears. If the fact that its 1,254 pages cover people who died within the space of only four years suggests some degree of inflation, that’s a fault on the right side, and this volume contains many fascinating as well as dubious personages. But there are are other difficulties.
When essays are commissioned on those who have just died, it is quite likely that the writer will have known the subject, and there can be advantages in that. The contrary drawback is that the friend will write too much as a friend. When I have contributed essays to the DNB, I’ve made a conscious effort to blink and say ‘They’ve all been dead 50 years’: write as if not only the subject but his widow, his family and friends can never read it. In an obituary appearing the day after death it may be proper to remember Voltaire’s saying that to the living we owe respect; in a book intended to be read for generations we should follow his next words, ‘but to the dead we owe nothing but the truth’. What Leslie Stephen, the great founding editor of the DNB, wanted was ‘unembroidered fact’ rather than sentimental eulogy, and his colleague Canon Alfred Ainger put it more simply still: ‘No flowers by request.’
More than a few floral tributes are to be found here. See, for example, the essay on the playwright Peter Barnes by his former colleague, the director Terry Hands, which reads very much like sentimental eulogy. Although Barnes enjoyed a famous success in 1968 with The Ruling Class, he never quite repeated it, or so I think most critics would agree. But Hands lays on the superlatives, telling us that Red Noses was ‘his third great play’ (it might not have been a good idea to quote from it: ‘I see God — and … [pause] … she’s black’), before ending, ‘Peter Barnes was the boldest playwright of the late 20th century’. Is that even a matter of reasonable opinion? Is it really true, for that matter, that Karel Reisz’s 1966 movie Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment ‘resonates with sincerity and conviction’? It struck me as utterly witless at the time, but maybe it has improved with age.
Topics which were once taboo have long since ceased to be: the word ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t appear in the essay on the frock-maker Sir Hardy Amies, but we learn in passing that he had a male ‘partner’. Then, in a nicely written essay on Andrew, the last Duke of Devonshire, Philip Ziegler tells us that ‘his private life, as he was the first to admit, was not irreproachable, but whatever he did was done with style and generosity,’ which is surely the sort of thing one says at a memorial service, to affectionate knowing chuckles. In the ODNB, whatever is alluded to should either be spelled out, or not mentioned at all.
Altogether more rum is a passage in the essay on Elizabeth Longford by Paul Johnson, who also does her husband Frank, and needless to say does them both very well. Except that — well, he mentions the great sorrow of the Longfords’ lives, the death in a motor accident in 1969 of their delicious young daughter Catherine. Shortly before she was killed she had landed her first newspaper job, and was talking about it to ‘an old family friend’. He admonished her: ‘Catherine, last week I saw you walking down Fleet Street with a coureur des dames much senior to you. Are you aware that he has had affairs with at least two of your sisters?’ ‘Yes I am’, she said fiercely, ‘but I’ve got him now!’ (private information).
Crikey! We can presumably work out who the friend was — but is this a reference book, or Nigel Dempster (who will, I trust, be in the next volume)?
Several historians departed in this less-than-lustrum, and the excellent Richard Davenport-Hines does justice to Hugh Trevor-Roper and his qualities as an essayist. There are two members of the famous or notorious Communist Historians Group of 60 years ago. Robin Briggs dismisses the ‘innuendo’ that Christopher Hill had been a Soviet mole, while lauding this ‘great historian’ in a way that Blair Worden, let’s say, might not have done. And although E. J. Hobsbawm no doubt tries to write with objectivity about his old comrade Rodney Hilton (certainly a better historian than Hill), he indulges in a little vicarious self-pity when he says that Hilton ‘was aware, and resented the fact, that his membership of the Communist Party stood in the way of his career prospects’. At least that’s better than actual errors of fact: Henry Wallace was not the Democratic candidate at the 1948 American presidential election (p. 660).
Having solemnly regretted the intrusion of personal affection into this grand and splendid work, I should add that there are touches which only some degree of intimacy could have provided, such as Lord Hailsham’s tendency to recite ‘long, if not always apposite, passages of Greek verse’. And the most poignant thing about the book for this reviewer is its intimation of mortality: the essays on my own close contemporaries. The publisher Frances Lincoln died at 55, the political historian Ben Pimlott at 58, the medievalist Patrick Wormald at 57. We were at Oxford in the late 1960s; they were all unusually gifted; they should have died hereafter.