The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, editors
Oxford University Press – Sixty volumes
019861411X – £7,500

by Robert O'Brien

The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was published in September, in sixty volumes, and consists of fifty-four thousand lives, written by ten thousand contributors, and under two editors. The project took just eight years to complete (1992-2004). It can be located in book form in the university library, or through an admirable web site (it nearly existed only online). It is undoubtedly a remarkable thing. But for those of a scholarly disposition, it is a monumental work to be surveyed with a mixture of wonder and rage.

Until now, one used the Dictionary of National Biography, first published in 1901 by Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen. It was well-written and insightful, but needed an update. To get into it, of course, you had to be dead – Queen Victoria timed her death well to get in, but some like Gerard Manley Hopkins and the peculiar Baron Corvo had also died well in good time, but were passed over. The DNB continued to publish supplements through the twentieth century, including a ‘Missing Persons’ volume in 1996, which filled these lacunae. The ODNB surpasses its predecessor at least in coverage, being 42% bigger, an increase reflected not merely in modern entries but across the centuries.

Biography is the undoubted flagship of modern writing in English. Industries have arisen around certain figures (Dr Johnson enjoys what is known as a biographical literature), and writers plan ahead for centenaries of births, deaths, battles, and so forth. What is the present appeal of biography? Perhaps at its best the genre offers the narrative of a novel with the reassurance that the reader is still in ‘the real world’. The biographer is a sort of cross-breed, one half historian and the other novelist. But fundamentally, literary biography (or just plain biography) is the genre for high-brow gossips – that, if I may insult my reader, accounts for most of us.


No-one thinks we would be better off without it, but the ODNB has come in for a bit of a hammering in the learned journals. In the London Review of Books, Stephan Collini gave the thing the thumbs up, and reminded us that he wrote 0.025% of it. But, despite the fact that what must be a sizeable proportion of the eminent academic population have a hand in it, and so have a vested interest in its promotion, there has been not only criticism from outside but also dissention in the ranks.

Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Freeman Unleash

Arthur Freeman, who is responsible for two no doubt immaculate entries on the nineteenth century book-world, has submitted a damning, savage letter to the TLS (February 11, 2005). His criticisms are aimed at inaccuracies in numerous second- and third-rate figures, on whom the ODNB’s credibility must rest. For the really pre-eminent figures in the national memory, one need not turn to the ODNB (though there are many exemplary entries on the big names, such as Pat Roger’s life of Samuel Johnson). But, where, asks Freeman, is he to go to find out about William Chetwood or Thomas Lodge, but the ODNB? And when he does, what does he find but misinformation? A book he knows to have been in one volume, an ODNB entry says consists of several! A book exposed as a forgery in the 1960s, now attributed in 2004! Dear oh dear. Freeman says that in many places ‘the old DNB, while in need of an update, [was] vastly better’. Any more of this, and Harvard will be returning their three copies, Yale their two, and we at St. Andrews our one beloved set.

These errors – and Freeman and his wife (also an ODNB contributor) seem to have done little else these last months but look for them – are worrying because the ODNB is sure to be a foundational reference tool for future generations. Elementary mistakes are to be frowned on, but at least the online version can rectify what errors there are.


Then there is the other problem of politics and biases, pointed out by the superb Roger Kimball in the New Criterion. ‘Almost by definition,’ writes Kimball, ‘a contemporary academic project is going to exhibit a left-liberal, politically correct bias.’ John Gross in the TLS calls Colin Matthew (the editor who died half way through this venture) ‘a man of the Left’ though ‘his convictions were tempered by a certain cultural conservatism.’ Phew. In his review Kimball goes on to say that the leftism is not a serious detraction. One trend seems to be that most of the time entries are written by scholars sympathetic to their subjects. Ian Ker writes up John Henry Newman, and not, say, Owen Chadwick, and Simon Heffer naturally supplies a fine appreciative entry on Enoch Powell, when a liberal commentator might have been more damning.

But then there are problems. Kimball picks on ‘Eric Hobsbawm’s comically laudatory, indeed, hagiographical article about Karl Marx’ and he with others have had problems with Peter Holland’s biography of Shakespeare. (Marx enters the ODNB under a new rule permitting foreigners who have influenced national life.) In both cases, leftism appears in rather crude openness. As for political correctness generally, women account for nearly 10% of the ODNB, as opposed to only 5% of the DNB. Some say this is too many, some not enough. I am not qualified to measure the contribution these women made to national life, but there is a tendency nowadays, in education and politics especially, to let the ladies win. If that is true, isn’t it rather patronising?


Talking of leftism, lots of reviewers have picked up on Holland’s statement that ‘In Britain politicians of the left and right rely on Shakespeare as a national and quasi-religious authority for their political creeds. The Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the heir to nineteenth-century political oratory with its predilection for quoting Shakespeare, required his speech-writers to know the Bible and Shakespeare, the twin bedrocks of working-class culture. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, right-wing Conservative politicians like Michael Portillo returned with mechanical frequency to Ulysses’s speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida as “proof” that Shakespeare supported the hierarchies and institutions tories were committed to maintain.’ Thankfully the ODNB does not return to this sort of thing ‘with mechanical frequency’.

I was more interested to see how Holland would present the matter of Shakespeare’s probable adherence to the Roman Catholic religion. Holland is, of course, entitled to doubt the evidence – but if he is to discuss the matter, he must present it fairly and not miss out anything important.

Particularly odd is his treatment of the spiritual testament of William’s father, John, a document of the sort the English Jesuit missionaries distributed to Catholics as proof of fidelity to the Faith. The document was found in 1757 in the Shakespeare family home, Holland says by a man fond of forgeries. ‘In the unlikely event that it was genuine’, writes Holland, it would suggest the Shakespeare household was Roman Catholic. However, this is unlikely, as ‘[i]t was, after all, during John Shakespeare’s time as bailiff in 1568 that the images of the last judgment that decorated the guild chapel in Stratford were whitewashed and defaced as no longer acceptable to state protestantism’. Perhaps, Holland says, this was just more outward conformity. This is a peculiarly incomplete account.

Patrick Collinson, of Trinity, Cambridge, has been recently arguing with Alastair Fowler on this matter, and makes the important point well. ‘According to Fowler,’ Collinson writes, John Shakespeare’s Protestantism is evidenced by the fact that as a Stratford alderman he “engaged in Protestant iconoclasm”. He did no such thing, and if he had we should not still be looking at that great doom painting in the guild chapel. Shakespeare saw to it that the image was covered with whitewash, which was not iconoclasm but, contrary to the Royal Injunctions of 1559, which spoke of removal and destruction, a means to preserve it, as real iconoclasts well knew.’

Go today to Stratford and you will see that William Shakespeare’s father was the most incompetent (or half-hearted) iconoclast in England. And perhaps, therefore, a Roman Catholic? There is much more evidence pointing to William’s adherence to what was almost certainly his father’s religion – apparent residence in a Catholic recusant house in Lancashire (‘groundless’ according to the ODNB), a signature in the English College, Rome, recusant links at William’s Stratford Grammar School, allusion to the martyred saint Edmund Campion in Twelfth Night, Hamlet’s father in purgatory, deprived of the sacraments – and more.

Anyway, this just goes to show that even this ‘authoritative’ ODNB is prone to partiality. The next issue of the Mitre Literary Review will contain a review essay on Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare, which explores the evidence in a popular and well-presented form.

St Andrews

It is pleasing to see that some St. Andrews academics have contributed entries on eminent writers. Professor Nicholas Roe has written on Leigh Hunt, Professor Robert Bartlett on Gerald of Wales and others, Dr Ian Bradley has an entry, as does Professor Trevor Hart, and Professor Robert Crawford has the honour of carrying off Robert Burns, the famous illiterate Scotch poet. However, I was surprised to see that the most prolific (insofar as I can establish) St. Andrean to contribute to the ODNB was Canon Brian M. Halloran, Catholic chaplain and parish priest at St. James’. Canon Halloran contributes seven fine entries. Few will have heard of his subjects, and it is, I think, accurate to say that the field of Scots priests in penal times is what is known as an academic niche.

His longest entry regards Bishop George Hay, ‘vicar apostolic of the lowlands district’ in penal times, and makes interesting reading. Hay wrote a number of pious works for the edification of Scots, and, the seminaries at Douai and Paris having collapsed at the French Revolution, established one at Scalan in Glenlivet. However, despite the admirable contribution of Hay to the Catholic Church in Scotland, Canon Halloran points out that he ‘when prejudiced, could be judgemental and even condemn without evidence.’ Halloran, himself a fair-minded man, may surprise many in this town with his erudition.

The entries, or heroic lays, of Canon Halloran on Scots priests are in contrast to the scholarly scepticism of Professor Robert Bartlett. A world-renowned mediæval historian, he shows how wrong St. Bede was to believe that there was such a saint as St. Bega, ‘supposedly active in the seventh century’. She became a nun, so the story goes, having pledged her life to celibacy, and a visionary figure gave her an arm-band as a token of her commitment.

Bartlett deconstructs this pious tradition. ‘Since Bega’s bracelet was the focus of the Cumbrian cult and the Old English word for ring or bracelet is beag, the suspicion naturally arises that originally St Bega was a bracelet and that the Cumbrian cult started from a holy armband that only gradually metamorphosed into the person, St Bega.’ This is like the higher criticism of the nineteenth century. St. Bega was a bracelet? Sounds a bit Ovidian to me. And she became, what, gradually less like a bracelet and more like a person? I wonder what the odds of that happening are.

My theory, and it seems at least equally plausible (though I am utterly ignorant on the matter), is that there was a saint who left a holy bracelet, and after her death her name, perhaps resembling beag, was replaced by the name of the holy object itself. Only problem is this is based on the presumption that we should trust tradition. I was unable to find any other cases in the ODNB of arm-bands becoming saints (or vice versa) – but this doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Professor Bartlett demonstrates his eminence with his fine entry on Gerald of Wales (c.1146-1220), which ends nicely with the observation that Gerald is ‘remembered not as a vain and disgruntled clerical careerist but as a pioneering observer of the Celtic lands and peoples.’

The Last Churchman

As has been generally observed, the ODNB is most useful for those figures who have not attracted full-length biographies, and it is on the quality of these that the ODNB must be judged. One such figure is John Carmel Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster from 1963-75, and a cardinal from 1965. Heenan is surely the last great English churchman in the tradition that begins with Wiseman and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy.

Heenan’s experience at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was deeply unhappy, though his loyalty to the Church was greater than his personal misgivings (this is reflected in the fascinating letters between Heenan and Evelyn Waugh). According to Michael Gaine, who has written this neat entry, ‘English Catholicism had been ill-prepared for the council, and Heenan was out of tune with the liberal trends in European theology which were its driving force.’ Moreover, ‘he could not accept that the new men at the council, innovators in theology, apologetics, and catechists, were any more apostolic or capable exponents of Catholic doctrine than were their predecessors. At times he felt that they were undermining the faith, and he once launched a famous attack against the theological experts at the council, ‘Timeo peritos et dona ferentes’ (‘I fear experts and those bearing gifts’)’.

I wonder whether there is a need for a fuller biography of this great pastoral bishop, who, whilst not being a ‘progressive’, was a great innovator, and was a master first of radio and then television. Oh for another Heenan.

Whatever its shortcomings, the ODNB is a treasure-trove of the great, the eccentric, and the obscure. For a sort of lucky dip approach, OUP will send a biography of the day to your email inbox. One feature which people seem to like is the ‘wealth at death’ figure at the end of many biographies. There are also thematic lists of biographies, such as mythical figures and prime ministers. There is also an entry on Jack the Ripper, of whom we know nothing but his crimes. I’ll read that when I’ve got a moment, along with the life of Adrian IV, the English pope.

Categories: Books

Robert O'Brien

Matt Bell
Associate Editor

Andrew Cusack

Founded in 2005
the University of St Andrews
in Scotland

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