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The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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.

February 1, 2005 12:35 pm | Link | Comments Off on The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The ‘Phoenix’ Queen

John Guy’s Mary is a phoenix, the mythical bird that rises gloriously from the ashes of its own burning remains. In captivity, ‘In the end is my beginning’ was Mary’s chosen motto, words borrowed from her mother, Mary of Guise, and emblazoned on her cloth of state. The epitaph suits a Queen whose fate was to triumph only in death, as ‘one of the most celebrated and beguiling rulers in the whole of British history.’ In life, however, Mary was ‘the unluckiest ruler in British history’, a victim of ambition, deceit, mistrust and jealousy. And it is this well-worn story, played out once more in the most minute detail, which Guy tells.

Mary triumphed in death, and Guy’s sympathetic narrative (he promises to ‘tell Mary’s story … in her own words’) begins with a rather gruesome depiction of her execution. Proudly clad in undergarments of scarlet, the liturgical colour for Roman martyrs, Mary goes to her death dressed as a martyr to her Catholic faith. ‘I am settled’, she said, ‘in the ancient Roman Catholic religion, and mind to spend my blood in defence of it.’ Her crime was treason, plotting to overthrow Elizabeth I and install herself on the English throne, which she and many believed to be rightfully hers, and restoring the Catholic religion, a last act of desperation to end her years of captivity. She had been ‘done over’ so many times that when presented with an opportunity to regain some control she took it desperately. Mary’s Catholicism, however, was only displayed proudly and defiantly once she had lost. As a reigning Queen, she ardently advocated religious toleration (a practicing Catholic, she however, had no qualms about a Protestant marriage ceremony to her third husband, Bothwell) but once captive and desperate she sought help from her foreign Catholic allies such as Philip II of Spain, and wore her Catholicism proudly on her sleeve. She was persecuted because she was Catholic.

Guy presents Mary as an extremely engaging, beautiful, intelligent and imposing figure (standing at nearly six feet tall, Mary would often disguise herself as a man so as to enjoy a degree of anonymity). But as a Queen almost from birth, her fate was to be forever a power tool. As a baby she was the subject of Henry VIII’s ‘rough wooings’ – his policy of destruction in Scotland to force a betrothal of Mary to his son, the future Edward VI. As regent, her Mother Mary of Guise, perhaps the only person who truly loved Mary, did all in her power to protect her, eventually sending her to France to live at the French Court, under the protection of the King of France, Henry II. This was perhaps the most peaceful and trouble free time of Mary’s life, culminating in her ‘ideal dynastic marriage’ to the Daupin, Francis at the age of 15. Just over a year later, they were crowned King and Queen of France. But happiness was not to last. Within the year Francis II was dead and Mary, pushed aside by her fearsome Mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, returned to Scotland, at the age of nineteen, to reign as Queen in the land of her birth. And it is here that Guy’s story begins to pick up.

Mary’s life in Scotland is the stuff of thrillers and, although heavily weighed down throughout with complicated politicking, at this stage the biography becomes a page-turner, depicting love, betrayal, and murder. Despite Mary’s best efforts to rule and maintain a level of religious toleration, she is thwarted at every opportunity by the ambitious, factionalised Scottish Lords, in particular her half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray. It is in keeping up with the ploys and power-plays of these ambitious Lords each wanting a chunky slice of power, that one can lose a grip on the story.

The Lords are presented as the enemies of Mary, along with the cruel and ‘indomitable’ John Knox. But the consistent baddie of Guy’s narrative is the shadowy and highly sinister figure of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister and leading adviser for forty years, who engineered the downfall and disposal of Mary from the time of her coronation as a baby. Guy claims that ‘the collapse of Mary’s rule in Scotland was not an accident’ but had been engineered all along by Cecil. Driven by his ambition to secure the British Isles as a single, Protestant community, in his mind there was room for only one Queen and therefore sought to find and encourage ways of undermining Mary at every turn, encouraging the first revolt against her in 1559-1560 and then standing behind the most troublesome Lords, the Earls Moray, Maitland and Morton. Without his support, their efforts would have been futile. But Guy, ever sympathetic, argues that Mary successfully ‘managed to hold together a divided and fatally unstable country,’ handling people ‘just as masterfully as her English cousin and counterpart.’

If ever there was an issue, however, which Mary wanted settling, it was the question of her dynastic claim to the English throne. As the natural successor to Elizabeth, she, from the time of her return to Scotland as a young woman, longed for a meeting with her ‘own dear sister’, believing her to be her closest ally. Cecil of course dreaded such a meeting; it served his interests to keep the two Queens apart. Elizabeth, for her part merely ‘feared that the younger, possibly more beautiful Queen of Scots was so magnetic, so brilliant in conversation, that she would overshadow or surpass her.’

Where Mary failed, according to Guy, it was in her choice of husband and it was here that her greatest failing, her naïveté and her easy willingness to trust, were exposed. Desperate for someone who would shield her from the feuding Lords, Mary’s greatest error was her second marriage to the narcissistic, ambitious and bisexual Lord Darnley. The marriage plunged her deeper into the power plays of the Lords and when he was ruthlessly assassinated by them, chiefly Bothwell, her demise was secured. History implicated Mary in the plot, arguing that if she wasn’t involved directly, she must have at least known about it. But Guy refuting this argues that she was neither involved nor knew about it and her affair with Bothwell did not begin until after her husband’s death. In allowing herself to be seduced by Bothwell and marrying him, she secured her destiny. Her errors – as with the plot to overthrow Elizabeth – are narrated by Guy as if Mary erred only when driven to desperation. With Darnley, another successor to the English throne, it was desperation over Elizabeth’s refusal to meet her and settle the dynastic claim; with Bothwell, a true affair of the heart she was manipulated by his masculinity and sought his protection from the Lords; and with the disastrous treason plot, a desperate desire to end her years in captivity and to once again be recognised as the Queen she was born to be.

My Heart is My Own depicts Mary as a Queen ‘to the last fibre of her body and soul.’ It suggests that she would have reigned successfully if allowed to get on with it. But Elizabeth was jealous of her, Cecil despised her and the despicable Scottish Lords used her for their own ambitious ends. Essentially she was an inconvenience and was killed because of it.

February 1, 2005 12:30 pm | Link | Comments Off on The ‘Phoenix’ Queen

A Little Gem from the Master of the Doorstop

In this short, autobiographical portrait of a childhood in the North Staffordshire town of Turnstall in the ‘Hungry Thirties’, Paul Johnson, Spectator columnist and author of such panoramic tomes as A History of The American People, certainly does conjure up a vanished landscape, and a vanished way of life. In contrast to today’s uniform urban sprawl and the enthralment of much of the population to television, here we encounter the unique jolie laide landscape of the Potteries, with smoke, sparks and flames emanating from the pot-banks (busily baking the famous local wares); a world where children made their own amusement, a car was a rare thing and milk was delivered by pony and trap.

Johnson grew up in a middle-class family consisting of mother, father, and elder siblings Tom, Clare and Elfride. Originally they hailed from Manchester, but they moved to Turnstall when Mr Johnson, a sensitive, talented artist, was offered the position of headmaster at the local art school. It was he who taught ‘Little Paul’ to draw and tell the time, and took him to the fascinating pottery factories; but it was his mother who held the biggest influence on the young Johnson.

A friendly and funny woman, already forty when she gave birth to him, Mrs Johnson always treated her youngest like an adult, relating the latest stories concerning the locals and her acute observations to him in precise language: ‘it was like being a child of Jane Austen’. She had a powerful memory, reciting swathes of Shakespeare, song lyrics and poetry to her attentive son.

His elder sisters also contributed to his care. Nature-mad Clare, who ‘ran up trees like a squirrel’ and budding poet Elfride would often take Johnson on adventures to the local park or nearby countryside, elucidating to him such diverse subjects as cloud formation and Clive of India. Unsurprisingly, when at school (first St Dominic’s, where the nuns smelt headily of ‘soap and linen’, then on to the more austere Christian Brothers) Johnson was a voracious reader, and would be reprimanded for quoting insalubrious chunks of Dickens. Another blossoming passion was history, and by eight he was cycling alone to Chester for the day to look around the roman remains.

Detail is not restricted to the Johnson family, with many local characters recalled in delightful details. The two parish priests are especially colourful. Fr Ryan, fierce and demanding, was obsessed with improving his ‘aesthetic mongrel’ of a church (three and a half domes, one Gothic tower), and thought nothing of breaking off mid-Mass and persuading the congregation to trudge round the streets in procession behind the Blessed Sacrament, singing ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’ just to annoy the separated brethren. Meanwhile, young Fr Cocoran, ‘so freckly Gerard Manley-Hopkins could have written a poem to him’, spent his time throwing his shoes at the cats who kept him awake all night with their meowing.

By the end of the Thirties, and the book, all this was fast disappearing. Clare and Elfride were off to university; gas masks were being issued; and the toy soldiers Johnson had played with all his boyhood (with figurines of John the Baptist and the actress Fay Wray) were fading into insignificance against the real soldiers he saw on the street.

This book is a joy to read, and often amusing. Much comedy comes from his childhood misunderstandings of the English language: thus when the horrid Rena Milton boasts after their First Confession that she admitted nine sins, he is perplexed by Sr Angela’s exclamation that ‘she has broken the Seal of Confession’ because ‘the only seal I could think of balanced a big rubber ball on its nose, or, in the Guinness advertisement, a full pint of stout’. Pen and wash illustrations by the author, liberally sprinkled throughout, give an extra personal touch to what is a delightful memoir. Warmly recommended.

February 1, 2005 12:25 pm | Link | Comments Off on A Little Gem from the Master of the Doorstop

Robert O'Brien

Matt Bell
Associate Editor

Andrew Cusack

Founded in 2005
the University of St Andrews
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