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The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


An important work which presents new, potentially non-ideological, ways of reading history.


It seems paradoxical to suggest that any dictionary or account of national achievement, be this history or sport, art or politics, can be securely objective; that it can escape the perils of patriotism, implicit in such a project, in wanting to claim for the country in which it was produced, and with which it is concerned, the continuing vitality of lives whose common link is their happy coincidence within national boundaries over an extended period of time. The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is, therefore, an intrinsically risky venture, promising by the word 'dictionary' an authoritative account of British history which, by the terms it has set for itself, must largely suppress foreign-language voices, other nationalities, and which by definition cannot objectively and fairly represent the impact of other nations on the evolution of its particular national narrative.

However, the real achievement of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography lies not in its monumental quality, its sheer volume lending it value as an artefact, a testament to scholarship and the national intellectual institutions - particularly the Oxford University Press - in which the United Kingdom retains a pride, in spite of the general fear of its policy makers of that dirty word, 'elitism'. Rather it is the fact that it has successfully negotiated new ways of looking at national history which help to reduce exclusions and suppressions on the grounds of race, gender, class, institutional affiliation, even as it would seem to be bound within the most ideologically exclusive passport-control of all, the proclamation of British-ness made on the front cover.

Again somewhat paradoxically, by consciously and explicitly establishing itself as a National project, the scheme avoids the ironic pitfalls of liberal revisionism. For example, post-colonial critics of literature, whilst claiming (and managing worthily) to bring new minority writers into the canon, have actually, in the wider cultural terms beyond the walls of the university English department, only resulted in lip-service being paid to their value. It is too easy to fall into the belief that, because Toni Morrison is 'on the syllabus', all schoolchildren will automatically grow up with an impression of English literature which is not dominated by white English authors, but which instead has an overall tone of international grey. In contrast, by ostensibly refusing to be refashioned as a globally accommodating revision of history - even though English as (at the moment) the international language might enable this opportunity to be taken - and by strictly and consciously admitting only those foreigners who have had a major impact on British events, such illusions are avoided in this project.

One reviewer suggested that the Dictionary of National Biography was like a great ocean liner, but that metaphor, whilst representing forcefully the sheer scale and enterprise of the book, also slightly skews its methodological aim. To say that it has a quality of engineering about it implies that each life - each of the hundred words devoted to a minor figure, or the thousands to a Darwin, or a Shakespeare - is a compartment which is actually contributing towards some grand over-arching design held by the master architect, the editor. In fact, however, other than three imperative practical limits - to be studied a character must be no longer living, must be British or have some connection with that country, and must be "noteworthy" - the qualifications for entry were open-ended and left largely to the decisions of the experts, 10 000 selected from an international field of fifty countries, in one of the twelve research areas. The result is a text that is remarkably free from biases along ideological lines: religion, gender, ethnicity. Although, then, there is automatically an exclusive process on the grounds of race - the British connection - the dictionary in fact stands as a model by which other countries could produce their own national versions, thereby counter-balancing the patriotic bias intrinsic in each national project.

Of course, this is a drastically simplistic hope to hold, ignoring the fact that the majority of the world's cultures are, through political or financial constraints, locked out of the archives and the intellectual institutions which are the requisite foundations for such a project; also, that they are not necessarily empowered with the language (English) of scholarly dialogue which lends international legitimacy to such a project. In many senses, the Dictionary provides evidence, in negative, of the fact that such tools are limited within the national grounds of a few privileged countries. Indeed, even if it were the case that institutions in every country were given the capacity to write their own national biographies, Britain is in the exclusive and fortunate position of having a more or less coherent passport control with which to organise such a project. How, in countries which have historically had more fluid boundaries, could such a venture work? Would Hitler or Beethoven be claimed as a German or Austrian? The selective process on the grounds of identity, let alone their historical claims for 'noteworthyness', would itself invoke a range of competitive political, social and racial discourses and counter-discourses.

However, British biography cannot apologise for the fact that the powerful historical, linguistic, financial and intellectual mechanisms required to bring such a project about are already in place. What it can avoid is conforming to stereotypes and subjective biases which exist as a sub-division of that national culture: principally, in Britain's case, the exclusion of identities on the grounds of their gender. The new work corrects that telling deficit from previous editions, as well as starting to embrace the ethnic cultures which provide a foundation of contemporary British identity, and which will - it is to be hoped - receive a representative place in any future versions.

As free as possible from overarching political ideologies which might manifest themselves in an authoritarian editing process, the reader can come to the dictionary from a number of different perspectives, each equally free of attempts to present a picture of Britain which is ordered on religious, political or racial lines. Read chronologically, it provides a history which is accumulated from individual lives - the his-stories - and by which the larger movement is driven. By looking at individuals (who themselves have political positions) one can construct an image of history which is also political, but which is made political from the bottom-up, by the authors who drive the larger movement, rather than from the top-down, by the individual Author who writes the definitive version of it. Studied thematically, it can provide new insights into the way personality - as well as partisan politics - influenced the growth of the post of, for example, the office of Prime Minister or the powers of the regent. And looked at alphabetically - the angle from which the casual reader will approach it - it promotes a balanced (but not by any Christian moral scales) picture of the quality of humanity, its continual capacity for genius, inventiveness and creativity, as well as for militarism, revolution and subversion.

It is fortunate that this work has grown of age not only in a post-colonial and post-feminist context where the censorships of earlier editions can be corrected and permit these new modes of objective reading, but also that it has matured in a technological environment where these new, non-subjective routes into history can be facilitated. The online version has the potential to enable new methods of study, to forge inter-disciplinary links between the various neurons of the University faculty. However, once again this open-minded quality of the project itself is undermined by the wider cultural fact that the technology required to access it is yet another quantitative hurdle for the disenfranchised to overcome; paradoxically, whilst the content ignores educational and financial limits, it is only those readers possessed of these tools who will be able to study the text in its maximum capacity.

And this last point leads one to the unfortunate endnote: the realisation that, in spite of the fact that the content is remarkably free from competitive racist or gendered programmes, the project in its textual form is accessible only to a privileged, enfranchised minority, for it is only in the university and national libraries that it will be available. At 6500 a set, few public libraries will be able to stretch their budgets (or their shelf space) to accommodate it. So here's a challenge, Mr. Blair: correct the final institutionalised deficit which undermines the objective quality of the writing. If we lose our Olympic bid, divert the earmarked funds and buy this book so that every potential reader may have access to it and from that act, inspire and give birth to the new biographies of those from any intellectual background, not only in sport but in literature, science, politics and exploration.

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This page was published on October 23, 2004 | Keywords: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ODNB, history, ideology

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