The Dictionary of National Biography 1971–1980 by Lord Blake and C S Nicholls (edd) - review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Nowt so Queer as Folks

The Dictionary of National Biography 1971–1980


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THE OBITUARIST WORKS by two contrary principles: De mortuis nil nisi bunkum, and Voltaire's saying that to the living we owe respect but to the dead we owe nothing but the truth. The former applies the more strongly the mo re recent is a subject's death (though you might not know it sometimes from that Times speciality, the obitchery). The day after a man has died there are other considerations than historical truth. His widow's grief will not be best assuaged by an accurate list of his meanness, treachery, heavy drinking and adultery. The second, Voltairean maxim applies to the long dead. Writing about Nelson or Parnell we can and should be objective about their 'private' lives which became all too public.

As the DNB was first assembled, noble product of Victorian energy and optimism, most of its subjects were historical figures in the full sense. Treatment of them might be qualified by the conventions of the day, but not by piety. It was when the Dictionary embarked on its supplementary, decennial volumes for the twentieth century that a problem arose. How to write about the recently deceased in a reference book which will be consulted for ever after: with bluntness,

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