WHY SHOULD anyone buy the latest volume in the ever-expanding Dictionary of National Biography? I do not mean that it is bad, as the reviewers will agree. But it will cost you 65 pounds. And have you got the rest of volumes? You need the basic 22 plus the largely decennial supplements to bring the total to 31. Of course, it will be answered, public and academic libraries will want the new volume. After all, it adds 1,068 lives of people who escaped the net of the original compilers. Yet in 10 years time a revised version of the whole caboodle, called the New Dictionary of National Biography, will be published. Its editor, Professor Colin Matthew, tells me that he will have room for about 50,000 lives, some 13,000 more than in the current DNB.
This rather puts the 1,068 in Missing Persons in the shade. When Dr Nicholls wrote to the Spectator in 1989 asking for names of people whom readers had looked up in the DNB and had been disappointed not to find, she says that she received some 100,000 suggestions. (Well, she had written to "other quality newspapers" too. ) As soon as her committee had whittled the numbers down, the professional problems of an editor began. Contributors didnt file copy on time; some who did sent too many: 50,000 words instead of 500 is a record, according Dr Nicholls. There remains the dinner-party game of whos out. That is a game that the reviewers have played and will continue to play. Criminals were my initial worry. After all, the original edition of the DNB boasted: Malefactors whose crimes excite a permanent interest have received hardly less attention than benefactors. Mr. John Gross clearly had similar anxieties, for he complains that, while the murderer Christie is in, Crippen is out. One might say in reply that the injustice of the hanging of Evans instead of Christie was a force in the repeal of capital punishment in Britain, as Ludovie Kennedy (the author of Christie entry in Missing Persons) notes.