DETERMINED and well primed browsers may find instruction and entertainment in the most factually unsensational and consequentially rhapsodic volumes — anything from Stanley Gibbons' Catalogue or the Pharmacopia to Mrs Beeton or Huntingdonshire Cabmen.
The first function of the newly published 20th Century concise DNB is to sit on the shelves until one wishes to know in which year Dan Leno changed over from contortionism to clog-dancing or when Sir Henry Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere became minister of inland revenue in Canada (— the answers are 1869 and 1897 respectively, of course), But as browsing pasture, this little book of 6,000 entries offers rich patches of clover amid wide stretches of timothy.
Monarchs and Prime Ministers tend to suffer or enjoy character sketches. This on Edward VII: "The austere deemed his addiction to pleasure excessive; but his support of philanthropic causes silenced criticism ... Personally courageous he admired every manifestation of heroism. He was greatly attached to dumb animals. Memorials were erected in all parts of the Empire."
Indeed the DNB seems indulgent to the sporty man. What about the first Viscount Chaplin? "His primary interests, hunting and racing; won the Derby with Hermit 1867 . leader of opposition to coalition government 1915; created viscount, 1916; his fortunes impaired by hospitality and costs of stables and kennels."
Perhaps the dictionary's tour de force of confident moral reportage is its conclusion to the life of George V, a triumph of almost gnomic sententiae: "In person he was neatly made and slightly below middle height; his voice strong and resonant, his eyes arrestingly blue; his naval training had implanted habits of discipline, and his mode of life was extremely regular; he was quick to check infractions of traditional observances and duties; a sound churchman, with the habit of daily Bible reading, he always attended Sunday morning service; keenly interested in all three fighting Services and conscientious in his perusal of state documents; in private life his pursuits were those of the English country ge-ntleimen; in his mistrust of cleverness, his homespun common sense, dislike of pretension, ready sense of ludicrous and devotion to sport, he possessed qualities which appealed to Englishmen of all cla,Noc "
By this stage poor old George's character has been developed as almost ineffably annoying. He "maintained uniformly harmonious relations with his father who put state papers at his disposal; formed habits of attending parliamentary debates; played golf and lawn tennis; perfected his shooting; sailed his famous yacht Britannia, and collected postage stamps of the British Empire; in the last three pastimes he was an expert in his own right." Not much competition on the Britannia, I'd have thought. The King banned booze at Buck ingham Palace during the war; he was at home with Labour ministers.
The cumulative picture of royalty since Victoria is of almost miraculous devotion to family and national duty after the wild Tom and Jerry act between VR and the P of W.
On balance, one hopes that the recording angel doesn't speak with such a schoolmasterly voice.
Charles Cruttwell, Master of Hertford, pilloried by Evelyn Waugh in his novels as a burglar and prize-fighter, gets off with a factual resume of achievements and Waugh's entry is little more than a bibliography.
Sir George Sitwell does better than the great Victorian philologist W. W. Skeat (13 lines against 9). While Sir George is characterised merely as an "erratic and difficult parent," Percy Wyndham Lewis is written off as "a towering, undisciplined and quarrelsome egotist, his greatest enemy was himself."
In the clipped phrases of the dictionary the life of Chuter-Ede from schools at Epsom and Battersea to service in the Surrey County Council and leadership of the House of Commons seems duller than the real thing.
Chesterton is given less space than Wells, and his end is summed up: "After 1908 lived at Beaconsfield, where, childless, he surrounded himself with children and yearly grew a fatter and more legendary figure, with flapping hat, cloak, and sword-stick; absent-minded, high-spirited, and good-natured almost to weakness; but rock-like in maintaining his ideas." In my opinion, Chesterton had a truly original and incisive mind, but these do not fair well in thumbnail sketches.
Who decides the lengthes of these entries? Who writes them?
Like the Times Literary Supplement of old, the thing is meant to be anonymous. If there is any bias, it is of the Victorian statesmanlike Sir Leslie Stephen kind. But it would be nice to know who wrote what.