The New DNB

Colin Matthew lays out a stall for the new Dictionary of National Biography

If universal dictionaries were the characteristic consequence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, dictionaries of national biography were their equivalents for the liberal nationalism of the nineteenth century. They emphasised both the nation state and the role of individuals within it. The Germans were, not surprisingly, first into action, with the first volume of the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie being published in 1875, a tribute to the modified triumph of National Liberalism in the formation of the German empire of 1871. In Britain, George Smith (1824- 1901), founder of the publishing firm of Smith, Elder, publishers of the Brontes, Trollope and the Cornhill Magazine, commissioned work on a Dictionary of National Biography. Smith made a fortune from publishing, and enjoyed using it for innovatory projects. He became interested in biographical dictionaries and inquired into the possibility of a new, English-language version of the Biographie Universelle, first published in France in the mid-eighteenth century. He discussed this with Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine since 1871, and in 1882 was persuaded by Stephen that a universal biography on the scale envisaged was impractical. As Sidney Lee, Stephen's successor as editor of the DNB, put it in his memoir of George Smith:

'Acting on Mr Stephen's advice, Mr Smith resolved to confine his efforts to the production of a complete dictionary of national biography which should supply full, accurate, and concise biographies of all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time'.

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