Posted by: zhiv | February 23, 2010

The DNB and Dickens #1: Leslie Stephen’s Life in Letters: A Bibliographical Study, by Gillian Fenwick

I’m glancing at The Dickens Industry, by Laurence W. Mazzeno. I had a reason to look at this book that I’ve forgotten, though perhaps I had wanted to get a digest of the commentary and criticism of A Christmas Carol. I also might have been curious about the status and story of Dickens’s biography from a recent book that would analyze Forster to Edgar Johnson and the additions and changes through the 80s and 90s, giving me guidance on Ackroyd and Kaplan. Still, I’m not sure any of that was my original purpose.

When I got the book last week I flipped directly, using the index, to the discussion of Leslie Stephen’s DNB life of Dickens. It mentioned the harsh contemporary Dickens criticism of Leslie’s older brother James Fitzjames, which was intriguing and only barely remembered, if at all. Did I know about this? Doubtful. I stopped reading and thought I would read the LS DNB life first, but I would have to find it of course, easier said than done. It still hasn’t turned up, but I haven’t looked very hard. This odd quest did prompt me to rustle up my old copy of “Leslie Stephen’s Life in Letters: A Bibliographical Study,” the excellent 1993 book by Gillian Fenwick that has spent the last 15 years in my friend’s office, along with some of my other odd, scholarly volumes from back in the day. Checking in Fenwick, I see that she went on to write other books about the DNB, one on its treatment of women, which should be interesting in light of my current studies. That’s material for my next library trip, which should be soon, when I take back some Chopin books. Fenwick’s book has a good introduction to Stephen’s DNB work and struggles, and it has the list of his articles. This makes it easy work to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the quick and simple thing to do would be to put the list alongside Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and then supplement the lives of the novelists, from Defoe, Fielding and Richardson to Austen, Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot. There are also the lives of 19th century poets, starting with Byron, and Wordsworth’s life was one of the last things that Stephen wrote.

A critical note here, clear enough in Fenwick, is that working on the Dictionary and raising a young family (Virginia was conceived and born almost exactly simultaneous to the DNB, which is a rather neat fact) broke Stephen’s health. As Virginia grew past girlhood and headed towards being a tween, his output slowed dramatically and he eventually stepped aside, though he still made significant contributions up to the end. But there must have been a number of lives that he would have liked to write, that he passed by because of his illness.

Another note, and I’m not writing about what I wanted to, well made by Fenwick and related to his illness, is that Stephen didn’t like the completeness and thorough research that DNB lives required. The program created an interesting equation. The goal was for the lives to be relatively concise and certainly readable, with the famous “no flowers, by request” as an important guiding principle. At the same time, however, they were meant to possess a state-of-the-art late Victorian scholarly apparatus and bibliography, with a comprehensive review of literary papers and remains, and commentary. Brief but comprehensive and thorough, and the program was different, as it turned out, from Johnson’s essayistic Lives and closer in ways to the grinding work involved in Johnson’s own Dictionary. The task of editing the DNB was very much like the drudgery of Johnson’s lexicography, as it involved exhaustive lists of entries and selecting contributors and editing their articles. In 1891, when Vanessa was 13, Thoby 12, Virginia 9, Adrien 8, and Stephen himself 59, he collapsed and had a breakdown. He went to Switzerland to convalesce.

The other item I’d like to note about Stephen and the DNB, prompted by Fenwick’s list and commentary, is the importance of Stephen’s life of Joseph Addison. This was the first life written by Stephen, included in the first volume of the DNB, and Addison is an interesting literary character who falls right in the midst of Stephen’s sweet spot of 18th century studies. Stephen’s life of Addison was distributed to potential DNB contributors as a model. I believe that at least one scholarly essay was written on this model biography back in my old era, and who knows what has transpired in DNB studies since, you know, they redid the whole thing over the last 20 years, which is probably an interesting thing in itself, the kind of stuff I like. One clerical task might be to pull out the major lives written by Stephen, from Fenwick’s list, and see who wrote the corresponding versions for the new DNB. At any rate, if you want to study Stephen and the old DNB, the life of Addison is the place to start, and Fenwick’s book is very helpful. Need to find the life of Addison myself and reread it–I’m pretty sure it must have been one of the lives I read the first time around. But with me you never know.

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