Dasent, George Webbe (DNB01)

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DASENT, Sir GEORGE WEBBE (1817–1896), Scandinavian scholar, descended from a family long prominent in the West Indies, and including a number of early settlers and administrators of St. Christopher's, Nevis, and Antigua, was the son of John Roche Dasent (d. 1832), attorney-general of St. Vincent, and was born in St. Vincent on 22 May 1817. His mother was Charlotte Martha, younger daughter and coheiress of Captain Alexander Burrowes Irwin of the 32nd foot, who settled in the island and died there in 1806.

George Dasent was educated at Westminster school (1830-4) and at Oxford, matriculating in 1836 from Magdalen Hall (where he was intimate with John Delane, a pupil, like himself, of Dr. Jacobson), and graduated B.A. in 1840, M.A. in 1843, and D.C.L. in 1852. In 1840 he proceeded to Stockholm as secretary to the British envoy, Sir Thomas Cartwright [q. v.] The encouragement of Jacob Grimm led him to interest himself in Scandinavian literature and mythology, and from his four years' sojourn at Stockholm dated his devotion to the study of the sagas, by which his whole career was animated. In 1842 appeared the first fruits of his labour in this field, taking the form of a version of 'The Prose or younger Edda,' which he inscribed to Thomas Carlyle; and in the following year appeared his 'Grammar of the Icelandic or Old-Norse Tongue,' from the Swedish of Erasmus Rask. He returned to England in 1845, and joined Delane as assistant-editor of the 'Times,' marrying his sister next year. His intimacy with Bunsen proved of great service to Delane in connection with the foreign policy of the paper. Together with his heavy journalistic duties he worked assiduously at translations from the Norse. The first of the stories he thus translated appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine' in November 1851, and the collective edition in 1859 with an elaborate introductory essay, which Dasent considered the best piece of work he ever did. He derived an important stimulus to independent work of this kind at the Sterlings' house in South Place, Knightsbridge, where he met John Stuart Mill, Julius Hare, and Thackeray. In January 1852 he was called to the bar from the Middle Temple, becoming an advocate in Doctors' Commons (2 Nov.) Next year he accepted, under Richard William Jelf [q. v.], the post of professor of English literature and modern history at King's College, did some examining for the civil service commissioners, and was elected a member of the Athenæum Club by the committee in 1854. Simultaneously he was writing for the reviews, and some overtures were made to him in regard to the editorship of 'Fraser.' About 1865 he was approached by the representatives of Richard Cleasby [q. v.], who had long been engaged in collecting materials for an Icelandic dictionary, previous to his death in October 1847. He was unable himself either to complete the etymological portion of the work or to undertake the laborious task of minute revision; but he succeeded in persuading Gúdbrandr Vígfússon [q. v.] to come to London and perfect the 'Dictionary' (the expense of which was borne by the Clarendon Press, largely owing to the good offices of his friend Dean Liddell), while he personally contributed to the work in 1873 an introductory memoir of Cleasby. As long ago as 1843 he had conceived a notion of giving an English dress to the Njals saga, which he completed and issued in 1861, with some valuable introductory matter contributed by G. Vígfússon. In that year and in 1862 he visited Iceland in the company of John Campbell of Islay, being received with cordiality at Reykjavik, where he was entertained at a public banquet. He rode across the Vatna Jokull and visited nearly every place of interest in the island, the adventures of the party being humorously described by Sir Charles Clifford in his privately printed 'Travels, by Umbra.' In 1863 he visited the Ionian Islands as the guest of Sir Henry Storks [q. v.], the British high commissioner. In 1866 was published 'Gisli the Outlaw,' the best of his Icelandic translations, and a second series of popular stories called 'Tales from the Fjeld' followed in 1874; the story of 'Burnt Njal' having aroused an abiding interest in Icelandic literature. In 1870 Gladstone, on the advice of Lowe, who was also interested in Icelandic studies, offered him a civil service commissionership under Sir Edward Ryan [q. v.], and the acceptance of the post led to his resignation of his work upon the 'Times.' He was now frequently seen at the Athenæum and at the Cosmopolitan Club in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, and became a well-known figure in London society, numbering Lord Granville, Matthew Arnold, Dean Stanley, Lord Houghton, and Baron Meyer de Rothschild among his friends. With the Baroness Rothschild he took a leading part in the movement for the oral instruction of the deaf and dumb. His leisure between 1870 and 1875 he devoted to the production of some semi-autobiographical novels. He was already a knight of the Danish order of the Dannebrog, and on 27 June 1876, on Disraeli's recommendation, he was knighted at Windsor Castle. He was also appointed one of the original commissioners of historical manuscripts in 1870. In 1890 he sustained a severe loss through the total destruction by fire of his library and other collections at Tower Hill, Ascot. He was a connoisseur of antique silver and an early student of hall-marks, in connection with which subject he had a fine collection (a portion of which he had sold in June 1875). He retired from the public service in 1892, and from the house which he had rebuilt at Ascot he dated his last work, a masterly translation for the Rolls series of 'The Orkneyinger's Magnus and Hacon's Sagas,' executed in 1894 with the assistance of his elder son, Mr. John Roche Dasent, C.B.; this translation occupies the third and fourth of the four volumes of 'Icelandic Sagas relating to the British Isles;' the Norse text was edited by Vigfússon in the first two volumes. Dasent's contemplated life of Delane, whose vast correspondence passed into his hands, was sufficiently advanced for publication, but was left in the hands of his literary executors. He died at Tower Hill, Ascot, on 11 June 1896, and was buried near John Delane in the churchyard of Easthampstead, Berkshire. He married, at St. James's, Piccadilly, on 4 April 1846, Fanny Louisa, third daughter of William Frederick Augustus Delane of Old Bracknell, Easthampstead; she survives him with two sons and one daughter.

Dasent's chief works were:

  1. 'The Prose or Younger Edda,' commonly ascribed to Snorri Sturluson, translated for the first time from the Old Norse collection published by Rask in 1818, Stockholm, 8vo; dated Ulfsunda, 20 July 1842, and inscribed to Thomas Carlyle.
  2. 'Popular Tales from the Norse … with an Introductory Essay on the Origin and Diffusion of Popular Tales,' Edinburgh, 1859, 8vo; the tales are derived from the collection of Norske Folkeeventyr made by Asbjornsen and Moe.
  3. 'The Story of Burnt Njal, or Life in Iceland at the end of the Tenth Century; from the Icelandic of the Njals Saga, with Introduction, Maps, and Plans,' Edinburgh, 1861, 2 vols. 8vo (the introduction includes short chapters on the religion, superstitions, and organisation of the Icelandic commonwealth); new edit. 1900.
  4. 'A Selection from the Norse Tales, for the use of Children,' Edinburgh, 1862, 8vo.
  5. 'The Story of Gisli the Outlaw,' Edinburgh, 1866, 8vo, with illustrations and a beautiful map of Iceland. The story is based upon a fusion of two Icelandic texts, and is one of the finest of the lesser sagas.
  6. 'Annals of an Eventful Life,' London, 1870, 3 vols. 8vo; a somewhat rambling novel of autobiographical tendency.
  7. 'Jest and Earnest: a Collection of Essays and Reviews,' London, 1873, 2 vols. 8vo; the papers are mostly reproduced from the 'North British Review;' they include elaborate studies of England and Norway in the eleventh century, and of Harold Hardrada.

[Times, 13 July 1896; Athenæum, 1896, i. 811; Foster's Men at the Bar, 1885, p. 115; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886; Memoirs of Henry Reeve, ed. Laughton, 1898, i. 284, 338; Men of the Time, 14th edit.; Engl. Hist. Review, v. 127; Saturday Review, 27 April 1861; Brit. Mus. Cat.; notes kindly furnished by Arthur Irwin Dasent, esq.]

T. S.