Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 63.djvu/6

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The Dictionary of National Biography

countries. But Mr. Smith took counsel with Mr. Leslie Stephen, who convinced him that the measureless growth throughout the world in late years of the materials of historical and biographical research rendered the execution of a cyclopædia of universal biography on the suggested scale almost impracticable. 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. The change of plan was justified on many grounds. While it was impossible to deal exhaustively and authoritatively with universal biography within the compass of a single literary undertaking, that field had been more or less efficiently surveyed in France and Germany, and English students had at their command modern cyclopædias on the subject in foreign tongues which made some approach to adequacy. On the other hand, although in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden cyclopædias of national biography had been set on foot with a view to satisfying the just patriotic instinct of each nation, as well as the due requirements of historical knowledge, there had been no earnest endeavour of a like kind for nearly a century in this country. Only one venture in national biography of an exhaustive and authoritative kind had been previously carried to completion in this country, and that venture belonged to the eighteenth century. ‘The Biographia Britannica, or the Lives of the most Eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain and Ireland from the Earliest Ages down to the Present Times,’ was inaugurated in 1747, and was completed in seven folio volumes in 1766. A second edition in five folio volumes, which was begun in 1778, reached the beginning of the letter P in its fifth volume in 1793, and did not go further. This was the latest effort in national biography of which the country could boast before the ‘Dictionary of National Biography.’ Alexander Chalmers's ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ which was completed in thirty-two volumes in 1814, and Rose's ‘New General Biographical Dictionary,’ which was begun in 1889 and completed in twelve volumes in 1847, were inadequate experiments in universal biography; and after 1847, when the twelfth volume of Bose's Dictionary was published, the field both of universal and of national biography was for the time practically abandoned by English workers. In the years that followed, the need for an exhaustive and authoritative treatment of national biography was repeatedly admitted by general readers and students, and was often passively contemplated by men of letters and by publishers, but no one had the boldness seriously to face the