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Let the people speak: history with voices

For 135 years the Dictionary of National Biography has been the national record of noteworthy men and women who’ve shaped the British past. Today’s Dictionary retains many attributes of its Victorian predecessor, not least a focus on concise and balanced accounts of individuals from all walks of national history. But there have also been changes in how these life stories are encapsulated and conveyed.

In its Victorian incarnation (and twentieth-century supplements), the Dictionary presented each life as a double-column printed text. 2004 saw the publication of the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) and with it the addition of portrait images.Today, the Dictionary includes portraits of 11,500 of its 60,000 subjects in a wide range of media and painterly styles. Common to each image—be it a Holbein in chalk or an Epstein bust—is its depiction of the sitter from life, so as to convey an aspect of his or her personality.

Now the Oxford DNB is moving on—this time with the inclusion of sound—in a project to link biographies to voice recordings made by an initial selection of 750 historical individuals. The earliest clips—including the suffrage campaigner Christabel Pankhurst (from 1908) and the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith (1909)—are held in the ‘Early Spoken Word’ archive at the British Library.

As the crackling on these wax cylinders makes clear, this was a pioneering form of communication reserved for moments of political drama. Speaking in December 1908, Christabel Pankhurst issued a rallying call to every ‘patriotic and public spirited woman’ to take up ‘militant’ tactics in the hope that ‘1909 must, and shall, see the political enfranchisement of women.’ It’s not hard to imagine the enthusiasm or alarm that would have greeted such words, especially when disseminated by a new technology. In his speech on the 1909 ‘people’s budget’ Herbert Asquith likewise acknowledged the intersection of technological novelty and looming political crisis: ‘I have gladly accepted this invitation to speak to you in this unusual manner’, begins the prime minister, ‘to reach as many of my fellow countrymen as possible.’

Two decades later the availability of ‘wireless’—and the ability to speak directly to people in real time—instilled a new pioneering spirit. It’s one well captured in George V’s opening words to the first Christmas message of 1932: ‘Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled … to speak to all my people throughout the Empire.’ Other British Library clips reveal how voice recordings (as distinct from live broadcast) took on new formats in the 1930s. Many are early examples of now familiar genres: the celebrity interview with Arthur Conan Doyle; the personal documentary by aviator Amy Johnson; and chef Marcel Boulestin’s guide to the perfect omelette (‘practice, quickness, a thick iron pan, and a good fire’).

In addition to these early British Library recordings, 500 ODNB biographies are now linked to that person’s appearance on the popular BBC radio series, Desert Island Discs. The programme—in which a ‘castaway’ discusses his or her life and ability to survive on the island—was devised by Roy Plomley and first broadcast in January 1942. Very few early episodes remain while many from the 1950s (such as that for Alfred Hitchcock, in 1959) are only partially extant. The majority of ODNB links are therefore to episodes from the 1960s to 2010—our most recent castaway being the hairdresser, Vidal Sassoon, whose biography was added to the Dictionary earlier this year.

Oxford DNB biographies and episodes of Desert Island Discs have much in common—both offering chronological, narrative accounts of a life. But now available side-by-side, it’s the differences in format that make for a fuller understanding of their subject. As a conversation, the radio interview is intimate, immediate, and selective. As a third-person narrative, an ODNB biography is more dispassionate, reflective, and rounded but can sometimes miss the colour of a personal anecdote or aside. Then there’s a castaway’s accompanying choices—eight favourite discs, book, and a luxury. Does the fact that the musicians Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Moura Lympany chose eight of their own recordings offer insight into their personalities? Should the choice of 15 castaways to take the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ as their book be seen as anything other than good judgement?

For many biographers the appearance of his or her subject on Desert Island Discs is also an important source. But the value of linking the Dictionary to the BBC archive also derives from more casual references. The ODNB entry for Tom Denning, for instance, mentions that this eminent judge never lost his ‘distinctive Hampshire burr’. On his appearance on Desert Island Discs (1980)  there’s the voice, and the Hampshire accent, in Denning’s 81st year.

This ability to catch a person’s accent, and to hear a person speak, is the principal attraction of linking ODNB biographies to sound recordings. Like nothing else, the voice reminds us that a distant historical figure was a living person as well as the subject of a biographical text. Listening to voices recorded more than a centenary ago conjures up something of the ‘marvels’, and delight, that George V alluded to on Christmas Day 1932—one voice traversing an empire, another the century.

The effect is particularly striking in ODNB’s earliest link to the British Library sound archive— that for Florence Nightingale who spoke in support of the Light Brigade Relief Fund in July 1890. Barely audible over the hiss, she concludes her short, carefully enunciated message: ‘When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.’

Featured image credit: King George V making his annual Christmas Broadcast to the nation by Andy Dingley. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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