Prosopographical research is one of the most important and time-consuming aspects of our work on Digital Dinah Craik. As we transcribe and encode Dinah Craik’s letters in TEI, we tag and research all the people, places, organizations, and titles that Dinah mentions in an effort to better understand the networks she fostered as she built and sustained her long and successful career. Most encoded letters generate at least one new entry in our live prosopography, placeography, orgography, and bibliography that we call the Craik Site Index. Out of these, the entries for people usually take the longest. This is because many of Dinah’s acquaintances were not famous enough to be included in histories, biographies, and formal prosopographies, but also because our person entries have the highest level of granularity. For each person in the site index, we try our best to include their full name, sex, date of birth, date of death, occupation, and nationality, as well as a short biographical note that details who they were and how they were connected to Dinah Craik. Because of this, our TEI division for nineteenth-century people (and a few of Dinah’s pets!) makes up approximately 64% of our Craik Site Index, which is currently over 10, 500 lines of TEI.
As we often teach our new project members, our first go-to source for figuring out the identities of Dinah’s friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances is the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). The ODNB is remarkably useful for discovering the writers, artists, professors, and publishers that Dinah knew. However, owing partially to its scope, this source does not tell us much about the wives, daughters, and sisters of famous men. Dinah regularly socialized with these women, and they were important to both her personal life and her career. In fact, in her forthcoming biography of Dinah Craik, Karen Bourrier (our Project Director) writes that Dinah maintained strong relationships with Caroline, Frances Macmillan, and their children, often inviting them to stay at her house in Wildwood, as an alternate form of literary sociability (Bourrier 215). This allowed her to remain close with the Macmillans despite the fact that her gender excluded her from important networking opportunities such as Alexander Macmillan’s weekly “Tobacco Parliaments,” (Bourrier 215; Weedon 81).
To add to this dilemma, the ODNB also has far fewer entries about women than men on the whole. The online edition claims to have 60 302 biographies (it has grown since that count was recorded) but using the targeted search function, one finds a total of 6 748 notable women and 421 notable families to the 53, 632 notable men. Limiting that search to people who were alive during the long nineteenth century (1789 – 1914) limits the data to 4 600 women and 30 172 men (at this time, no families are turning up in my date-limited search.) Part of this gender disparity can be attributed to the ODNB‘s predecessor the DNB (est. 1885). The original DNB had an all-male editorial staff and they attempted, in their writing, to maintain a stark separation of public and private spheres (Baignet et al. 2–3).
Today, when we can’t find the women we’re looking for in either the ODNB or in other biographies and prosopographies, Ancestry is often our saviour. Using Ancestry, we are able to access millions of historical documents including censuses, birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, and probates. These sources help us to provide the names and facts of all the Mrs. X’s and Mrs. Y’s in our Site Index. Usually, knowing these facts will help us to reformulate our previous searches, helping us to find more information about otherwise unknown women in nineteenth-century Google Books and newspaper databases such as the British Newspaper Archive. At the very least, we try to find women’s full names. If we can fill in dates of birth and death, occupations, and nationalities—even better!
Bearing all this in mind, we still have many unknown women populating our Craik Site Index. Part of our challenge is that Dinah rarely referred to people by their first name (unless they were servants, or sometimes family members) and many of her acquaintances had very common surnames. Even those whom we can identify by context or by way of their birth and marriage records often have little to no biographical information available. That being said, we are making a conscious effort to improve our records. As an example, Mrs. Laing’s person entry was once quite minimal. It included only an xml:id and a surname, and the biographical note read “Mrs. Laing was the wife of the Reverend David Laing” (and I take full responsibility for that one.) Now, it looks like this:
Of course, there are practical considerations that surface when doing this work. It takes much more time to research the many unnamed women like Mrs. Laing that show up in our Craik Site Index. We have a small research team with limited funding, and one could argue that our time could be better spent elsewhere. Moreover, some of these figures might not end up being very important to our larger research questions. Frances and Caroline Macmillan are one story but what about Miss Bathurst—a friend of a friend who died in Belgium in 1861? I tend to think that the extra time and energy is worthwhile. This research can lead to surprise discoveries about Dinah Craik’s many networks and fields of influence. But more importantly, filling in these gaps helps us to develop more robust and inclusive data, which I think should always be an objective of DH projects.
For those of you working on your own digital editions, what are your standards for choosing who to encode in your prosopography and in what level of detail? We are still fine-tuning our approaches and would appreciate any input!
Baigent, Elizabeth, Charlotte Brewer and Vivienne Larminie. “Gender in the archive: women in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Oxford English Dictionary.” Preprint version. Archives XXX (October 2005).
Bourrier, Karen. Victorian Bestseller: The Life of Dinah Craik. MS.
Weedon, Alexis.Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market, 1836-1916. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.