Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Arber, Edward

4163405Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Arber, Edward1927Reginald Littleboy

ARBER, EDWARD (1836–1912), man of letters, the youngest son of Thomas Arber, architect, of London, by his wife, Eleanor Newell, was born at 29 George Street, Hanover Square, 4 December 1836. He was educated at private schools in and around London, and after a year at a school in Paris entered the civil service as a clerk in the Admiralty office in 1854. He had already shown an interest in English literature, and in 1858 he began to attend at King's College the lectures of Henry Morley [q. v.], under whose influence this interest grew into a lifelong devotion to the subject. From this time forward he gave such leisure as a civil servant had to the study of English literature, especially of the Tudor and Stuart periods, until in 1878, feeling that his life was being wasted, he retired from the Admiralty, and was appointed English lecturer at University College, London, under Professor Morley. In 1881 he was made professor of English at the Mason College, Birmingham, where he did much to popularize the study of English by his personal influence in lecturing and teaching as well as by his writing; both there and at London University he was mainly responsible for the introduction into the curriculum of the study of old and middle English texts. In 1894 he retired from teaching and lived in London, with the position of emeritus professor of English language and literature in the university of Birmingham. From 1880 he was a fellow of King's College, London.

From the first Arber had perceived that the study of English was gravely handicapped by the lack of reliable texts at a reasonable price, and with characteristic energy he determined to supply the deficiency himself. The Early English Text Society, founded by Frederick James Furnivall [q. v.] in 1864, was doing much to make middle English literature accessible, and Arber set himself, in his own words, ‘to represent the later literature by giving, at as cheap a price as can be, exact texts, sometimes of books already famous, sometimes of those quite forgotten’. On 1 January 1868 Milton's Areopagitica was published at the price of 6d., the first of a series of thirty volumes known as Arber's ‘English Reprints’ (1868–1871). They were immediately successful, and were afterwards followed by An English Garner (8 vols., 1877–1896) and ‘The English Scholar's Library’ (16 vols., 1878–1884) as well as by several volumes dealing with the early history of America. All these contain reprints of works written between the time of Caxton and that of Addison, some of which still remain the only easily available texts. But Arber's most important contributions to English studies were the Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1554–1640 (5 vols., 1875–1894), and the Term Catalogues, 1668–1709 (3 vols., 1903–1906), edited from the quarterly lists of the booksellers. These contain much material formerly quite inaccessible, and are essential for any detailed study of the Elizabethan and Restoration periods.

All these volumes, like most of Arber's work, were printed privately and distributed by himself. The critical and historical introductions prefixed to his Reprints, if at times ill-arranged, and occasionally coloured by his violently protestant sympathies, display very considerable knowledge, as well as the energy and enthusiasm without which he could never have succeeded in his lifelong task. If his work does not always reach the standard of accuracy demanded by modern scholarship, it must be remembered that he was a pioneer in this field; and it is largely owing to the labours of such men as Arber that the exact study of English has been made possible. Much of his work was done in the Bodleian Library, and in 1905 he received the honorary degree of doctor of letters from the university of Oxford. On 23 November 1912 he was knocked down by a taxicab whilst crossing Kensington High Street, and killed instantaneously.

Arber married in 1869 Marion, only daughter of Alexander Murray, who had published the first few volumes of the Reprints. He left two sons, of whom the elder, E. A. N. Arber, became demonstrator in palaeobotany in the university of Cambridge, and died in 1918.

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R. L.