Orlando: Women's Writing

Scholarly Introduction

The Orlando Project

[This introduction describes Orlando's goals in both literary history and humanities computing. If you just want to get going, start with Getting Started or How Orlando Works.]
Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is a new kind of electronic textbase for research and discovery. As a new kind of history of women's writing, it seeks to further the study and understanding of literature, focusing particularly on the part women have played in its development.
This is history with a difference. Together with its literary research, the Orlando Project has been conducting an experiment in humanities computing, looking for ways to exploit the possibilities of technology for interpretive and critical scholarship. Orlando has been developed to respond to the diverse needs and interests of readers and scholars.
Orlando's differences as literary history arise largely from its integration of readable text and electronic structure. That is why we call it a textbase rather than a database: it returns results in prose rather than in tabular form. Its content and means of delivery are inseparable and essential elements of one project. They were built together, making Orlando highly responsive to questions its readers ask. Its unique structure and searchability allow readers to examine its information and critical comment in a wide range of configurations and to re-form this in new and creative ways. Orlando is open to the serendipities of productive browsing, but it is also designed for searchers with specific agendas—that is, for responding to precise, complex questions.

The Oak Tree

". . . a little square book bound in red cloth fell from the breast of her leather jacket—her poem The Oak Tree." —Virginia Woolf, Orlando Bibliographic Citation link.
Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a Biography, 1928, inspires this work in literary history. Woolf's biographical and historical fantasy explores the changing conditions of possibility for women writing in England from the time of Elizabeth I to her own day, and gives us a poet protagonist who is at work throughout the whole of this history on the composition of her poem "The Oak Tree". The Orlando Project team sees in the oak tree a suggestion of the history of women's writing in the British Isles, the growth of history from biography, and (in a kind of visual pun) the tree-like structure of our text encoding.

What is Orlando?

Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is a highly dynamic and rich resource for researchers, students, and readers with an interest in literature, women's writing, or cultural history more generally. With about eight million words of text, it is full of factual, critical, and interpreted material. This first release of Orlando included biographical and writing career entries on over a thousand writers, more than eight hundred and fifty of them British women. The number is now (2013) up to nearly 1,300. The list also includes selected non-British or international women writers, and British and international men, whose writing was an important, sometimes a shaping, element in a particular writing climate. Orlando also includes more than thirty thousand dated items representing events and processes (in the accounts of these writers, but also in the areas of history, science, medicine, economics, the law, and other contexts). In all of these categories, Orlando continues to grow over time, as it is incrementally enlarged by scheduled updates.
Orlando materials are capable of a high degree of interaction. For readers who take the time to master its strategies, its capacity to search is unprecedented, capable of answering a wide range of readers' queries, from the simple request for information about a single writer to more complex questions seeking material from across the range of Orlando. Orlando's encoding (the extensive tagging which we describe below), together with its custom production (or delivery) system, makes it capable of retrieving all sorts of interpretive and qualitative material from its extensive textbase—comment of the kind you expect to find in a work of humanities scholarship—and of displaying this online.
Orlando is not a text archive: it does not print the texts its subjects wrote. Instead, it provides new biographical and critical accounts of the lives and works of its subjects, together with contextual materials relevant to critical and historical readings. Orlando is entirely textual, and its entries were researched and created collaboratively by members of the Orlando team (see Credits). It fully documents the materials it references, and it includes a bibliographical database of more than twenty-five thousand titles.

Recovering Women Writers

When Virginia Woolf wrote about literary history, in her Orlando fantasy and elsewhere, she saw women's writing as emerging fully in English culture only in the eighteenth century (and, even then, as causing outrage and scandal). We know now that women have been writing in English for almost as long as there has been writing in English. And ever since the century Woolf identified as the beginning, women have also been writing about women writing. Clara Reeve's first history of the English novel gives generous coverage to women writers; Anna Letitia Barbauld's and Elizabeth Inchbald's canon-forming collections of novels and plays included women. Julia Kavanagh, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, and A. Mary F. Robinson wrote during the Victorian period on earlier women writers from both the English and French traditions, and Geraldine Jewsbury, as publisher's reader and one of the Athenæum's regular reviewers, hugely influenced women's fiction of the period. The pioneering academic scholarship of Myra Reynolds, 'George Paston', and Joyce Tompkins about early women writers spans the earlier twentieth century. Some of these points are still coming as a surprise to students of women's writing, and they require changes to our understandings of numerous aspects of writing: the story about the novel, for instance, or about nuns, or about early women's reflections on what we would call their condition as women, or about early twentieth-century theatre. Sometimes they require us to change our story about canonical men: for instance, about how much Harriet Taylor contributed not just to John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women but to his other philosophical writings such as Principles of Political Economy. Mostly, they require us to change our story about women, particularly the fundamentally diminishing story of which the summary is, "Women can't write, women can't paint." Bibliographic Citation link.
What is as remarkable as the uncovering and publication of new knowledge about writing women and their texts is how it came about. Contemporary knowledge about the history of women's writing is a consequence of the extraordinary development, in the last decades of the twentieth century, of academic interest in the recovery of writers who were lost, or forgotten, or suppressed, or ignored. It is also a consequence of the thorough-going critique of a traditional literary history which could not make room for evidence that did not support the grand or canonical narrative. This phenomenally vigorous scholarly work of inclusion—of writers omitted from traditional historical accounts, at least partly by reason of gender or race or class—is arguably the major feature of recent literary historical scholarship.
This work of recovery has been a remarkable feat. Massive scholarly effort, acknowledged in Orlando's extensive bibliographical references, has since the late 1960s been directed at researching, republishing, re-evaluating and recontextualizing female authors, and many studies of women's movements, genres, and periods have appeared over recent years. These have made available for critical examination whole new territories of women's literary production, have cast on them various interpretive lights, and have, in turn, allowed this vast new material to throw its light on institutional assumptions and practices. All of these projects of recovery have dramatically increased knowledge about women's writing, and they have opened new possibilities for literary history. Since, in the context of a literary modernism preoccupied both by tradition and by the reconfiguring power of the 'individual talent', Woolf and others in her time opened for renewed debate the issue of women's participation in culture, our literary pasts and presents have been radically reshaped.

The Challenge of Literary History

We are still without a comprehensive scholarly history of writing by British women (and indeed by women writing in other communities of identity). Integration of recent scholarship on women's writing has been deferred, with the result that while there are countless valuable studies of its many particular aspects, there is no large-canvas history built on this work. (A fuller discussion of the relationship between feminist scholarship and literary history appears in the introduction to Women and Literary History: 'For There She Was' and Margaret Ezell, Writing Women's Literary History.) Bibliographic Citation link.
In the context of abundant new scholarship, the absence of an integrated history of women's writing is the more striking. Clearly this is not the consequence of an inadequate scholarly base. It is instead the outcome of powerful challenges to literary history as a genre. The exclusions that prompted so vigorous a new movement of scholarly inclusion also engendered disabling critiques of existing histories. The genre itself has been seen as monolithic, hegemonic, teleological, dependent upon a single-voiced narrative that obliterates the multiple and ex-centric narratives of writers outside of canonical traditions (including women). Narrative itself has come under scrutiny as always ideologically invested and deeply implicated in masculine subjectivities and power structures. Literary history, traditionally organized in terms of ethnic or linguistic groups and nationalist identity categories, has been criticized as a dangerous hangover of the nineteenth-century nation-state, one that perpetuates "a single, endlessly reiterated fable of identity." Bibliographic Citation link. (The scholarship relevant to debates over literary history is vast. Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra have made important interventions from a post-structuralist standpoint about history generally. In Is Literary History Possible? David Perkins summarised a debate that continues.) Bibliographic Citation link.
Averse to large-scale continuous history, late twentieth-century literary studies turned away from the national narrative, rather reductively characterized by some critics as a strictly evolutionary or progressivist one, for histories focused on smaller, marginalized groups. According to Linda Hutcheon, "we now get the histories (in the plural) of the losers as well as the winners, of the regional (and colonial) as well as the centrist, of the unsung many as well as the much sung few, and, I might add, of women as well as men." She has charged such histories with adopting the traditional teleological narrative model as a risky but perhaps strategically justifiable means of claiming cultural authority. Bibliographic Citation link. But Susan Stanford Friedman regards as complementary the post-structuralist critique of narrative history and the activist imperative towards creating stories that shape the possibilities from which futures are forged. Orlando takes up her invitation to feminists to engage in "a dialogic, not monologic, project of writing feminist histories—in the plural." Bibliographic Citation link.
Critics of literary history will remark on the conjunction of the vast movement of scholarly recovery of women's and marginalized writing with the powerful theoretical take-down of literary history. We observe simply that while the work of recovery made a broader literary history both newly possible and newly necessary, the unanswered criticisms of the genre contributed to the continued absence of integrating histories of women's writing, or of revised general histories that take women's writing into account.
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