Orlando: Women's Writing

Scholarly Introduction

Literary History—With a Difference

. . . in the British Isles

Writers selected for inclusion in Orlando represent women's writing in English in the British Isles from its earliest known records to its recently established careers. This subset of British literature includes women of a wide range of economic, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds, writing in every period, in most parts of the British Isles, in various genres as these changed (and were changed by writing women) over time. It also includes international women and British and international men whose writing comprised an important element in a particular writing climate. The writers in the textbase were shaped by very different class, economic, and educational conditions; and they wrote in many different forms and genres and with many different kinds of impact. The Orlando corpus therefore represents a strand in the literary history of the British Isles that is no less heterogeneous than writing in general yet based on an underlying notion of commonality that emerges from feminist literary theory and gender studies.
Orlando is the history not only of the longest-running tradition in English but also of the most influential in its impact on other, younger literatures in English. Women's writing in the British Isles burgeons and diversifies from its beginnings in the middle ages (from Bugga or Hæaburh addressing Saint Boniface around 720, or Marie de France writing, in England, her French narrative poems around 1190, or Julian of Norwich sitting down in February 1393 to tell the story of Christ's visits to her home) down to its present multi-generic, multi-racial moment. The British Isles continue to be a major site for the production, dissemination, and reception of women's writing, both shaped by and contributing to shape the increasingly globalized field of women's writing. Orlando is a history not just of British women writers in English but a history of women's writing at this scene, into which international politics transported Phillis Wheatley from Africa via Massachusetts, Karen Gershon from 1930s Germany, and Grace Nicholls from 1970s Guyana. Focus on this scene also means, for instance, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's work will be more prominent, in terms of depth of treatment and interlinkages, than that of some women born and bred in the British Isles.
Woolf's Orlando explores the complex interdependence of nation and gender in depicting her pan-historic protagonist's writing of "The ", the very tradition of women's writing in English. This Orlando aims also to represent connections among Britain, Europe, and other nations, which are also shifting historically. Readers will find that (as with class or race) plenty of writers claim multiple nationality, or no unproblematic nationality at all. Some 'behave' within the textbase as members of both the 'British women writer' and the 'other women writer' group: Dublin-born Anna Brownell Jameson, for instance, who lived much of her life in England and became a founding voice in the tradition of Canadian literature, or 'Persian'-born, 'Rhodesian'-raised Doris Lessing, who settled in London. In the textbase, Irish-born writers living before the establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1921 are considered British; those living after independence are grouped with 'other women writers' and those who bridge the process of political change appear in both groups.
Although these basic overlapping categories of British and other women writers are provided for searching purposes, the Nationality tags within the Orlando tagset provide for more complex representation of issues associated with nationality. The tags allow writers to be associated with multiple specific nationalities, with particular national heritages, often with tagging indicating their own affirmations or denials of such identities. (See further under the discussion of the Cultural Formation tagset.)