Orlando: Women's Writing

Scholarly Introduction

Literary History—With a Difference

The time is ripe for a broad and contemporary history of women's writing. Orlando offers a feminist literary history centred in women's production. It builds on the wealth of new knowledge that recent scholarship has produced. We believe that as an electronic history it can overcome some of the limitations of traditional literary history.
Humanities computing makes possible new and flexible structures for doing literary history. The Orlando history brings together in electronic form an extensive, multiple micro-history (the immense textbase of highly historically contextualized accounts of individuals' lives and careers). For the reader this offers the ability to move back and forth among the granular or detailed accounts, to expand on a particular topic or context, or to pursue fruitful and serendipitous links through the pathways of the textbase.
The Orlando Project team has grasped the opportunity to build a new, fluid, complex, and interruptable literary history: interpretive arguments grounded in particularities. These arguments serve as invitations to explore that rich detail and as encouragement to venture out on alternative pathways through the textbase.

Women's Writing . . .

Orlando focuses on gender, and it emphasizes the intellectual, material, political, and social conditions (including writing by men) that have, over time, helped to shape writing by women. It sees gender as an indispensable tool for historical analysis that helps to shape the questions we ask about the production, reception, and features of written texts and about the ways in which these have been understood throughout the history of women's writing. As Janet Todd has argued, "Feminist literary history is not a study of women as nature or of a natural woman, but of women intervening in culture, making culture, and being naturalized by culture in subtly different ways at different times; it is the study of the codes that intervene between subjectivity and history and help to fashion both." Bibliographic Citation link.
We see gender as one among other constituents of identity. (Our documents attend to class, race, education, sexuality, and other elements in what we call the 'cultural formation' of writers.) We agree with, for instance, Cora Kaplan when she says of the Victorian historical moment that for middle-class women other constituents such as class were at least as important as gender.  Bibliographic Citation link. And we recognise that gender operates differently and unpredictably in different locales and at different times. As Joan Wallach Scott argues, gender is "a field that seems fixed yet whose meaning is contested and in flux"; hence it is "contextually defined, repeatedly constructed." Bibliographic Citation link. Indeed, Orlando is as much a history of the uneven and changing constructions of gender over time in different parts of Britain, for different classes and individuals, as it is a history of writing. It is a history that is organized around the idea of gender, insofar as it places women's writing at its centre: entries on writers form the core of the textbase. Consciousness of gender as a critical element in the Orlando textbase is built into the encoding system (see Markup).

. . . 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.)

Inclusion and Selection

The first release of Orlando included entries on more than a thousand writers. This number continues to increase with semi-annual updates to the textbase. Of the first thousand writers, more than 850 are classed (not necessarily exclusively, as already noted) as 'British women writers'. The writers represented in Orlando stretch back to Sappho (whose literary afterlife for other women writers dates from the seventeenth century) and forward into the present generation of living writers. Those who are the subject of entries range from the highly visible to the much less well known. Along with writers in the more self-consciously literary genres of poetry, fiction, and drama, Orlando includes women known as writers of science, household advice, or popular genres, and those known (if at all) mostly for non-literary reasons who also left significant writing. Important male writers, too, have entries, since women's writing can only be understood in relation to the broader range of textuality, and so, for the same reason, do some women writers not closely connected to the British Isles.
Entry length is governed by a range of factors. The first is the historical importance, as we see it, of the writer. When substantial biographical and critical material is readily accessible, the Orlando entry will be highly selective in its treatment. Entries are necessarily shorter on writers on whom there is little source material, and since the subject of this work is writing in the British Isles, we have provided more selective entries on international women and men. In these cases the significance of the subject to the overall history may emerge largely from their occurrence in entries on other writers in the textbase. Some male writers (including some of those most pervasively present in the textbase) are treated through timeline materials and a brief Life entry, rather than the full slate of screens. A number of writers without their own entries, are represented by timeline material and links to others' entries.
Outside the author entries, much other writing is represented in the form of shorter or longer chronology items. The chronological material also covers publishing and book-trade issues, general social, cultural, and political history, and every kind of development felt to be inextricable from the study of women's experience and women's writing. Any expectation of redrawing the profile of history to play down such 'masculine'events as battles, treaties, etc. was deflected by the fact that a good deal of writing by women addresses these very topics. Inclusion of material about the introduction of household appliances, driving licences, or three-coloured traffic lights justified itself by their bearing on daily life. The availability in the search Scope options of periodization hitherto in use among literary scholars, along with the even more conventional marker of monarchs' reigns, allows for quick and easy date selection while still allowing readers to choose for themselves the dates searched on. Various doubtless controversial criteria have been employed in settling on beginning and end dates of the various periods given. These can often be inferred by running an unrestricted chronology search on the period and examining the beginning and end dates.
Back to top