The Orlando Project
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."
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.