The Orlando Project
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.)
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." (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.)
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. 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."
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.