This introduction describes Orlando's goals in both literary history and digital humanities, lightly revised from when the textbase was first published in 2006 for the revised 2022 edition. For an update, see the preface to this edition. If you just want to use the textbase, explore Get Started.

The Orlando Project

Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is a 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.

Our Orlando is a searchable textbase of born-digital, original prose encoded by our collaborative team using our bespoke semantic markup that reflects our priorities in feminist literary history. It is full of interpretive information on women, literature, and culture. At its core are documents about authors’ lives and writing, together with a great deal of contextual historical material on relevant subjects, such as education, politics, science, the law, and economics.

This is history with a difference. Together with its literary research, the Orlando Project has been conducting an experiment in digital humanities, 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 digital 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 by project members who collaborated with the needs of researchers, students, and the public in mind,making Orlando highly responsive to questions its users ask. Its unique structure and searchability allow users to examine its information and critical comment in a wide range of configurations and to remix them 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

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.

Orlando's encoding (the extensive tagging which we describe below), together with its custom production (or delivery) system, makes it capable of retrieving and remixing 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.

Because of this, Orlando material is capable of a high degree of interaction. For users who take the time to master its strategies, its capacity to search is unprecedented, capable of answering a wide range of queries, from the simple request for information about a single writer to more complex questions seeking material from across the textbase.

With about 8 million words of text, it is full of factual, critical, and interpreted material. The first release of Orlando included biographical and writing career profiles on over a thousand writers, more than eight hundred and fifty of them British women. The number is now (2022) over 1430. 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 42,000 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 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’s content is 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 30,000 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. 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. The Orlando team builds on and reimagines this work, taking it in distinctive new directions.

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 narrative 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 all 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 such a vigorous new movement of scholarly inclusion also hampered 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 Friedman’s 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.

Literary history—with a difference

The time is ripe for a broad and contemporary history of women's writing.

The Orlando Project has grasped the opportunity to build a new, fluid, complex, and interruptible 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. 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 a born-digital history it can overcome some of the limitations of traditional literary history published in print.

Digital humanities makes possible flexible structures for doing literary history. The Orlando history brings together 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.

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."

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 and discuss at greater length, below.) 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. 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."

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: profiles 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.

. . . 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, focused on but not limited to the writing by British women.

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 shaping 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 raised 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 nationalities, 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.

Inclusion and selection

The first release of Orlando included profiles on more than 1000 writers. This number continues to increase with bi-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 including Helen Oyeyemi. Those who are the subject of profiles 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.

While we maintain a purposeful slant toward women writers active in Britain, important male writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Ezra Pound, have profiles, since women's writing can only be understood in relation to the broader range of textuality. So, for the same reason, do some women writers not closely connected to the British Isles.

Profile 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 profile will be highly selective in its treatment. Profiles 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 profiles on international women and men. In these cases the significance of the subject to the overall history may emerge largely from their occurrence in profiles 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 profile focused on the life, rather than the full slate of screens. A number of writers without their own profiles are represented by timeline material and links to others' profiles.

Outside the author profiles, much other writing is represented in the form of shorter or longer chronology items that are part of the textbase’s timelines. 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.

Citation and bibliography

It is not usual for large-scale printed and even online historical and reference works to provide detailed or specific citation: some omit references altogether. Orlando exploits the capaciousness of digital text by providing some 30,000 bibliographic records, including full citation of the sources used in profiles and chronological material. This means that a researcher can pick up where the textbase leaves off, without needing to reproduce the research trail. Orlando does not, however, cite itself when a fact is substantiated elsewhere in the textbase. Selective quotation has been used to give some flavour of texts used, and point students and scholars towards the writings of authors discussed.

Like all historical work, Orlando relies on the community of scholars—biographers, critics, and textual editors—that continues to expand our knowledge of writing and its relation to historical processes. As its extensive system of citation demonstrates, Orlando aims to point to rather than replace the work of other scholars. We do not provide full bibliographies either of primary or secondary work. In the case of writers who have attracted much attention, valuable scholarship may remain unmentioned. It is also a challenge, given the strong pace of work on women’s writing and new discoveries being made, for our core team to keep entries up to date. Please let us know if you would like to collaborate in keeping Orlando current.


Orlando includes more than 42,000 events or statements attached to a date or date span and organized into four event types: Women Writers, Writing Climate, Political Climate, and Social Climate. This provides a dynamic framework offering a temporally ordered perspective on much of the material that is susceptible to being seen in this way. Some, identified as Women Writers events, come from profiles on writers and their texts. Others, dealing with material and cultural contexts, are free-standing and identified as Writing Climate, Political Climate, and Social Climate events. In a sense none is complete in itself, since all are designed to be read in the sequence produced by a particular search. Even the timelines in writers' profiles are not drawn exclusively from within those profiles, but from all events within the textbase that mention the writer concerned.

The dynamic nature of Orlando events means that the same event appears in timelines for Mary Wollstonecraft and on the French Revolution; another on Cicely Hamilton's timeline and on suffrage and on the Scala Theatre, London. Clicking on hyperlinks takes you from the suffrage timeline to the Hamilton profile so you can read it in context.

Timelines can be produced in many ways. You can perform a regular Search on one or two words, such as “bluestocking”, “typewriter”, or "avant garde", then Sort by Oldest or Newest, and facet on either Author events from profiles and/or Freestanding events (shorter input will gather more results). Period facets can also be useful.

To obtain timeline results alone, from the Browse Timelines feature you can search on a date (e.g. “1431” or "December 1910”,  or 5 October 1921) or on a word or phrase. Individual timelines (where events exist) appear on every page about a person or an organization, as well as in author profiles. 

Tag search retrieves events alongside other excerpts from author profiles. Sorting by older or newer first provides a roughly chronological view of the results that has a broader scope than events alone, for instance for gendered responses to texts, submissions to and rejections by publishers, or serial publications. A chronologically ordered set of results on political activism of authors, for instance, can be further refined on “nuclear” or “CND” to reveal more results than a Timelines search, because not all statements are tied to a particular date. (On how Orlando seeks to "hybridize chronology with critical investigation" see "Dates and Chronstructs: Dynamic Chronology on the Orlando Project.")

Taking literary history digital

In considering how to approach a feminist literary history, the editors of Orlando decided to explore the potential of digital media. Some of the advantages were immediately apparent: it would be spacious enough for all of the research, all of its material could be instantly accessible, and it could be altered and expanded as necessary after publication.

The Orlando Project grew out of the The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, the first reference work on women's writing in several traditions. That book published much new research on women writers and made its editors aware that it would soon be time to attempt a history. But it was 1,231 pages in double-column format, and there was no room in a single volume for more than a minimal index. Much of its information, therefore, was locked away from all but those readers who were prepared to chase it in a reading from A to Z.

Other exciting advantages became apparent as the project developed. Devising a customized markup language allowed the history's underlying principles and priorities to be embodied in the textbase, providing new ways to access the interpretive as well as the relatively factual material of which the history is composed. And creating a new structure for a literary history has produced a resource able to respond effectively to some of the challenges facing conventional narrative history.

Going digital has enabled us to produce a far more extensive resource than we could have done in print. As it reached the Web, Orlando was the equivalent of more than 50 volumes of readable text, at the length generally taken by volumes of literary history; it has grown by more than half as much again since then.

It has also made possible a new, reader-centred model of literary history.

Orlando does not present a single, linear story: it is formed of thousands of multiply linked and dynamic portions of text which can be navigated, retrieved, and reordered in myriad ways. The ability to manipulate and combine these short portions of documents makes Orlando more flexible than systems that retrieve entire profiles, documents, or other relatively independent units of text, or even than those which, like many standard reference works today, retrieve excerpts of such profiles based on word searches. And because it is a critical work written within a customized markup system, Orlando takes digital humanities work, and large-scale text markup in particular, in a new direction.

Orlando is collaboratively produced. It offers a range of voices, discursive strategies, critical approaches, and theoretical emphases. Profiles are composed, often by more than one project member, with careful attention to tracing and acknowledging sources, then checked for accuracy and clarity, reviewed by an editor, revised as necessary, and run through a number of checks for tag usage. Given the difficulty of distinguishing scholarly from unscholarly material on the internet and the need to establish the academic credibility of digital publishing, we join Ray Siemens and undertakings such as the NINES (Networked Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship) project in believing that scholarly standards and peer review are crucial to building a critical mass of reliable digital sources.

This inclusive feminist literary history employs narrative as a still powerful and relevant tool for representing relationships, causalities, and developments, but these narratives are multiple, parallel, and fractured rather than continuous and singular.

The rhizomatic form of the text allows these elements, and excerpts from them, to be in effect mobile within the delivery system. No structural centrality is accorded to canonical authors. Each author is the subject of their own profile, but Orlando's markup system intertwines the details of lives and works within a larger conceptual, date-sensitive web of relations and interlinkages. That web presents multiple literary histories that emerge from the complex interrelationships between writers and the varied influences upon them of their social, political, material, and literary contexts.

Thus, Orlando’s structured text means that its material is systematically interrelated and can be probed, traversed, and grouped in sophisticated ways. It foregrounds myriad links among authors, their historical moments, their pasts and their futures. Using a combination of text markup and databasing, Orlando reshuffles and sorts its prose into excerpts, always offering the option to read an excerpt in its original context. The dynamic system of text retrieval provides on-the-fly results catering both to directed inquiries from specialists and to general exploratory browsing. It invites engaging with literary history in sundry ways, for example through periods, genres, locales, or themes.


Orlando's approach provides one answer to the question of how computing can assist in the creation and use of a literary history. Its technologies were developed in the context of ongoing literary research. Its markup or tagging system structures a body of knowledge which is characteristically interpretive and evaluative. Although literary history is heavily dependent on quantifiable and factual statements, it is most interested in the unquantifiable. Biographical accounts of authors consist not only of birth, death and publication dates, but also of information (and sometimes speculation) about such matters as political allegiances, religious beliefs, race, class, and sexuality. Critical or expository accounts of texts depend on complex as well as relatively simple concepts, and the application or interpretation of the former may differ sharply among different critics or groups.

Orlando's tagsets represent and make searchable both relatively straightforward and highly interpreted information. It is possible to search such comparatively straightforward concepts as the anthologization of texts and indirect or direct earnings from writing, and also ones, such as those addressing motifs, techniques, and voice or narration, on which the views of its readers, like those of its subjects, are bound to be various.

Orlando began at a moment when some, like Rosanne G. Potter, were complaining that those working at computer analysis of texts, more and more absorbed in scientific methods, had "forgotten they were seeking information about literature" and that such endeavours needed to be pursued in dialogue with "the kind of analysis that only the unaided human mind can apply.” Digital humanities is haunted by information-processing. Pressure towards 'precision' in tag 'meanings' and applications creates the risk of undermining the ability of traditional literary scholarship to handle the multivalent, ambiguous, and unclassifiable. What is needed, according to many digital humanists, are more sophisticated ways of dealing with text digitally. This is a vast field of inquiry that invites many different approaches. Given the divergent methods of literary history, no single system will serve every need, nor be sufficiently uncontroversial to be both definitive and interesting.

Orlando has sought to produce a system of digital text markup that is both extensive and sufficiently wide-ranging to address material from several centuries and the entire range of literary genres. It aims to represent a literary history grounded in the texts and contexts studied, offering as part of its representational structure a flexible set of interpretive rubrics that avoids the liabilities associated with rigid taxonomies, and making its readers active partners in its literary historical endeavours.

Orlando was built using SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), a 'metalanguage' used to demarcate text in documents according to consistent principles in such a way that they can be processed by computers. Orlando's tagging language, designed to encode the literary history of women, is composed of some tags common to other projects together with many new tags, unique here. It includes 205 tags, 114 attributes, and 635 attribute values.

The project chose SGML because it (like its successor, XML) was an international standard, because it could run on various programmes and was therefore unlikely to become obsolete, and because it was emerging (to become established) as the standard tool for archive-quality encoding of scholarly texts in the humanities. The Text Encoding Initiative has established a set of standard protocols for the editing of primary texts. Orlando's aim to encode critical materials with subject-specific markup (rather than the formal features and variants of existing primary texts) meant that it made sense to depart from the TEI standard as it existed when the project was specifying its tagset. But Orlando has departed from the TEI only when it is necessary to give added, subject-specific value to the tagging scheme. Its retention of key TEI tags provides the potential for interlinkages between Orlando and other bodies of SGML—or XML—encoded texts, such as the pioneering Women Writers Online. While Orlando was underway, XML or Extensible Markup Language, a streamlined and simplified version of SGML, emerged: it facilitated delivery of the textbase via the World Wide Web and replaced SGML for the project markup.

Text Encoding in Orlando

Text encoding, which is to say tagging or markup, provides Orlando materials with a consistent intellectual structure without compromising readability and without fixing text in a linear sequence. It opens the material to multiple uses beyond simple reading: to detailed searching and on-the-fly restructuring.

In effect, encoding resides beneath the visible surface of texts, giving them the power of a database and the reading experience of regular prose. Orlando's encoding allows the extraction and ordering, from among thousands of documents, of material with which to create chronologies. It enables the grouping of all writers who lived in or travelled to the same places, who wrote in the same genres, or who responded to the same texts.

This structuring of text enables the investigation of interrelationships. It supplements a traditional emphasis on the single writer with several possible views of a writer operating in relation with others, either contemporary or across generations. It supports a view of literary production as resulting from the circulation of words and ideas.

The encoding embeds in our text explicit representations of the formal and conceptual structures and priorities governing Orlando. The formal markup works by providing a structure from which a stylesheet then renders the text in a web browser. The conceptual or semantic markup embodies literary-historical priorities and provides a rubric of the features in lives and texts that are attended to in this history: these tags, specific to Orlando, provide a common structure for the profiles on writers.

Discussions of lives, for instance, almost invariably employ Birth, Cultural Formation, Education, Location, and Death tags, and may, as required by the individual life, employ tags for Health, Politics, Occupation or Violence (covering the range of violence from spousal abuse to war). Discussions of writing almost invariably employ tags for Genre and Theme or Topic, and may, as required by the individual oeuvre, employ tags for Intertextuality, Relations with Publisher, and so on. These tags provide a basis for grouping writers or excerpts from their profiles together on the basis of the tags in their profiles, and for performing precise searches across the textbase.

Digital text in any form is itself a mode of representation; its tagging works in dialogue with the 'readable' text, to open new ways of both writing and reading literary history. Digital text markup as it is used by the Web (HTML or Hypertext Markup Language) is rudimentary: it instructs web browsers on text display according to markup (italicized, indented, laid out in a table) or on linkage to other web materials. But in digital humanities work, XML has purposes beyond display. It sets out to describe the character of the text itself.

So, for instance, instead of marking up a periodical title with a tag indicating that the title should appear in italic, Orlando markup designates it as a journal title. This practice of describing the nature of the text rather than instructing how to render it follows markup principles established in the Text Encoding Initiative and elsewhere. It enables systems to be designed to represent journal titles in various ways—with italics, underlining, or hyperlinking, and so on. The representational act of describing the piece of text is separate from the representational act of encoding to produce format. This may seem trivial as applied to titles, but it is easy to perceive the utility of a computer system being able to distinguish between 'London' as a place and 'London' as a word in a title or an organization name.

Markup, or knowledge representation, insofar as it involves applying logic, or a set of rules, to a system of ontology in order to represent a knowledge domain, largely constrains what a computer can do with a text and what conclusions can be drawn from the way the markup is applied. This kind of markup thus has far-reaching implications and more flexible and powerful applications than format-oriented markup.

Text markup is thus an interpretive activity: it creates meaning and it licenses various inferences about the text. The semantic or conceptual markup used here constitutes a particular approach to literary history. Like all history, Orlando has had to select, frame, and organize its materials according to certain priorities, many of which it has embedded in the tagset. It is finally the fundamentally interpretive quality of the tagset that makes Orlando a history with a difference.

This tagging has been an experiment in using computers to undertake primarily qualitative rather than quantitative work. As a result, not all readers will agree with all of the tagging judgments in the Orlando textbase. For instance, the tag for Responses carries an attribute 'ad feminam' for personalized reactions to a writer or her works; use of this attribute requires the tagger to make a critical judgement: the history of the reception of texts is rich in violent and long-lasting disagreements over this very issue.

Orlando creates patterns and groupings emerging from the categorizations and judgments that are intrinsic to literary historical analysis, but given the selective nature of historical evidence and historical reporting, we do not present the textbase as a statistically representative sample of the field of women's writing. (A number of scholars have pursued quantitative work in literary historical studies, including Gaye Tuchman with Nina Fortin, in Edging Women Out, 1989, and Simon Eliot in Some Trends and Patterns in British Publishing, 1994.)

Tagging and interpretation

The question posed in the application of markup to text is what—and what not—to tag. The answer to that question is what embodies values, priorities, and hypotheses in the tagging.

The Orlando tagset is designed to identify elements of writers' lives and writing that are important to an understanding of women's literary history: it attempts to map the diverse and changing literary conditions under which women's writing has been shaped and received. Many of its tags are markedly different from those associated with the tagging of primary text editions or a linguistic corpus.

The act of encoding often involves choosing between two or more applicable tags. When Florence Nightingale's profile mentions that her "father had no male heir, so her cousin William Shore Smith acquired the family estate. He increased her income to £2,000 annually," this material seems to invite use of several tags which are structurally incompatible: a Wealth tag, or a Family Member tag with an attribute for the father, or another for the cousin. Choice of the Wealth tag (and the decision not to lengthen or break up the discussion by using more than one conceptual tag) indicates that the tagger considered the increase in income and the historical pattern of excluding women from inheritance most pertinent to a history of women's writing. This example brings home the extent to which tagging is inescapably interpretive and partial. (These issues are explored more fully in relation to the Orlando Project in "Can a Team Tag Consistently" and "Intertextual Encoding in the Writing of Women's Literary History".)

Like any historical enterprise, Orlando is selective, produced according to the priorities of the historians. It has the advantage, however, that many of the overall priorities are legible in the tagset itself, and the results of particular decisions made are legible in the particulars of the markup.


The questions of what to hyperlink, by what criteria, and where to target the link, comprise another set of hard decisions for an electronic interface. Orlando consistently provides internal links on people's Names and names of Organizations. Whenever profiles in the textbase contain more than a single tagged instance of one of these, it will be linked. Rather than making the link point to a single spot in the textbase, Orlando leverages its encoding system to offer readers informed choices about which links to follow.

Orlando’s Connections feature (available for people and organizations as well as in author profiles) represents relationships among authors, the contexts that shape the relationships, and relevant excerpts discussing them. It provides a perspective on authors produced from beyond their own particular profiles by reflecting the dialogue among the narratives and critical histories of various writers. The underlying tagging architecture allows a reader to choose which context(s) to pursue. These contexts (defined by specific tags or by groups of tags) offer a choice of directions for exploration.

A select number of external links are provided to texts online, hopefully with sufficient conservatism to avoid the frustration produced by 'stale' links or blocked access to licensed sites, not to mention inaccuracies in non-scholarly online editions. (Should you encounter a stale link, please report the error.)

Gathering through tags

The Orlando interface offers a highly flexible, user-directed means of locating and remixing its literary historical materials according to specific interests. Its conceptual or semantic tagging provides for the gathering and contextualization of particular aspects of writers' lives and writing, both through searching and faceting and by tag-aware searching.

In offering multiple search strategies, Orlando differs sharply from a standard printed index. The standard book index typically makes it simple to pull out the information sought, if it lists it at all, but it can only be far more limited than the indexing made available by the leveraging of Orlando's markup. Searching a printed index is either easy or impossible; Orlando makes many more options available, but as a less naturalized form of technology, it requires an effort of learning at the outset.

Searches allow for inquiry across the entire textbase. The Refine panel then leverages Orlando’s conceptual tags to allow you to specify a wide range of contexts in which a search term occurs. So, for instance, a search on India refined with Setting Place from the tag list brings together roughly a twelfth of all occurrences of 'India' in the textbase: exclusively those which mention it as a setting for fiction. Similarly, faceting on tags can be used to gather mentions of 'Catholic' in the context of religion, as opposed to 'Catholic' as it connects with writers' political activities, or as theme or topic in texts, or in historical events concerning it.

Through Tag Search, Orlando can gather together writers by Occupation and then use the Refine panel to pull together specific occupations such as midwives or governesses. A search on a broad Genre such as science fiction or novel can then be faceted in different ways according to interest: to results for writers active within one or more historical periods or within the lifetime of a particular writer, or writers associated with a particular nationality. Selecting a different genre term in the Refine panel will give you novelists who also wrote in the selected genre, such as journalism. Tag Search lets you find writers born in Scarborough, or mentions of writers’ political involvement in London during the period of suffrage feminism.

Through Tag Search and/or the Refine panel of the Search Results page, then a user can bring together—and can, if so desired, limit by date and other criteria—materials associated with a vast range of subjects: from writers as self-taught or the eldest in their families, to experiences of violence in their lives, or censorship of their work, or their connections with particular organizations such as the Whigs or P.E.N. (Poets, Essayists, Novelists, now PEN International). Time invested in becoming familiar with the major tags pays dividends by returning greatly expanded approaches to the textbase.

These are only a fraction of the kinds of linkages created by the hundreds of tags, attributes, and associated values that comprise Orlando’s conceptual tagsets.

Critical overview of the tagset

Orlando profiles divide the discussions of lives and writing careers sequentially. This division (familiar in works of literary history at least from Johnson's Lives of the Poets onwards) has both advantages and disadvantages intellectually: in Orlando it is one of the major shaping impacts of the markup system. The tagging of biographical issues on one hand and of literary texts and careers on the other employs distinct ideas and vocabularies, and the structure of XML tagging makes it preferable to separate the two.

The Life tagset and the Writing tagset, which, together, provide the interpretive or semantic structure of Orlando, are organized quite differently from one another. The Life tagset is hierarchical (which means that its top-level interpretive tags are mutually exclusive, as are the subtags below them in the hierarchy). The writing tagset, by contrast, is unconventionally 'flatter' or less hierarchical, for the purpose of facilitating discussion of interrelated features of a writer's career. Most tags in the writing tagset can be freely inter-nested with one another, making it easier to flag multiple concerns simultaneously. The two tagsets are thus experiments in the use of different kinds of tagging structures for this kind of work.

Life tagset

Accounts of writers' lives describe the material and social conditions from which their work emerged, including the various networks—familial, social, political, occupational—to which they belonged. Though biography of women has often drawn attention away from what women actually wrote, sometimes marginalizing or denigrating it, biographical material—its treatment and emphases revolutionised as a result of feminist questions and goals—is a necessary means of getting at the changing historical conditions negotiated by women writing in the British Isles. It is foundational to this history.

The Orlando tagset for biographical material, shown in its Tag Diagram, conceptually maps the life of a writer according to sixteen major categories used to demarcate discussion of the crucial events in and aspects of a writer’s life. Many of these have dedicated attributes or subtags that further indicate what is being discussed. The Education tag, for instance, has an attribute for Mode (to indicate either domestic, institutional, or self-taught learning), as well as tags for educational Award, schooling Companion, Contested Behaviour, Degree, Instructor, School (which itself has attributes for various types of institution), Subject, and formative Text.

'Cultural formation'

The most complex tag in the biography tagset is the Cultural Formation tag and its subtags. Any history of women's writing in the British Isles must represent the diversity of its subjects. This tagset makes it possible to identify and retrieve information related to social identity and subjectivity, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and political allegiance, and to address different combinations and interactions of these for different writers.

It is a challenge to represent diversity in an encoding scheme, but capturing it is nonetheless an important consideration, as many readers will come to Orlando to seek out writers associated with particular cultural identities and positions: Jewish, working-class, lesbian, or immigrant writers, for instance. But on the other hand such categories are discursive rather than ontological. Heritage is mixed, and allegiances and practices shift.

Precisely because such identity labels are constituted through linguistic and social practices, vocabularies associated with them change over time. A history grounded largely in the careers of individual writers must take account of the fact that cultural identities shift within the wider society, as well as within an individual's self-conception or lifetime.

The challenge was to identify, through tagging, the women writers associated with particular subject positions or with constituencies that interest readers, without being reductive or serving pernicious ends (for instance, essentializing concepts such as 'race'). While a fixed form of vocabulary, either of text content or attributes, would make retrieval of groups of writers easy, it would be both theoretically and practically counterproductive.

Orlando's strategy is the cultural formation element, which is used at an early point in almost every Life discussion and sometimes again later to describe, for instance, religious conversion or sexual re-alignment. Available in the overall Cultural Formation tag are tags that can encode substantial discussions of issues associated with the following: Class, Gender, Nationality, Race and Ethnicity, Religion, and Sexuality. In addition to these, there are more specific tags that describe, in a word or short phrase, Class, Ethnicity, Geographical Heritage, Gender, Language, Nationality, National Heritage, Political Affiliation, Race or Colour, Religious Denomination, and Sexual Identity. No fixed vocabulary is associated with any of these tags except Class and Gender.

The Cultural Formation tagset allows extensive freedom in the representation of cultural formation; it also seeks to forestall simplistic interpretation of results obtained through searching. Discussion can be organized under a broad rubric with one of the 'issues' tags, and may invoke one or more modes of social classification with the more granular tags. Searches may target an 'issue' or a category. All tags contain free text without any attempt to systematize the contents, which are therefore meaningful only in relation to the words that surround them, other uses of the same words in other contexts, words as they circulate within the writers' and the readers' understanding. That is, the Cultural Formation tagset insists that such identities are culturally produced and embedded in discourse. The tagging scheme does not disambiguate cultural categories from each other, instead understanding them as mutually constitutive with historically specific discursive structures, including our tagging structures.

Much that the cultural formation tag encodes is matter for debate or controversy, even among Orlando's taggers. It serves to demonstrate how encoding can be used to point not towards a rigid classificatory system but towards raising and debating issues, while still allowing for productive searching on particular categories.

To make Cultural Formation tagging more accessible through the main search interface, the ground-up words or phrases for some cultural formation tags that were produced in the writing of the author profiles have been grouped to form facets in the Refine panel. Drawing on the vocabularies developed to produce linked open data from Orlando’s markup, these groupings are not markers of essentialist notions of identity but rather provisional, strategic interface elements designed to enable researchers to access discussions of identity categories that we know are at one and the same time representational and real forces in writers’ lives and works.

Writing tagset

The Writing sections of Orlando author profiles are almost always longer than their Life counterparts, and the Writing tagset has a far larger number of unique interpretive tags. The tagset's three major subdivisions of Production, Textual Features, and Reception are separately diagrammed, containing their own sub-elements, or subtags. The Production tag, for instance, includes such subtags as Relations with Publisher and Editions. The tagset’s less hierarchical structure, however, means these three major tags are merely general indications of the overall emphasis of the discussion they contain, while subtags 'belonging' to each of these major tags can actually be found within any one of the three. In practice, this means that while extensive discussions of genre are normally situated within a Textual Features tag, the Genre tag may equally well occur within passages about Reception or Production.

Genre is crucial to the thinking of students, critics, and historians of literature. For this reason, searches for generic categories work both on profiles and on events about writers or texts not treated in full profiles. The Genre tag has presented challenges analogous to those posed by the Cultural Formation tag in the Life tagset. The anticipated popularity of genre as a category for searching, on the one hand, confronts on the other the multiplicity, historical mutability, and inconsistency in critical usage of specific genres. As with Cultural Formation, then, the Refine panel offers a Genre facet, even though such a vocabulary cannot cover every possible case or meet every expectation. Greater flexibility and nuance is achieved by the fact that multiple Genre tags can be used in relation to the same text, and Tag Search permits searches on particular words independent of the facet vocabulary.

Literature and computing

Orlando was conceived by three literary scholars—Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy—whose wish was to bring together into a useful contemporary history some of the rich material on women's writing that has emerged from recent scholarship. Seeking to meet those goals, the editors were led into exploration of the entirely new (to us) terrain of digital humanities. Our research project then doubled.

We wanted now to create a history that would be new in two senses: it would claim a place in the stories we tell about our literary pasts, and it would experiment with representing that story electronically. Our early sense of the dizzying potential of digital texts has been tempered by our acceptance (and indeed our celebration) of what is feasible at this particular juncture.

We hope that the Orlando textbase, which is the work of many hands, will give its users unprecedented access to critical material on women's writing in the British Isles, as well as an idea of the potential of the digital for new kinds of research in the humanities.

Interestingly, these disciplines, which to many seem the very antithesis of the digital, have already seized the potential of computers to make new discoveries about language and culture, and, indeed, as many scholars including Patrick Leary have noted, the relationship of students and scholars to the past is now already "crucially mediated by digital technology."

We initiated discussion of the digital aspects of Orlando with a reminder that the object of our study is literature and the purpose of our experiment is the exploration of literary history. Retaining this awareness, the Orlando venture in feminist literary history aims to contribute to a future of digitally-assisted study of many kinds.

Making digital resources serve such approaches may be more laborious and challenging than quantitative approaches, and the returns may seem comparatively modest, but an insistence on the necessity of interpretation, on retaining nuance, on the inevitability of fuzziness will provide tools necessary for the future. Indeed, in fostering critical and methodological self-consciousness, markup systems can operate as a continuation of, rather than a departure from, recent theoretically and politically informed work in the humanities.

The last half-century, which has transformed the collective sense of literary history, has also provided new ways of doing it. Orlando's structured and dynamic text allows students and researchers to pursue a wide range of connections, discovering many potential histories. Readers and users of Orlando complete the chain of many collaborators, creating new narratives, new conclusions, and unforeseen questions.

Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy
Edmonton and Guelph, May 2006, lightly revised 2022

The Orlando Project is based at the University of Alberta and the University of Guelph. For more on the Orlando Project as a whole, including some online publications, visit the project website.


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