Project

A History of Women’s Writing
Since the 1970s, feminist scholarship has produced a wealth of new knowledge about women’s writing in every period, in every kind, in many countries. In spite of the richness of contemporary scholarship, however, there has been no comprehensive literary history of writing by British women (or indeed by women writing in many other national traditions). That is partly because literary history was, during the last third of the twentieth century, under a disapproving cloud. Charges against “traditional” literary history were paralysing in their impact: no single history could be an accurate account of the whole; traditional, single-voiced narrative obliterated the multiple narratives of ‘minority’ groups (including women); traditional narrative history served the ideology of the nation-state.

Arriving powerfully on the intellectual scene just when women’s writing needed a history, those serious, valid, and undermining criticisms ensured that for too long the traditions of women’s writing would remain without a history. But students of women’s writing have for years expressed a need for a broad literary history centred in women’s production and capable of building on the wealth of new knowledge modern scholarship has produced. That need motivates the Orlando history.

While mindful of the charges against traditional literary history, Orlando aims to avoid these pitfalls, partly through its use of a new structure which guards it against the monolithic or hegemonic. Its extensive micro-history, or very large textbase of accounts of individuals in their time, is the product of many different writing voices conjoined in a uniquely structured system of electronic text. Use of the searching facility can compress narrative history into selected chronological milestones, or open up into exploration of the complexities of detail. Sets of results in either category embrace more than any one contributor to the textbase has foreseen.

The Orlando history focuses on gender and other aspects of cultural formation, and it emphasises the intellectual, material, political, and social conditions, including writing by men, that have, over time, helped to shape writing by women. These, and many other considerations, have determined the Orlando Project’s schemas, tagsets, and DTDs. These are the encoding systems that are the fundamental link between the textbase content and its digital delivery.

Reviews of Orlando

Miranda Hickman in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature

Orlando features not only British women writers but rather a wide range of male and female writers in some way related to literature associated with the British Isles. As a modernist, I welcomed entries on American writers H. D., Djuna Barnes, and Marianne Moore (Hickman 181).

It is inspiring to see such richly collaborative work in action in the humanities, enabled and encouraged by the Orlando framework; this reads as a real example of what Vera John Steiner calls the ‘co construction of knowledge.’ . . . I soon realized that the ground breaking (I should say pathfinding) nature of the project’s set up lay in how its structure allows one to navigate such pages [individual entries] in aggregate. . . . What Orlando allows you to do, in a spirit nicely faithful to the agility implied by Woolf’s Orlando, is to choose your own adventure. . . . When one departs from the usual technique of shuttling immediately to an individual writer’s entry, one appreciates more fully the mercurial quality of the information, uniquely susceptible of rearrangement thanks to the intricate electronic encoding system. This system of electronic tagging both indicates and enables theoretical savvy (Hickman 182).

The rich corpus of information the Orlando team has managed to build in the project’s brief lifespan is nothing short of astonishing. In both theoretical and practical terms, this exciting project makes superb use of the implications of new technologies, and like Woolf’s Orlando, it points to the future. Like Woolf’s oak tree, may it flourish and ramify (Hickman 184).

Miranda Hickman. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 27:1 (Spring 2008), 180-86. (Available from Project MUSE).
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    University of Alberta

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