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 tagsets (or DTDs). These are the encoding systems that are the fundamental link between the textbase content and its digital delivery.

Reviews of Orlando

Toni Bowers in The Scriblerian

Most readers of this journal will be familiar already with Cambridge University Press’s magisterial database, Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, overseen by Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The database . . . has changed the parameters of the scholarship and teaching of British women’s writing. . . . The information on the Orlando database is nothing short of priceless, breathtaking in its scope and endlessly useful.

Toni Bowers, “Exploring the Richardson Circle using the Orlando Database”. The Scriblerian, 44: 2, 45: 1 (Spring and Autumn 2012), 56-8.

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