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

Susan Fraiman in Modern Philology

Opening up Orlando reminds me of first seeing Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party (a work likewise remarkable in form as much as content)—three decades later, it is still thrilling and affirming to have women’s countless contributions to Western culture and society made visible. What is new in the twenty-first century, however, is that now the guest list of history-making women is electronic—and there are always more seats at the table. In this sense, Orlando goes beyond earlier constructions of alternative canons, whose printed form tended to reproduce hierarchies of “major” and “minor” writers, not to mention the naturalization of a fixed tradition (143).

We might say, then, that Orlando’s narrative is grand not in its seamless hegemony but rather in its tireless productivity. Ceding narratorial agency to each user, this is a women’s history intrinsically committed to a process of continual revision and multiplication of variants (144).

Flexible, practical, and worldly in its approach to identity politics, Orlando is a good example of what I have optimistically begun to call the New Women’s Studies: feminist scholarship willing once again to proceed under the sign of “women”—not in defiance of theoretical work disaggregating “women” and destabilizing “identity” but precisely through having engaged with and processed this work to the point of making it our common sense (146).

Susan Fraiman. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens—With Help from a New Digital Resource for Literary Scholars,” Modern Philology, August 2008, 142-48. (Available from Chicago Journals).
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    University of Alberta

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