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.

We are beginning a new phase of project activity, titled Orlando 2.0. The project recently marked its first 20 years of activity in digital literary history, which has focused on the production of Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, the interactive textbase for scholars and students published globally by Cambridge University Press. We launch a new phase now, in 2017, because our new production environment in the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC) allows us to undertake substantially new practices in our collaborative workflow and the tools that we can offer for using the Orlando textbase for research.

On the production side, we are expanding our base of contributors. For technical reasons, Orlando was developed almost exclusively by scholars and graduate students at two universities in Canada. As we revise and create new project materials, Orlando 2.0 will engage with an international group of experts: external contributors working in women’s writing and in digital humanities, as well as both an advisory board and an editorial board. These developments will allow us to keep Orlando up to date with new scholarship. Moreover, while Orlando has always been committed to principles of diversity in its textbase content, we imagine that this more heterogeneous base of advisors, editors, and contributors will change the textbase in valuable ways. We are particularly committed to increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the entries in all historical periods, and we are committed to increasing the coverage of contemporary writers.

On the technical side, Orlando 2.0 is committed to ongoing development of new ways to access, analyze, and present feminist literary research. CWRC will be offering new interfaces to allow users creative and productive ways to explore the textbase, and CWRC will also provide a means for the project’s researchers to experiment with new tools for Orlando.

Orlando’s unique contribution to feminist digital humanities has been to encode relationality an intersectionality in women’s writing and its contexts. Going forward, the Orlando/CWRC team will be focusing on linked data and collaborative systems, which we see as having great potential for more aggregation, for different kinds of exploration, and for bringing data from different projects into conversation with each other. In short, Orlando 2.0 allows us to be more collaborative and more diverse, and to develop and use leading-edge tools on an ever-expanding and dynamic textbase. We undertake Orlando 2.0 as a means of building on the feminist project of Orlando.

Reviews of Orlando

Matthew Reisz in Times Higher Education

[T]he possibilities offered by “interpretive tagging,”… enable the information about an individual writer’s life and work to be searched by time, place, genre and occupation. One can look at all the authors who were nuns or librarians; who wrote agit-prop, anthems or art criticism, who had links with Scarborough or South Africa. The biographers can also be interrogated in multiple further ways. Such options enable kinds of research quite impossible in a book. But they also indirectly help generate alternatives to more “mainstream” perspectives (50).

Matthew Reisz. “In search of a good companion: Matthew Reisz weighs up the role of weighty tomes of literary reference in the digital age,” Times Higher Education, 928:1 (December – January 2009), 48-51. Digital version available from Times Higher Education online.
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    Department of English and Film Studies

    University of Alberta

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