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

Devoney Looser in Huntington Library Quarterly

The experiment is unquestionably a successful one. Orlando‘s most obvious utility, as with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, involves the ability to turn to its entries on more than 800 individual British women writers for specific biographical or bibliographical information. For example, Orlando‘s entry on Jane Austen or Frances Burney is in many ways more useful than the ODNB’s: it supplies more specific dates and employs a hierarchical structure that enables the reader to jump easily to specific portions of each entry. . . . Orlando, in that sense, offers one-stop biographical and book-historical shopping. Orlando’s unique value is in providing ‘materials [that] are capable of a high degree of interaction.’ To be sure, one can do a full-text search in the ODNB for the word ‘antiquarian’ or ‘bluestocking’ and come up with some surprising and valuable results, but in Orlando, the ability to quickly investigate not only such keywords but also circles of writers—particularly by tracing connections among individual writers (male and female)—is unprecedented. One can learn not only about interpersonal connections and literary influences but also about locations, events, occupations, genres, birth position, and other categories that link British women writers (and a smaller selection of male or non-British women writers) to each other.

Two books under review in this essay: William McCarthy’s Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment and Nicholas D. Smith’s The Literary Manuscripts and Letters of Hannah More.

Devoney Looser, “Enlightenment Women’s Voices”, Huntington Library Quarterly 73:2 (June 2010), 295-302. (Available from JSTOR).

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    University of Alberta

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