Hannah Stewart on “A Different Kind of Literary History”

This summer, our Undergraduate Research Assistants are blogging about their experience with the project. First up, Hannah Stewart from the University of Guelph:

From the moment I found out that I was going to be an undergraduate research assistant working with the Orlando Project this summer, I was ecstatic. I’m an English major, an aspiring writer and scholar, and (maybe most importantly) a great lover of books. When I learned that I had been hired for this position, I was excited by the prospect of learning more about a subject that is incredibly important to me: literary history. Becoming a part of this project felt like an incredibly special opportunity for me, not simply because I was going to be learning about literary history, but because I was going to be learning about a form of literary history that was entirely different from anything I had been exposed to before.

If you ask someone to think about the history of literature, they’ll probably imagine a very specific sort of image. Though the authors imagined may differ depending on the person, the people who come to mind will likely be predominantly men. There may be exceptions, but even in these instances, women’s stories are often  given less attention than the stories of men, and their lives are frequently framed within a masculine-centric historical narrative. It’s also typical for people to imagine these authors working largely in isolation — not inspired by the everyday, but rather, only by the influences of creative genius and the intervention of seemingly divine muses.

The Orlando Project’s vision of literary history reveals an entirely different side of the story. In the Orlando textbase women writers are given the time and consideration that’s needed to truly understand a person as a significant and complex intellectual being. Not only does the textbase treat these women with the seriousness that they warrant as writers, but it also includes information about often overlooked details such as authors’  personal interests, friendships with other writers, and involvement in social issues. Recently I‘ve been reading through the life entries of many of the authors in the textbase, and through this I’ve learned that Beatrix Potter bred Herdwick sheep (which are possibly the most adorable creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on), that Ruth Pitter was a good friend of C.S. Lewis, and became his “mentor as a poet”, and that Viscountess Rhondda Margaret Haig was unwilling to let a police barricade stop her from sharing the importance of voting rights for women with the Prime Minister. Orlando has brought these women alive for me, and it has given me a version of the literary tradition that I can connect to, and see myself in. 

My understanding of literary history has continued to deepen as I have had the opportunity to play an active role in shaping the way that this history is told. Recently, I have been researching an Orlando entry on Lili Elbe – one of the first transgender women to receive what is sometimes called sex confirmation surgery – and I have also been drafting changes to published entries that will reflect new ways gender will be tagged in the textbase. My work with gender tagging has given me an opportunity to think about the way that the structuring of information shapes the sorts of narratives that can be told. With the project’s initial tag structure, people could be tagged by sex, but there was no way to tag a person’s gender. This meant that the textbase missed an opportunity to explore an interesting and nuanced aspect of many of its authors’ experiences of embodiment in the world. The gender tag was introduced a while ago, but not implemented systematically across the whole textbase. As well, researching Lili Elbe has given me the chance to experience first-hand the truly collaborative process of writing literary history. As I have gradually pieced together the details of Lili Elbe’s life and writing, I’ve thought constantly about all the people that had to be involved to bring her story to life. Lili herself wrote down her story, and this story was compiled by publishers and editors and given context by friends and family. I had access to this story through the Lili Elbe Digital Archive which was directed by Pamela L. Caughie, Sabine Meyer, and Nikolaus Wasmoen and was brought into being by a number of scholars working collaboratively to preserve Lili Elbe’s story. I gained context for the primary sources provided by this project because there are people who chose to write critical articles examining the implications of, and influences on, Elbe’s writing. Now I’m taking what I’ve learned and drafting an entry for the textbase, which will be shaped by our tagging system and by the people who edit my work. 

This entire process has shown me that literary history isn’t something that simply happens, nor is it something that exists independently of social context or individual influence. Literary history is created by people, and like people, it has endless potential for complexity. 

The Orlando Project has transformed my understanding of the history of the field I love so deeply, making it into a space where I belong, and bringing to life before my eyes a community of complex women, with valuable experiences and thoughts.