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, which has changed the parameters of the scholarship and teaching of British women’s writing, has long been brilliantly supervised by Grundy, whose efforts have opened doors for grateful scholars.
My review considers the database’s coverage of the small but influential, widely recognized, and self-conscious group of intellectual women who assisted Richardson with his second and third novels, Clarissa (1747–1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753–1754). (Though the novelist corresponded with many different people, critics typically use the tag “Richardson’s circle” to name the literary coterie that gathered around him at his second home in North End, a group of brilliant young women, many of whom would themselves produce distinguished writing.) Its range is not as narrow as might first appear, for the task requires an evaluation of how far a well-known literary coterie is represented in a database where the primary structural focus is on individual lives and single-authored writings.
In general, Orlando’s entries appear under specific writers’ names, and are organized around biographical and bibliographical themes. Researchers can simply enter a particular writer’s name—or the name of an occupation, place, or genre—and follow easy-to-use tabs to find reliable, stylistically accessible discussions. At the ground level, as it were, directly after the “Overview” that follows the author’s name, come several tabs: “Writing,” “Life” (these two, helpfully, can be viewed side-by-side in another tab, “Life & Writing”), “Timeline,” “Links,” “Links Excerpts,” and “Works By.” Each of these tabs leads to new text, often replete with hyperlinks, that add layer upon layer of detail and nuance.
Under “Life,” for instance, are listed the main points in the writer’s biography, each accompanied by links to further information, selections, commentary, and bibliography. Under “Writing,” users can follow relevant linked headings. In the entry for Charlotte Lennox, headings are: “Poems,” “A Self-Fashioned Career,” “First Novel,” “First Translation,” and “Trying the Stage,” among others; for Jane Collier, headings include “A Commonplace-Book,” “Writing on Others’ Works,” and a link dedicated to her best-known work, “The Art of [Ingeniously] Tormenting.” At a more advanced level, users can easily create their own timelines, where information from disparate pages of the database comes together chronologically, within a specified time frame. One can group searches together, search by combining tags, and (a feature that I have not so far attempted) explore markup as well as discursive content.
How, then, might a researcher approach the “Richardson circle”—as historical phenomenon, locus of production, or literary community—through this database?
Since the main entry points built into the database are individual, biographical, and bibliographical, it is hardly surprising that “Richardson’s Circle” does not enjoy an entry of its own. Somewhat more surprising, at least for this user, was the absence of any hyperlink to the phrase when it does appear, within other entries. It turns out that the [End Page 56] most straightforward way to find information on the writers of Richardson’s circle as a group is to start at the “Richardson” page. (Despite its title and overall focus, the database does selectively allow searches for male writers and non-British women writers, even for key events; these extra-ordinary entries extend the project’s tremendous usefulness.) Users who click on the “Life” tab there will learn that
His close friends . . . included a remarkable number of writing women: among others Sarah Fielding, sister of his literary arch-rival [Henry Fielding remains unnamed at this place, though he does get a database entry], Jane Collier, Hester Mulso (later Chapone), Susanna Highmore (later Duncombe), and the sisters Dorothy, Lady Bradshaigh, and Elizabeth, Lady Echlin.
Not all of these women, as I mentioned above, were part of the North End coterie. Lady Bradshaigh, in particular, who maintained a substantial (and somewhat flirtatious...