In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the number of digital Restoration and eighteenth-century archives and databases [End Page 87] has proliferated. There is no longer any doubt that the field has gone digital. With diminishing resources for many universities, however, distinctions need to be made. Worth the investment, Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (http://orlando.cambridge.org) should be considered indispensable for all scholars of literary history.
The Orlando Project was first conceived, in part, as an effort to update the already widely consulted Feminist Companion to Literature in English (1990). Based in the Research Institute for Women’s Writing at the University of Alberta, the project takes its name from Woolf’s Orlando, A Biography, and deploys an oak tree as its emblem, an adept play on the poem composed by her protagonist across historical eras and on the interconnected branches of literary history. The advantages of making a print reference work digital include an exponential increase in information capacity and the flexibility with which that information can be accessed and organized. Much to their credit, the project’s editors, Susan Brown, Patricia Clemens, and Isobel Grundy, have given great consideration to Orlando’s macro- and micro-organizational principles. Ranging across factual, conceptual, critical, and interpretive tags, their customized markup system provides in-depth information on the lives and works of women writers as well as their political, literary, economic, and cultural contexts. With the goal of creating a “comprehensive scholarly history of writing by British women,” it provides individual investigators with a productive tool for generating chronologies and “herstories” that we could only have dreamed of writing in an earlier era.
Each author entry in the Orlando text-base offers an extensive overview of the writer’s achievements and detailed discussions and chronologies of the life and writings. There are also individual timelines for each author entry, a generative link section that leads to other entries, and an exhaustive bibliography of the author’s works. The editors also include a number of male writers as well as non-British women writers. While it will eventually be complemented by three print volumes on early, Victorian, and modern writing by women, the digital Orlando will constantly be updated.
For this review, I explored the representation of Restoration and eighteenth-century women playwrights. I conducted random cross-checks of Orlando against an earlier print reference work, Women Playwrights in England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1660–1823 (1996), and found only few minor omissions. My in-depth search for women writers who had plays performed during the long eighteenth century yielded an exhaustive chronology of both major and minor women authors. Other searches generated a chronology of women authors who had occasion to interact with Garrick and a timeline of female playwrights at Drury Lane. Each of these searches resulted in a composite portrait of women writers’ ambitions for their plays, their productivity, and their obstacles. The chronologies generated by Orlando reveal a great deal that we might otherwise have missed were we to continue relying solely on conventional cross-referencing.
As with any electronic resource, users of Orlando ought to make themselves aware of the selection criteria and search terms. Fortunately, the editors here do more than most to explain their choices and to discuss the potential implications of their markup system. Thanks to their collective intellectual [End Page 88] labors, users will have access to as many rooms of their own as they can imagine.