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Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (review)

From: Biography
Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2008
pp. 725-734 | 10.1353/bio.0.0045

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Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is aptly named. Virginia Woolf’s parodic biography, Orlando, about an English writer who lives from the Renaissance to the 1920s and changes sex from a man to a woman—and more broadly, Woolf’s search for the literary history of women in A Room of One’s Own—are fitting endorsements of this “electronic textbase.” The Orlando Project similarly reaches beyond the limits of time and gender: from the fifth century BC (or BCE) to the present day, it includes male writers and “other women” from other countries. It is an extraordinary compendium of historical and biographical scholarship and a successful “experiment in humanities computing.” An oak tree, alluding to the hero/ ine Orlando’s magnum opus, “The Oak Tree,” serves as the “Home” icon of the site, as a “visual pun” on “the growth of history from biography, and . . . the tree-like structure of our text encoding,” as the Scholarly Introduction explains. Orlando too is a grand ecosystem of many roots and branches that should continue to grow. Though digital projects have been notoriously ephemeral, this seems adaptable, and updates have been added at six-month intervals. The project avoids the usual monumental parade ground of famous authors or national histories, instead dispersing biographical recognition and delegating countless users to find patterns of meaning in this historical web.

Although Woolf’s protagonist liked to daydream under the oak tree, this textbase—as they insist it be called, being a searchable palimpsest of historical argument and biographies rather than an information database or an archive of literary editions—is hardly for the pastoral idler. Casual searchers could just as well search Google or Wikipedia for some of the data on events or people. Far more than an information tool, this is a structured world that some “players” will navigate better than others. Not that it’s only for nerds, either. It will reward anyone interested in women’s history, biography, or literature, although unlike Woolf ’s, this Orlando has no portraits and not a whiff of satiric humor. Inevitably I will touch on a perennial theme in any collective biographical history or prosopography, the theme of what’s missing. But my aim is to introduce some of the notable features and functions of this magisterial project, and to offer some observations on the design and markup (as it appears from where I sit). If there are a few obscurities and disappointments, there is nevertheless much to admire and celebrate. This is a biographical literary history of women writers with huge capacities for researchers around the world. It fosters “intelligent searching,” indeed.

The editors sought to use “computers to undertake primarily qualitative rather than quantitative work.” Some of the quantifiable features and the evolution of the project can be discovered, however. I counted acknowledgments of over a hundred people These centuriae were led by Patricia Clements (project director) and Isobel Grundy (chief editor of materials) at the University of Alberta and Susan Brown (leader of the technical initiatives) of the University of Guelph, with enviable support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and of course Cambridge University Press. And yet the massive collaboration, aided by scholars and libraries throughout the Anglophone world, has aspects of a Woolfian Society of Outsiders, an anonymous collective recovery effort. The project began with The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) edited by Virginia Blain (of Macquarie University in Sydney), Clements, and Grundy: weighing in at “1,231 pages in double-column format.” There was just too much of a female literary tradition to encompass in print, and even more, it turns out, than can be contained in the textbase, itself “the equivalent of more than fifty volumes of readable text” when first launched (“Scholarly Introduction”). The project, which has been an ongoing subject of interest in humanities computing circles, has already yielded an essay collection derived from its planning conference (Women and Literary History, edited by Katherine Binhammer and Jeanne Wood [U of Delaware P...

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