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The Orlando Project (review)

From: Eighteenth Century Fiction
Volume 22, Number 2, Winter 2009-10
pp. 371-379 | 10.1353/ecf.0.0123

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A Description

The online text-base Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present contains “information about more than 1200 writers, their texts, and the times in which they lived and wrote” (quotations are from the descriptions of Orlando on the project website and at the Cambridge University Press site). The research team comprises Susan Brown (Orlando Project director, University of Alberta and University of Guelph), Blair Nonnecke (Human- Computer Interaction researcher, University of Guelph), Stan Ruecker (designer and experimental interface researcher, University of Alberta), and Claire Warwick (Library and Information Studies researcher, University College, London). After a decade of work, more than five million words are gathered in one place that is devoted to the scholarly history of women’s writing in the British Isles. Orlando is highly searchable, allowing its users (via subscription) to “examine the information in a wide range of configurations.” The Orlando Project is based in the Department of English and Film Studies and Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, with a major site in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. Other members of the team are at universities in Canada, the UK, the US, and Australia. For more information, visit: http://www.cambridge.org/online/orlandoonline/ .

A List of Features

  • •    Collaboratively authored biographical, critical, and historical material, including more than 20,000 bibliographical listings and 30,000 event listings

  • •    Covers material from the early medieval period to today

  • •    Regularly updated with new or revised author entries, and information relating to living writers

  • •    Chronological features allow users to create their own timelines by name, date, place, phrase, genre, or theme

  • •    Thousands of cross-linked references between entries, chronological sequences, and collections of passages

A Review

In her “Circuit of Apollo” (written c. 1702), Anne Finch describes the god of poetry, Apollo, staging a competition between four women poets of Kent to determine which he should crown with his bays. But Apollo

... changed his dessign, and devided his praise,
And said that they all had a right to the Bay’s,
And that t’were injustice, one brow to adorn,
With a wreath, which so fittly by each might be worn.

He swiftly beats a retreat, aware that this new design will not be well received by the competitors:

Since in Witt, or in Beauty, itt never was heard,
One female cou’d yield t’ have another preferr’d.

Apollo refers the judgment to a council of Muses on Parnassus, claiming that women are the best discriminators between the achievements of their own sex. Judging among and yet representing the full range of women’s writing creates a tension that continues to preoccupy feminist literary historians into the twenty-first century. The Orlando text-base certainly fulfils the latter demand; indeed, it is as near to comprehensive as modern scholarship permits. Searching its pages in relation to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women’s writing ticks all the boxes and more. The question of judgment is one presently referred to the user, but the conceptual work that underpins the information so generously provided makes possible further critical endeavours.

I recently had occasion to turn to Orlando in the refinement and completion of a chronology of women’s writing 1690–1750, which will be included in a volume of women’s literary history as part of a major series forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan under the general editorship of Cora Kaplan and Jennie Batchelor. Given the vastness and variety of the prose entries in the text-base, first navigation with a specific task or end in mind is probably advisable. Nevertheless, it is easy to find oneself detoured (in my case always with interest) in the many levels and forms of information available. From the home page, I...

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