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Reviewed by:
  • Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present
  • Miranda Hickman (bio)
Orlando: Women’s Writing in The British Isles from The Beginnings to The Present. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

In the Times Literary Supplement’s annual review of learned journals, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature received plaudits from Christine Bold for how its Silver Jubilee issue (vol. 26, no. 1; Spring 2007) illuminates [End Page 181] the complexities and challenges of conducting feminist literary history in these times. The Orlando Project, featured in the Jubilee issue, receives a paragraph of its own for responding to these challenges with innovation and courage: “A collective of feminist academics in Canada have produced a massive web-based literary history of women’s writing in the British Isles.”1

Orlando, an electronic textbase, is certainly “massive,” impressive, and visionary. Its title alludes to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, whose famous “oak tree” provides a metaphor for Orlando’s branching digital network. Building on the wealth of scholarly work on women’s literary production now available, Orlando offers a “broad and contemporary history of women’s writing,” for which, as the project’s editors suggest, “the time” is indeed “ripe.”2 Impressive also is its scale (more than a thousand writers are represented, and with semiannual updates, Orlando’s scope will be expanded by about fifty writers a year), its ambitious time-span (from 612 BCE to the present day), its careful execution, and its copia (it offers abundant detailed information on writers from Sappho to Jeanette Winterson).

Somewhat misleadingly billed as a history of “Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present,” Orlando features not only British women writers but rather a wide range of male and female writers in some way related to literature associated with the British Isles. As a modernist, I welcomed entries on American writers H. D., Djuna Barnes, and Marianne Moore. In an explanatory e-mail, the editors acknowledge that selections were somewhat eclectic, principally focused on writers significantly linked with writers in the British Isles, but also stemming from specialties of the research team.3 While this is both practical and fair enough, greater clarity and transparency about principles of selection would guard against confusion and charges of favoritism (if Elizabeth Bishop is included, why not P. K. Page? If Moore, why not Flannery O’ Connor?).

Published electronically on 20 June 2006 through Cambridge University Press, Orlando was originally the brainchild of Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy (both of the University of Alberta), and Susan Brown (University of Guelph, Ontario), who have “overall responsibility” for the project.4 While overseeing development of the electronic textbase, they have also been developing a triad of print volumes, The Orlando History of Women’s Writing in the British Isles, offering a broad narrative overview of the history of British women’s writing, to be used in tandem with the textbase.5 Since the project’s inception in 1995, the team of researchers and consultants has involved people in such diverse roles as “Co-Investigators, Post-Doctoral Fellows, Research Associates, Graduate and Undergraduate Research Assistants, Systems Analysts and Programmers, Librarians, and technical and administrative support personnel.”6 Their work recalls the important issues of Tulsa Studies Women’s Literature from 1994 and 1995 on the topic [End Page 182] of collaboration: Orlando has provided an infrastructure for a sustained, sometimes interdisciplinary, collaborative endeavor, including a remarkably extensive roster of participants from North America and the United Kingdom. It is inspiring to see such richly collaborative work in action in the humanities, enabled and encouraged by the Orlando framework; this reads as a real example of what Vera John-Steiner calls the “co-construction of knowledge.”7

The jacket of my 1946 Penguin paperback of Orlando features an airplane flying over an oak tree—invoking modern technology to indicate how Woolf’s book, beginning in the Renaissance, concludes by sweeping into the present. The editors of Orlando emphasize that in their project, contemporary technology has enabled a feminist intervention into literary historiography: Orlando offers “history with a difference.” In their introduction, the editors provide astute theoretical...