CHWP A.8 Brown & Clements, "Tag Team: Computing, Collaborators, and the History of Women's Writing in the British Isles"

1. Introduction

The Orlando Project begins in a book too big for its bindings. In 1991, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, a reference book on women writers, was published by some of us who are now part of the Orlando Project (Blain, Clements & Grundy 1991). Isobel Grundy, Patricia Clements and Virginia Blain started that work believing that its discoveries would easily fit within the covers of a chunky little reference book. They were wrong. During the course of their research, becoming increasingly aware of the extent and range of women's writing, they several times renegotiated the length of The Feminist Companion with its generously flexible publisher. The hard work of condensation and the publisher's flexibility notwithstanding, however, when the book was published it had no index. They'd had to leave it out. The index to the Companion -- which offered readers a few basic pathways into the several inches of densely packed information in the book -- was a hundred A4 pages in typescript. Printing it would have broken the bindings. Literally. Had the book been bound at that length, it would have fallen apart. For scholarly users of the Companion, this means that there are only two ways of accessing the book's information: the alphabetical order of biographical entries, and the rough chronological groupings of writers. The image of the bursting book links with another -- that of Feminist Companion filing cabinets -- on three continents -- also full of information about women's writing in English, not published because there wasn't room for it in the book.

Those two images have a lot to do with the genesis and the character of The Orlando Project. This research tool won't burst the bindings, and it won't leave relevant research in the filing cabinets. And this one will offer its readers -- or end-users, as we also call them -- many different ways of accessing the information it contains. In what follows, we will outline the major principles on which the project is built, provide some examples of the work we are doing, and consider some of the wider implications of the kind of work the Orlando Project has undertaken.

2. Project Team and Funding

The Orlando Project, the full title of which is "An Integrated History of Women's Writing in the British Isles", is based at the University of Alberta and directed by Patricia Clements. There are currently more than twenty participants in the project, including two principal investigators, four co-investigators, three postdoctoral fellows, a project librarian, a research collaborator, and eight graduate research assistants. One co-investigator and two graduate students work at the University of Guelph. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada is supporting the project with a Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Grant for five years from 1995-2000. Both host universities have also supplied key financial support. [1]

3. Project Aims

The Orlando Project aims to produce the first full scholarly account of women's writing in the British Isles, and to do so in two formats. It will finish up with five printed volumes of literary history, four of which will be individually authored, and it will create electronic products to be delivered on CD-ROMs or on the Internet or both. The project is named after the panhistoric character in Virginia Woolf's historical fantasy of 1928 (Woolf 1928). This "escapade", as Woolf called it, figures the development of women's writing, and the conditions under which such writing has been possible, in a fantasy-biography which gives a shifting identity but a changeless name to the writing woman, and registers the flux of history as the ground on which she develops. Orlando, beginning to write as an Elizabethan, emerges as a fully developed writer in Woolf's own time. The work she is writing throughout this whole span of time is a poem called The Oak Tree. At first male, Orlando becomes scandalously female in the eighteenth century, when, by Woolf's account, the woman writer became part of the record. Over the course of this modern history, Orlando is the representative woman writer. The Oak Tree is the representative collective text.

We've named ourselves after Woolf's historical speculation because of its double focus on women's writing and history, and because of its feminism and its sensitive registration of the complexity of the shifting conditions under which women have written. Our vision of literary history assumes the complex integration of a number of fields: writing by women, the changing conditions of women's lives, writing by men, historical processes, and the broader cultural environment. We are paying particular attention to the construction of gender, looking at the ways in which it is always uneven and contested, always in flux, always in dialogue with and constituted inextricably from such factors as class, national identity and sexual orientation. The interactions among the elements of what we are calling cultural formation -- both of the social, historical, and writing culture, and of individual women writers and groups of women writers -- is crucial to our sense of how literary history needs, now, to be investigated.

Traditional literary history has been charged with contributing to a totalizing or linear view of the past, and recent historical projects, such as The Columbia Literary History of the United States (Elliot 1987), have sought to articulate more fully a sense of the untidiness, the raggedness, of literary and social change, often opting, as a result, for depth or thick description of historical moments rather than for broad and sweeping slices of chronology, periods which are assumed to have a stable character -- the kind of history Virginia Woolf satirized in stating "in or about December, 1910, human character changed" (Woolf 1950: 91). We've opted for chronological sweep, but we intend to give a sense of the thickness, the layering and the untidy multiplicity of the historical moment together with the larger temporal shifts that differentiate those moments from one another. The complexity of women's relationship to writing demands multiple narratives with many different focal points, like the branching Oak Tree in Orlando.

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[1] The Orlando Project web site contains further information on project members and activities, <URL:>.