Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


International Women’s Day

With Orlando, the possibilities are almost endless.

You may be seeking information: Did Gertrude Bell really draw the frontiers of Iraq? When did a woman first take her seat in the House of Commons? Or the House of Lords? What were Richmal Crompton’s adult novels like? How did Eleanor Farjeon get a children’s-writing award named after her?

Or you may have just discovered the writing of, say, Amy Levy in the nineteenth century or Andrea Levy at the present day, and wish to know more.

Or you may be embarking on a research project: women’s childbirth experience in the long eighteenth century, or factories in the Victorian novel, or developments in divorce law, or fiction set in a dystopian future.

Orlando began from a desire to produce a history of women’s writing in English, and to enlist in doing so the capabilities of the electronic age. The result is an amazing storehouse of knowledge. The number of entries on individual authors now exceeds 1,300, more than a thousand of them British women, with more than 150 each of male writers and non-British women. Orlando has more words than would make up 80 monographs. A wealth of contextual material supports the author entries.

We chose the medium of critical-historical prose encoded with ‘tagsets’ designed by the Orlando team to capture and make recoverable every aspect of the lives and oeuvres of writers. The encoding, or markup, is what enables you to pull out all the paragraphs about education or relations with publishers, or about genre issues, or works published by subscription, or all the tagged fictional characters’ names as well as names of actual people (Jane Austen’s Emma came to birth, it turns out, in a period when Emmas abounded in both fiction and poetry). The markup enables users to group written works according to innumerable unanticipated relationships.

The textbase is still being expanded (as well as tweaked and revised) twice a year. This means the entry on Jane Gardam includes a reviewer’s comment that her retrospective collection The Stories brings a “dangerous and formidable energy” to “the great terrifying secrets of love and grief, death, ageing and faith”; the entry on Lady Mary Wroth mentions last summer’s staged reading of her Love’s Victory at Penshurst; the entry on Jane Austen mentions that fibreglass statue of Colin Firth groin-deep in water in Hyde Park; and so on.

A curious reader can click on “Penshurst” and be taken to the entries on Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and on her brother Sir Philip; to the several portraits of Wroth at Penshurst; to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Picture Gallery at Penshurst”; to the dismissive opinion of the traveller Celia Fiennes, who thought the house “but old” and preferred the new; and to a romantic treatment by the Victorian Emma Marshall, who loved the antique.

Orlando seeks to be almost all things to users interested in the history of women’s writing, from casual interest to the scholarly study.

The Orlando team is grateful for Women’s History Month and to Cambridge University Press for providing that accessibility for March 2015.

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