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Digitizing Romanticism

"The Corvey Project: Collaborative Excavation of the Professional Woman Writer, 1790-1840"

Emma Clery, Sheffield Hallam University
Julie Shaffer, SHU/University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh

Prepared for "Digitizing Romanticism," Session chaired by Neil Fraistat, University of Maryland


The Corvey Project at Sheffield Hallam University was founded in 1995, with a grant from the British Academy, as a group project investigating women's writing of the romantic era. Its defining aim is to 'map' women's writing using the unique recourse of the CME (Corvey Microfiche Edition), and to disseminate the findings by means of digital technology. The textual base is a collection of 1,065 female-authored works in English found in the belles-lettres section of the Corvey Library, in Germany (the section as a whole contains approximately 3,200 texts, a considerable number of them anonymous). There are many rare works included, and the collection is especially interesting for its holdings in popular fiction, material not found in great quantity in the great public and university libraries. Taken together, the collection provides a window onto unfamiliar yet culturally central aspects of print culture, and in particular enables us to throw light on the careers of more than 300 women writers, half of whom cannot be found in current biographical dictionaries.

At this stage, digital technology is not being used to provide digitised versions of the texts themselves. This is partly an issue of current resources, and partly of copyright. Digitisation of the collection will probably come with time. In the meantime, the first stage of our work was been devoted to developing a 'front-end' or gateway to the material in the collection, to enable scholars and students to navigate the unfamiliar landscape. With the help of staff from the Corvey projects at Paderborn and Cardiff, we have prepared a full and corrected version of belles-lettres catalogue covering women's writing. This forms the basis for our database, Corvey Women Writers on the Web (CW3): An Electronic Guide to Literature 1796-1834. CW3 has a dual nature, embodying a new potential in academic use of the Internet. On the one hand it will serve as a reference resource, a searchable hypertext 'encyclopedia' of women's writing. It allows scholars a means of identifying texts they would like to read, that might be helpful for their research, saving time it might otherwise take to go through vast numbers of novels that do not serve their needs. As such, it complements traditional research in collections that hold the novels that Corvey holds; it likewise complements projects dedicated to digitising Romantic-era women's novels. At the same time it is a peer-reviewed journal, an open-ended collaborative project, to which scholars elsewhere are invited to contribute. It is at once analytical and interactive in its function.

The database holds a variety of documents. There will be synopses of works held in the collection, bibliographies of primary and secondary works, biographical sketches, contextual material (primary and secondary), contemporary reviews, surveys of critical reception, keyword classifications of narrative texts (identifying factual and thematic points of interest), and images (for instance portraits and facsimile title-pages). When CW3 is launched, probably in September 1999, there will be a substantial amount of content, but we expect the task of providing anything like 'full' coverage to extend over many years. An introduction to what can be done using the database at present will give an idea of how useful this resource will be as it continues to grow.

When one enters the site, a page (see figure 1) gives the researcher a choice of opting for an explanation of the structure of the site or of beginning a search immediately, using either the alphabet keypad for finding an author or by using a search page, with its options, which I will explain in a moment. If one elects to use the alphabet keypad and chooses the letter 'b', for instance, the site opens an index page listing all the authors whose names begin with 'b', including those whose pseudonyms or maiden names begin with 'b' (figure 2). The researcher can then choose an author and go to that author's author page, which lists that author's work and other contents in the database relating to her work. Choosing Alicia Palmer, for instance, reveals that we have three of her novels, one published anonymously (cf The Husband and the Lover) (see figure 3). This page shows too that the database contains a synopsis of one of Palmer's novels and contemporary reviews of it. If one were then to go to the book page - here, one for Eliza Parsons' The Convict - one would find publication information and the factual and interpretive keywords associated with the book in question, along with a listing for a synopsis, if one has been provided, as one has been here (figure 4). Clicking on the synopsis leads one to the appropriate synopsis on a contribution page (figure 5). Not only synopses but also critical essays, contemporary reviews, bibliographies, etc. might appear on contribution pages.

A search may also be carried out by using the search page, where one can search by title keyword, by genre, by publisher, or by any of the keywords that we have developed to characterise the works in the collection (figure 6). Alternatively, one might key in any word that one would like to find in any type of contribution - in reviews, for instance, or in summaries. Choosing 'sea' as a title keyword and a publication date of 'after 1820', one would get a list of anything published after 1820 with the word sea in the title - 6 novels, as the title search results show us (figure 7). From here one can go to these works' title or author pages, and from there find a list of keywords, synopses, or reviews that would help one further narrow down - or open up - the reading one would like to do in the Corvey Women's Writing collection, or in any collection holding the particular works desired. (There are cases in which Corvey holds the only copy of a text; one would then need to come to Sheffield Hallam University [or one of the other 2 universities in the UK owning the CME collection] to read the book in question.) From performing such searches, one can obviously put time spent reading novels to more efficient use than were one leafing through many that might not be pertinent to one's particular interest; in addition, one might get an idea of how many authors and texts deal with the particular subject on which one is working. Such information makes it possible to reconsider the interests of Romantic-era women writers as a group, enabling us all to get beyond the very partial conclusions with which we must rest content if we continue reading only the very few authors whose work has remained in publication or has recently been brought back into publication. The database, in other words, might lead to a wide-sweeping and necessary reconceptualisation of women's writing in the period. Clearly, the more information that contributors submit to CW3, the more useful the database will prove for us all.

All this is soon to come, as I have said - hopefully in early September. What we have at this moment (August 1999) is a website which serves a number of provisional functions. There's an explanation of the history and contents of the collection, an outline of the project, and a link to our student journal Corinne (with examples of undergraduate projects using the Corvey collection). It also contains catalogues of various sections of the library, and offers information and guidelines to those interested in using or contributing to CW3.

The Limit

The New Digital World, like many such dream-worlds before, seems to be predicated on avoiding an inescapable confrontation with limits, especially those suggested by the constrained carrying-capacity of a finite earth. David Brown, Cybertrends (1997; Penguin 1998), 10.

Up to this point I have simply described the nature and aims of the SHU Corvey Project. In doing so, my language has inevitably fallen into the idiom of 'digitese', the progressivist discourse of the 'digerati'. I have spoken of the way our project will 'provide a window', 'throw new light', of its expandability, and interactive potential. Enlightenment tropes have obtained a new lease of life in the milieu of computing in the humanities. A critic or historian whose research involves precise deconstruction of historical claims to universality or perfectibility, suddenly becomes a salesman for the next brave new world when s/he takes the helm of a computer project. It's worth bearing in mind that only around 1 percent of the world's population are connected to the Internet (see Brown, 17).

There are of course many issues of methodology and theory raised by any digital enterprise. One which has particularly exercised me, as one of two research fellows appointed to work on the Project full time, has been finding a means to focus the research on the texts in way that would draw attention to the material history of the collection. An acknowledgement of limits. There is a clear tendency in digital-based research to 'sublime' the texts, to detach them from their histories as objects and commodities, to dream the dream of unmediated usage. Ease of access can come at the expense of the productive resistance to assimilation provided by the materiality of the original texts and the signs of their provenance. The bracketing dates of CW3 are part of an attempt to place boundaries: 1796 marks the sudden increase of English-language literature in the Corvey library; 1834 is the year in which Viktor-Amadeus, Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg, the collector, died. Although there are a certain number of belles-lettres texts in the library published both before and after these dates, 1796-1834 represents a specific historical nexus. There is no remaining evidence of the buying policy, but the collection at Schloss Corvey, with its astonishingly indiscriminate accumulation of popular fiction, provides fascinating evidence of forms of literary reception and bibliomania in a state of transition, poised between the enlightenment ideal of a universal library and the emergent mass book market. An article on the Website - 'The Sacred and Profane Library' - develops these interests.

The fact that the Corvey Project is based on a specific body of texts is one of its chief interests in my view. Yet the Corvey Library, in spite of its magnitude, has some surprising gaps. It does not correlate in every respect with the established or emerging canon of romantic-era women's writing. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays are missing, and there are only three of Austen's novels. Poetry is under-represented; there is no Ann Laetitia Barbauld, no Anna Seward, no Mary Tighe. We do not want to gloss over these absences. Similarly, the decades covered by the Project are not uniformly represented by the collection. The longitude and latitude of the holdings are determined for the most part by the life histories and lifespans of the collectors. The book-buying begins sporadically in the 1790s, reaches its height in the 1820s after the marriage of Viktor-Amadeus with the anglophile Princess Elise of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, and tails off in the mid-1830s with the deaths, in quick succession, of wife and husband.

The question, then, is how to find a way of fulfilling the need for a general map, one which makes a significant contribution to the development of women's literary history, at the same time as we respect the quiddity, the uniqueness, of the collection. The direction we're taking will, I hope, do both. Or rather I should say directions - since there will be two distinct areas of research, one author-based, the other more theorised and contextual.

In the first place, we've undertaken an intensive study of the careers and publications of the 20 most prolific female authors represented in Corvey; that is to say, those who have ten or more publications held in the belles-lettres collection:

Selina Davenport (11)
Maria Edgeworth (12)
Catherine Gore (15)
Sarah Green (10)
Elizabeth Gunning (10)
Jane Harvey (11)
Anne Hatton (14)
Barbara Hofland (19)
Mary Meeke (26)
Lady Sydney Morgan (11)
Henrietta Mosse (10)
Amelia Opie (10)
Eliza Parsons (11)
Anna Maria Porter (15)
Mary Robinson (10)
Regina Maria Roche (16)
'Rosalia St. Clair' (12)
Louisa Stanhope (15)
Elizabeth Thomas (10)
Jane West (11)

Picked in this arbitrary way, the sample is very varied - some canonical, some approaching it, others completely obscure. Selection of works also mixed. The diversity of the sample is one contingent advantage of this method of research. Another benefit is its integral relation to the collection itself. The selection of authors purely on the basis of the number of their works found in the Library, highlights the particular strength of the collection. The collection is strong in exactly those areas which have been neglected by the great public and private libraries. Where else would it be possible to examine together the complete works of Mary Meeke? At the same time as the selection makes apparent the special depth of the holdings, it also gives an accurate sense of its chronological shape. The diachronic distribution of works by the twenty authors is a true index of the whole, with its greatest density in the late 1810s and 1820s. Finally, the technical nature of the selection, its determined arbitrariness, is a recommendation. It frees us from the limits imposed by pre-judged aesthetic or biographical criteria, and forward the type of sociological enquiry which we intend.

This brings me to the second dimension of the project. Investigation of individual authors is only a facet of the research envisaged, albeit an important one. These biographical trajectories will be used to create a bigger picture. They are contributions towards a sociology of the professional woman writer in the era of Romanticism. The overall design is to begin to register and analyse the historical development of women's writing and publication. We are currently producing a series of contextual essays, images and extracts linked to the database in the form of a 'tour'.

The Professional Woman Writer: A Guided Tour

Many users of CW3 will be seeking information on a particular author or text. They will be able to search the database using a choice of mechanisms. But others will visit without a fixed purpose, wanting to browse, or to learn something in a general way about women's literary production. For them, the guided tour will serve as an introduction to the database, and at the same time will create a contextualising narrative out of a range of documents.

When users enter the website, the tour will be offered as an option. It will take the initial form of a list of links, each with a rubric, each link leading either to an item within the database, or to a specially created context-page. We have not yet established the final itinerary, but here is an example of a possible sequence. The first stop might be a context-page, presenting the statistics on the exponential growth in output of women writers in the 1790s, and briefly put forward some explanations, giving references for further reading. The next link might lead to an example of a successful and prolific woman writer of the 1790s, with a biographical sketch of Mary Robinson from the database. Links could follow to a number of reviews of her work, and the survey of Robinson's critical reception, again from the database. The tour then might come out of the database to another context-page, this time listing the various review periodicals and summarising their political affiliations. And so on. The itinerary will be broadly chronological, but users will of course be able to choose their own selection of links.

We envisage the context-pages for the 'Professional Woman Writer' tour evolving in three strands:

"Mythologies" will address the fantasy-world inhabited by women writers. It will identify enabling tropes, most notably that of Germaine De Stal's Corinne, and comment on the standard satirical attacks, incorporating extracts and images. Context-pages of this kind might be linked to digitised prefaces and dedications from the collection, illuminating the construction of an authorial persona. Other context-pages within this strand might deal with the cycles of fashion, social and literary.

"Episodes", a second strand, will begin constructing an alternative chronology of events in women's literary history. Not just the births and deaths of female authors, but also episodes that had a powerful influence on perceptions of women's writing, or that inspired women to write. There will be context pages devoted, for instance, to the 'Gunningiad', the family scandal which launched the writing career of Elizabeth Gunning and relaunched that of her mother Susannah Gunning, and to public events, such as the death of Princess Charlotte.

"Structures", the third strand, will investigate the structural elements of the world of women writers: systems of contract and copyright, the hierarchy of publishers and booksellers, methods of publishing and marketing, the impact of circulating libraries, periodical reviews, and distinct forms of readership.

The plan is eventually to offer a number of tours through the database, providing a variety of contexts, for example, investigating the political opinions and activism of women writers across the period; or looking at constructions of sexuality in a selection of works, and in the public images of certain authors.

Collaborative Excavation

The paper began by describing CW3 as a new kind of hybrid, both a reference resource and an electronic journal. I'd like to end by reiterating the collaborative nature of this endeavour. The pace of scholarly excavation of romantic-era women's writing has accelerated in the past ten years. Reprints of neglected works, and publications making available new findings are constantly appearing. These are the results of the activity of a growing number of researchers throughout the world. But the wheels of conventional publishing are slow to turn, and there are constraints imposed by editorial practices and economic considerations.

The Internet provides the possibility of new forms of academic publication. There are now many instances of successful and well-respected electronic scholarly journals. CW3 is conceptualised as an electronic journal which will make full use of the flexibility of the medium. Contributions can be of many kinds and any length, from a short point of information to an extended critical essay (though we do suggest an upper limit). As the guidelines make clear (these can be found by going to the SHU Corvey homepage, the database offers a means of publishing kinds of material arising from independent research projects, which are not necessarily incorporated in articles or books: biographical information, synopses, transcripts of reviews, and surveys of reception. All such material will be peer-reviewed internally or anonymously by specialist outside readers (depending on the degree of interpretive content; see guidelines), and if accepted, will be credited and given a ISSN number. Cumulatively, this data will prove invaluable for students and future researchers, promoting study of a far wider group of writers than has been possible on the basis of existing reference publications.

Return to the Digitizing Romanticism Homepage

Go to Fraistat, Digitizing Romanticism: Introduction

Go to Kelley and Sha, The Sister Arts Go Digital: The Romantic Circles Art Gallery

Go to Crochunis and Eberle-Sintra, Editing Electronically Women Playwrights of the Romantic Period

Go to Grimes, Beyond the Paper Chase: Building a Comprehensive Online Romantics Bibliography—A Progress Report

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