Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Perdita

The Perdita ProjectEdit

Developed by Nottingham Trent University and the University of Warwick, The Perdita Project is a modernised, digital collection of manuscripts written and compiled by the early women writers of the British Isles throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Founded in 1997, this detailed archive seeks to revitalise, and increase accessibility to, the writings and publications of women from the Early Modern period, and in turn, gift fame to those whose creative pursuits were marginalised or dismissed during their lifetime.

Contextual BackgroundEdit

 
Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth, one of the most well-known lost women.

‘Perdita’, meaning ‘lost woman’, focuses on women from the British Isles between 1500 and 1700 who were seemingly overlooked in regard to the public reception, publication and celebration of their writing. Such neglect of women's writing, in particular, was primarily attributed to society's patriarchal expectations of women (or lack thereof), and the limited publishing industry available during this period. Hence, it was remarkably difficult to achieve success in literature regardless of whether you were a member of the socioeconomically-privileged or nobility, let alone identified as female.

Only the canonical were immortalised and women had not yet “been adopted into the canon"[1]. Therefore, manuscripts and other unpublished texts were exceptionally prevalent in comparison to published literary works, especially when it concerned women writers, and encompassed a plethora of genres and forms including biblical writings, diaries, prayer books and culinary recipes.

HistoryEdit

First established in 1997, The Perdita Project was developed under a literary partnerhsip between Nottingham Trent University and Oxford University’s Centre for Humanities Computing, with the pursuit of creating an extensive, detailed and electronic archive that captures the vast writings of early modern women which would have otherwise become lost to antiquity. Although the University of Warwick has since taken over, the Project has continued to flourish with funded research into the prominent women in literature from the Early Modern period and the generalisation of manuscripts.

The aim of the research team was to ensure that “the database will help researchers, students, and the general public learn more about early women's writing in all of its forms” [2]. Whilst print has traditionally taken priority when it came to historiography, The Perdita Project saw value in the informal, private and lost aspects of early modern literature.

Inspiration for The Perdita Project stems from Victoria E. Burke’s thesis on ‘Women and 17th-Century Manuscript Culture’ (1997) which focused primarily on women from England and Scotland between 1600-1660. Hence, Burke played an instrumental role in the manifestation of the Project and its cultivation on a much greater scale with larger teams and funding.

PeopleEdit

The Perdita Project consists primarily of a team of dedicated researchers, academics and scholars that have worked over a number of years to capture of intricate details of these chosen works and the authentic, personal and contextual narratives that underpinned their composition. Some notable mentions of those that have provided substantial advice, feedback and written contributions to the Perdita Manuscripts include:

  • Dr Elizabeth Clarke - director of the project (whilst at Nottingham Trent University) and Professor Emeritus in English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.
  • Dr Jill S. Millman - research assistant in the English Department at the University of Warwick.
  • Dr Victoria E. Burke - Associate Professor in English at the University of Ottawa and author who's thesis inspired the development of the project.
  • Dr Jonathan Gibson - Professor at the English Subject Centre (Royal Holloway) at the University of London (a national body that organised tertiary activities and published material relevant to the teaching og English Literature and Creative Writing).

This archival collection has also been collaboratively developed with insight and resources from a diversity of patricipating libraries and archives including:

  • Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University;
  • Blair Castle;
  • British Library;
  • Brotherton Library, University of Leeds;
  • Cambridge University Library;
  • Doncaster Archives;
  • Edinburgh University Library;
  • Folger Shakespeare Library;
  • Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin;
  • Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies;
  • National Library of Scotland;
  • National Library of Wales;
  • Newberry Library;
  • Trinity College, Cambridge; and
  • Wigan Heritage Service.

The ArchiveEdit

The digital archive was initially developed with the intention of encapsulating a small representation of the physical database, and in turn, encouraging those interested in women's writing and early modern literature to explore the full collection available at libraries and archives throughout the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Currently, there are 230 full facsimiles (or exact copies) of the manuscripts available via the digital collection, however, there are over 500 literary works that are accessible across the 15 international locations. In regard to the electronic archive, the manuscripts are remarkably varied in their content, making this a rich resource for historians and literary scholars alike. Available information is also available detailing the content and contextual background of these works, including descriptions of the pieces, bibliographical data and biographical details about the composers. The site also contains essays from fellow academics about early modern writing, feminine authorship and the history of The Perdita Project.

A more recent addition to The Perdita Project is the digitalisation of the manuscripts themselves as high-resolution photographs. The Project collaborated with Adam Matthew Digital to link the information about the manuscripts with the physical copies. Although originally the goal was to give the public everything except the raw text, the images provide users with the holistic experience of engaging with historic literature. Not only can we see the content, but also the context of the words written, with commentary on intricate details such as handwriting style, paper selections and tidiness. There is a connection between a reader and an author that can only be created by connecting with the paper they have touched, and this archive delivers this authentically.

Reputation and LegacyEdit

Research assistant for the Project, Jill S. Millman, has quite eloquently summarised the content and purpose of The Perdita Project: “The range of manuscript genres included in our resource – literary, historical, medical, musical, epistolary, culinary, political, autobiographical, religious, accounting – reflects the breadth and scope of writing by women in the period. Clearly many women used their ability to write to create, express, record, sort and edit all kinds of literature”[1].

Whilst there has historically been a great misconception that before the era of Jane Austen women just did not write, The Perdita Project has exemplified that Virginia Woolf (and most others) have just been looking in the wrong places and indeed, women were writing profound works that just simply did not have the social support to break through the rigid, male-dominanted publishing industry. In this light, The Perdita Project continues to do wonderful work in rescuing these "lost" women and bringing together their little known material from widely scattered locations.

Thus, this Project has proven to be an indispensable resource for students and researchers through its utilisation as a powerful research tool and catalyst to much needed social discourse around the legitimacy of manuscript literature and women's writing.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b Clarke, Dr Elizabeth. Millman, Dr Jill S.. Burke, Dr Victoria E.. Gibson, Dr Jonathan. “Perdita Manuscripts”. Perdita At University of Warwick, Adam Matthew Digital 2021. Accessed 4 June 2021.
  2. Burke, Dr Victoria E.. Clarke, Dr Elizabeth. "The Perdita Project: A Database for Early Modern Women's Manuscript Compilations." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 3.1-5 Accessed 4 June 2021.Burke, Dr Victoria E.. “Women and Early Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Culture: Four Miscellanies, The Seventeenth Century vol 12. pp. 135-150. 1997. Accessed 4 June 2021.

"Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews ." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Jun. 2021 Accessed 4 June 2021.

Burke, Dr Victoria E.. Clarke, Dr Elizabeth. "The Perdita Project: A Database for Early Modern Women's Manuscript Compilations." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 3.1-5 Accessed 4 June 2021.Burke, Dr Victoria E.. “Women and Early Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Culture: Four Miscellanies, The Seventeenth Century vol 12. pp. 135-150. 1997. Accessed 4 June 2021.

Clarke, Dr. Elizabeth. “Perdita”. 1999. Nottingham Trent University. Accessed 4 June 2021.

Clarke, Dr Elizabeth. Millman, Dr Jill S.. Burke, Dr Victoria E.. Gibson, Dr Jonathan. “Perdita Manuscripts”. Perdita At University of Warwick, Adam Matthew Digital 2021. Accessed 4 June 2021.

Herbert, James. "AHRB: The Early Years." Creating the AHRC: An Arts and Humanities Research Council for the United Kingdom in the Twenty-first Century: British Academy, 31. British Academy Scholarship Online. Accessed 4 Jun. 2021.

LaGuardia, Cheryl. “Perdita Manuscripts: Women Writers, 1500-1700.” Library Journal, vol. 133, no. 13, Aug. 2008, p. 115. Accessed 4 June 2021.

Seal, Dr Jill. "The Perdita Project--A Winter's Report." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 10.1-14 Accessed 4 June 2021.

Smith, Rosalind. “Perdita Project”. Project MUSE. Early Modern Women, vol 11 no. 2, 2017. P.145-151. Accessed 4 June 2021.