In the mid-1600s, two determined Quaker women left their husbands and children behind and set out for Rome. Their extra-ordinary mission was to convert the Pope. Instead they found themselves imprisoned in Malta by the Grand Inquisitor. They were finally released when they went on hunger strike. The story they published in 1662, of Some of the Cruel Suffer-ings (for the Truth's sake) of Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, In the Inquisition in the Isle of Malta, has been out of print for more than 300 years.
Before the end of the decade, it will be on the Internet. So will several hundred other works by women which have long been unavailable except in rare books libraries, such as Jane Sharp's explicit The Midwives Book (1671) and Jane Barker's quirky collection A Patchwork Screen (1723). And they will be available in a state-of-the-art electronic format designed to serve scholars of English literature, cultural and women's studies and linguistic history, as well as under-graduates.
The point where new technology and 500 years worth of pre-Victorian women's writing incongruously intersect is Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Here, in a dark computer suite, the project's new director, Carol DeBoer-Langworthy, chief technical adviser and past co-director Allen Renear and a team of scholars and students are diligently toiling to put hundreds of little-known works on line.
The impetus for the Women Writers Project -- launched in 1987 -- was the appearance two years earlier of the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature. Published partly to compensate for gaps which had long frustrated American university English lecturers in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, their standard textbook, this new tome had devoted only 200 of its 2400 pages to pre-Victorian women's writing.
How did this happen? Most of it is out of print, effectively lost to scholars and students. "My understanding is that whereas works by men were constantly reprinted, and were always available, if you don't get into that publishing history you sit in a 17th-century format, unavailable," says Dr Renear.
Julia Flanders, the WWP's textbase editor, believes that a key reason so much women's writing slipped out of publishing history was the Victorians' pre-occupation with establishing a respectable canon of English literature. "Women wrote in every genre and they were taken very seriously. At that point it becomes a serious question of where the amnesia enters the picture. During the 19th century, when English letters became an academic subject, that's when the canon was formulated," she says. And that's the point where so much women's literature disappeared from print.
Women were writing scientific papers, poetry, religious tracts, historical accounts, and moral tales, as well as self-consciously "literary" works such as Lady Mary Wroth's The Countess of Montgomeries Urania, a sequel to Sydney's Arcadia. "The canon-making project in the 19th century had everything to do with making English literature stack up to classic literature," says Flanders. "This is why you get endless essays by Matthew Arnold about things like whether Wordsworth is as good as Dante." It was not about suppressing dissent, but more about establishing an aesthetic, she says.
Whatever their merits, few of the works on the project's list are "classical" in style. Certainly Jane Barker's Patchwork Screen does not fit the mould. It is a "weird and wonderful book", as postgraduate student Paul Caton puts it, combining poetry, science, recipes, recipes in verse, religious commentary, and a motley collection of other bits and pieces.
Nor do the strange 17th century religious tracts of Lady Eleanor Davies, who prophesied the deaths of friends, fit the mold. By and large, religion was seen as a suitable subject for women, but as Flanders comments, "if they write the right kinds of religious things they get anthologised; if they write the wrong kind they have to wait for people like us." Interestingly, says Paul Caton, similar pieces were written and stayed in print in America, where there was not an equivalent quest for a canon.
The question, "but is it good?" is bound to be asked about the literature which is being retrieved. It is answered with a collective sigh. One of the project's functions, say the team, is to let people see the work and judge for themselves.
"We are doing this without beliefs about the texts", says Renear, who is now chief technical adviser to the WWP. "We are not doing traditional editing of the texts. We think of our transcriptions as literal.
"We are not saying here are the good texts -- let's put them on line. We are putting it all on line. If you're a linguist studying the evolution of language you don't just want the good texts."
The WWP's position is that the "lack of availability has seriously distorted our view of the role of women in our literary and cultural history and, consequently, has contributed to their misrepresentation in the curriculum". It is gathering this material together, and expects to have up to 2,000 works on line by the time its task is complete.
When it was first conceived in 1986 by a group of scholars from four universities, the plan was simply to publish a scholarly anthology of women's writing in English from 1330 to 1830 that asked new questions about genre, canonical traditions, literary culture and publication. New technology seemed the natural tool for providing efficient and innovative access to the material, and Brown was clearly the place for such an enterprise to develop, being at the forefront of both women's literature and scholarly computing.
For the moment, the project is an "on demand" publisher, which can produce print-outs of more than 200 titles for both teaching and research purposes on request from scholars to a format of their choosing, and "custom anthologies" can be created.
"As soon as we got under way we responded to a great pent-up demand," says Renear. They advertised once in 1987, and have been struggling to keep up with requests from all over the world ever since. Since most of the works are little-known, interest in a particular title develops through word of mouth. Among the most popular for undergraduate classes are Lady Mary Wroth's Urania (1621) and The Tragedie of Mariam, (Fair Queen of Jewry) by Elizabeth Carew (1613).
A committee of scholars, each member specialising in a different period, sets the priorities for which works should be slowly and pain-stakingly put on line. They learn about the existence of works from a wide range of scholars, and have uncovered several themselves.
They are also producing a 30-book series of scholarly editions, Women Writers in English 1350-1850, published by Oxford University Press. Four are out so far; another three are due out shortly -- Eleanor Davies' Prophetic Tracts, Anne Weamys' A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia and The Letters of Arabella Stuart.
But the use of new technology to record and isseminate literature is really at the project's heart. Next year, they plan to release a 200-text CD Rom and they expect the entire textbase to be available over the global Internet by 1997. Scholars will be able to use Hypertext to access details about the text's structure and publishing history, as well as to comment or read comments on the etymology of particular words or look up biographical information about historical figures. They are also experimenting with electronic books.
Every feature of the text is given a special coding to show whether it is a line of verse, a headline, a stage direction or whether it has been highlighted in some way. The point is to show what it is rather than what format it has been printed in in the past.
This is why a team of English students is needed to do the work, rather than typists, and also why it takes so long. Scanning in facsimiles would provide neither readable text nor the flexibility of this generic encoding, and would not allow a hypertext facility.
For instance, a user could click on a word she thinks has been incorrectly transcribed, call up the lexicography and write in their own comments. This exacting work raises intellectual questions for the students who key in the texts.
"The technology focuses their minds on structural issues," explains Flanders. For instance, is a title fundamental to a poem? What is the difference between the content and its embodiment as a printed book with particular typefaces and page breaks?
"The kind of things we talk about have to do with issues of authority -- who printed it and why did they set it out that way?" adds one of the students. "A lot of the arguments happen on a very pragmatic level but they link into theoretical and philosophical debates." The relationship between the text set down by the author and the way it finally appears in print is fertile ground for academic discussion. "Where does the meaning reside?" she asks. "What the author meant to put down, or what the printer printed?" For further information contact: Allen Renear, co-director, Women Writers Project, Box 1841, Brown University, Providence, RI02912, USA. Tel:(401) 863 3619. Email:WWP@Brownvm.brown.edu