Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf lamented the absence of biographies of housemaids in the great national prosopography circa 1900, The Dictionary of National Biography. Recent feminist scholarship continues to overlook other widespread records of women’s lives in print well before 1900, in collective biographies. Booth’s book, How to Make It as a Woman, called attention to this genre of prosopography, a rich repository of networked nonfiction narratives with far more varied female roles than in novels or sermons of the same period. Collective Biographies of Women (CBW) (Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities) is a digital platform for research on more than 8600 persons and 13,400 narratives in 1200 books (most by men, published primarily 1830-1940) in the bibliography (Scholars’ Lab). CBW devised an XML stand-aside schema, Biographical Elements and Structure Schema (BESS), to develop a morphology of this genre, locating types of elements of biography at the level of the paragraph, within samples of collections. In planned collaboration with Social Networks and Archival Contexts and other prosopographies, we will contribute the only comprehensive study of printed biographies of women to the quest for global unique identifiers for all known persons.
This talk addresses the implications of digital prosopography. CBW’s approach captures narrative forms and ideology in printed books that constructed anachronistic documentary social networks: representational cohorts with different degrees of separation rather than archival records indicating networks of correspondence, kinship, or other historical links. Examples from BESS analysis of networks of biographies in sample corpora (Frances Trollope, Sister Dora, and Lola Montez as nodal women in selected texts with hundreds of short biographies of women) will illustrate the project. CBW bridges distant and close reading, in a mid-range reading to investigate how printed books reshaped representations of women for Anglophone readers.
Alison Booth is Professor of English at University of Virginia, specializing in narrative, feminist studies in nineteenth-century literature, and digital humanities. Her books include Greatness Engendered: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf (1992); How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present; a Longman Cultural Edition of Wuthering Heights, and an edited collection on gender and narrative closure, Famous Last Words. She is completing a book on transatlantic literary tourism, house museums, and reception of authors. A Fellow of ACLS (Digital Innovation) and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, she directs the Collective Biographies of Women project.