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Blank Subjects: Orphanhood and the Rise of the British Novel


From Oliver Twist to Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp to Jude Fawley, the nineteenth-century British literary horizon is replete with orphans. Both their ubiquity and prominence in so many canonical texts raises a question. Namely, how do figures often associated with social and material abjection -- "Please sir, I want some more" -- take center stage in a narrative form profoundly connected to the individuality and agency of the modern subject? My dissertation answers this question by making a case for what I call orphanhood as a central thematic in the history of the novel. Rather than fabricate some key to all orphans, I argue that the figuration of orphanhood crystallizing in the nineteenth-century British novel provided a discursive space to imagine modern individuated life--something made up of an infinite web of affiliations. Taken together, the different narratives and histories I analyze over four chapters highlight how orphans showcase some of the ideal qualities of bourgeois individuality: deracinated, mobile, and above all, blank. In this sense, orphanhood can help us understand the link between literary production and the Empire, an imaginative venture that inscribed Britishness on a blank and colonizable map of the world. Accordingly, I have built my dissertation around three authors who exemplify the formal, geographic, and temporal globality of the nineteenth-century "British" novel: Maria Edgeworth, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling. In my concluding chapter on W.G. Sebald, I show how long after the bond between national languages and literature has been broken, orphanhood remains a perch to view the rise of the global individuality of the refugee as well as the transformations taking place in what is coming to be called the Global English novel.

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